Systemic safeguarding flaws across the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have been linked by its own civil servants to the deaths of multiple benefit claimants between 2018 and 2020, secret reports have revealed.
Several of the 30 reports show continuing failings in how DWP staff respond to claimants who disclose ideas of suicide, with one warning of the need to “show more compassion”.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported in December 2020 how a series of suicides between 2014 and 2019 were linked to the failure of DWP staff to follow basic rules on responding to suicidal ideation that were introduced in 2009.
The release of the latest batch of internal process reviews (IPRs) shows that serious harm and deaths of claimants continued to be linked to such failings over the next 18 months.
One report said there was a need for a “new tactical approach” to enable DWP staff to “be more responsive in reacting to threats of self-harm”.
Another report suggested a new marker should be placed on DWP systems to highlight claimants with suicidal ideation or those who have made suicide attempts “as an alert to show more compassion, dig deeper and look at all of the information available”.
A third report called for “clear guidance and well managed processes” to ensure claimants who disclosed suicidal ideation were identified and “risk assessed”, with steps taken to “reduce the distress and provide a satisfactory outcome for the customer”.
The department has been trying to prevent the release of information from the 30 IPRs since September 2020, but finally admitted defeat last month following a ruling by the information commissioner.
DWP had argued that even releasing redacted versions of the reports would interfere with the formation or development of government policy.
But DNS argued that releasing the recommendations made by the IPRs – previously known as peer reviews – was vital in ensuring DWP could be held to account for how it has responded to deaths and serious harm linked to the social security system.
DWP had originally appealed the ruling to the information rights tribunal but withdrew that appeal last month.
Redacted copies of the IPRs released to DNS show that multiple reviews completed between April 2019 and September 2020* recommended systemic improvements to prevent further harm and deaths of claimants.
Two of the reports even referred to “systemic recommendations” or the need for “systemic actions”.
At least 10 of the IPRs relate to deaths and harm linked to universal credit (UC), including the transition between employment and support allowance and UC, and the operation of the online UC system.
Several of the reviews refer to the failure of staff to make a proper note of conversations and other contact with claimants, including those receiving universal credit.
Others mention the need for improved training of DWP staff, including on safeguarding and on how to request an interpreter.
One IPR said: “It was acknowledged though that benefit knowledge for [DWP decision makers] is not across the board.”
Atos and Maximus – two of the three private sector contractors paid to carry out disability benefit assessments – are also mentioned in the IPRs.
One IPR says that an IAS** report into “lessons learnt” is “to be made available” to the department.
Another calls for “better ways for UC and CHDA*** to share relevant information when a WCA is still outstanding”.
Asked why the IPR recommendations had yet again shown systemic safeguarding issues across the department leading to the deaths of disabled people, and whether this demonstrated the need for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s actions, a DWP spokesperson said: “We support millions of people every year and our priority is they get the benefits they are entitled to as soon as possible and they receive a supportive and compassionate service.
“In the minority of instances where this does not happen, we have established procedures to investigate and learn lessons through, for instance, the serious case panel and internal process reviews.”
*It is not clear from the redacted reports when the deaths and harm occurred, but some of the incidents are likely to have been in 2018, with others in 2019 and 2020
**The name Atos uses to carry out PIP assessments
***A Maximus subsidiary
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