New figures show how the number of secret reviews into deaths of benefit claimants that have been linked to the failings of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has more than doubled over the last three years.
They show how DWP started 43 internal process reviews (IPRs) into deaths between July 2019 and June 2020, 59 from July 2020 to June 2021, and 38 in the last year, a total of 140 in three years.
A previous freedom of information request by Disability News Service (DNS) shows this compares with 17 reviews carried out in 2016, 29 in 2017 and 18 in 2018, a total of only 64.
The new figures were released by the minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, in response to a written parliamentary question from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, who has pushed repeatedly for a public inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s actions.
DWP suggested this week that the rise was because it had “broadened the range of circumstances where a review is carried out”, but it has so far declined to say when it made this change, or exactly what changes were made to its guidance.
This week, Abrahams asked the speaker of the House of Commons if he could suggest why work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey was refusing to order a public inquiry.
She told him: “It is a scandal that the bereaved families are not made aware of or involved in these investigations, and that we are denied data on the true scale of the deaths.”
The speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said he was “not responsible for the actions of the secretary of state”, but that he hoped government ministers had taken her comments “on board”.
The IPR figures were released following the publication of new research which shows how decades of welfare reform and DWP failings are linked to hundreds – and probably thousands – of suicides and other deaths of disabled people.
The draft version of the Deaths by Welfare timeline* exposes how DWP was alerted more than 40 times over the past 30 years to life-threatening systemic flaws in its disability benefits systems, by academics, coroners and its own researchers.
IPRs are not released publicly, and grieving families are not even told that they are taking place.
They were initially called peer reviews, and DWP only started collecting them in February 2012.
Imogen Day, the sister of 27-year-old Philippa Day, one of the claimants whose death was caused by DWP’s failings, said the new figures showed a “collective and systemic tragedy”.
She said it was accepted by families, disabled activists and politicians that only a small minority of deaths linked to DWP deaths were investigated through an IPR, but she said the number of IPRs being carried out was still “far too many”.
She said: “It is still showing that there were 140 disabled people who have been failed by a government department and lost their lives in just three years.”
And she said it was “infuriating and heart-breaking that we will never know how many disabled people are really dying”.
Philippa (pictured, above, left) – known to her family as Pip – died in October 2019.
Her unconscious body had been found by Imogen and her father two months earlier, days after she had been told she would need to attend an assessment centre for a face-to-face appointment to decide her claim for personal independence payment.
In January last year, the coroner who heard the inquest into her death concluded that flaws in the personal independence payment system were “the predominant factor and the only acute factor” that led to her taking her own life.
Gordon Clow, assistant coroner for Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, highlighted 28 separate “problems” with the administration of the system that helped cause her death.
The Days are still believed to be the only family that has managed to obtain a full IPR, although the family of Errol Graham – who starved to death, months after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work disability benefits – have seen a summary version of the IPR into his death.
Both families had to use the legal system to obtain the IPRs.
The draft IPR into Pip’s death stated: “The purpose of the IPR is to consider the Department’s handling of the most serious cases where there is a suggestion/allegation that the Department’s actions or omissions may have negatively contributed to the customer’s circumstances.”
Imogen (pictured, above, right) said seeing a draft version of the IPR had provided “so much clarity” for the family, and that it had shown them how DWP had failed Pip.
She said: “We needed it to know that there was nothing else that we could have done.
“It was necessary, we needed it, and my heart breaks for every family that hasn’t had access to that peace of mind.”
She said it was “disappointing” that DWP had put protecting its own reputation and that of its ministers above the needs of the families and loved ones of those who have died.
DWP had previously been forced by a tribunal to release the recommendations made by IPRs, but work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey is now preventing the release of even that limited information.
Previous redacted IPRs released under the Freedom of Information Act have shown how DWP staff had to be repeatedly reminded what to do when claimants disclosed suicidal thoughts, following reviews into the suicides of as many as six claimants.
Imogen said it was “absolutely enraging” that DWP was now attempting to prevent the public release of even the recommendations made by IPRs.
Dr China Mills, who is leading the Deaths by Welfare project, said: “Given that the recommendations suggested by IPRs could likely prevent future deaths, we need transparency and accountability, where instead the DWP maintains secrecy.”
She added: “Given mounting evidence of harm, evident in the Deaths by Welfare timeline, IPRs likely represent only a small proportion of the number of deaths linked to welfare reform, even though the number of reviews has risen so sharply in the last few years.
“And IPRs are just one part of a much longer history, documented in the Deaths by Welfare timeline, of the DWP ignoring evidence of harm and withholding evidence of deaths (for example failing to share evidence of deaths linked to the work capability assessment, during the independent reviews of the WCA), all the while demonising people who claim benefit.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We take these cases extremely seriously, which is why we have broadened the range of circumstances where a review is carried out to improve the outcomes for our customers with changes made including better support for vulnerable customers, and the introduction of a mental health training package for staff.”
The DWP press office has passed on the DNS request for further information about changes to the IPR process to its freedom of information department.
*To provide feedback or suggest additions to the timeline, visit the Deaths by Welfare timeline home page
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