A ‘secret’ DWP claimant deaths inquiry was just blown open

A coffin and the DWP logo
Steve Topple

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has “secretly” set up a review panel. It will look into claimant deaths on the department’s watch. But campaigners have criticised it. Because it refused to discuss it with MPs. It also would not say who’s on the panel. Nor would the DWP say what it will be looking into… until The Canary got involved.

The DWP’s “Serious Case Panel”

In September 2019, the government said it was giving the DWP money for a “new independent Serious Case Panel”. Chancellor Sajid Javid said the panel would be part of the DWP’s budget for 2020/21. It comes under a £36m package to:

ensure DWP decision-making is accurate and the application processes are straightforward and accessible, as well as improving safeguarding…

But so far, the DWP has said nothing more about the panel. When its minister of state Justin Tomlinson was asked on record about it, he dodged the question. He didn’t even mention it in his reply. He did the same thing again on 27 January. This was when Labour MP Debbie Abrahams questioned him in parliament:

So what could the Serious Case Panel be looking at?

A death on its watch

John Pring at Disability News Service (DNS) has been working on the story. He managed to get the DWP to admit some details. But this only happened by chance.

Pring was writing about the death of Errol Graham, who lived with “enduring mental distress”. This led to medics sectioning him at one point. In 2017, the DWP tried but failed to complete two safeguarding visits to Graham. This was after he did not attend a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). It then stopped his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This meant his local authority also stopped his Housing Benefit. As DNS wrote:

Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of fish left in his flat.

The assistant coroner said that the:

safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it. He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence [from his GP] at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.

But it took Pring asking the DWP about Graham’s death for it to admit to the Serious Case Panel.

Dodging questions

When Pring went to the DWP for comment, a spokesperson told him:

This is a tragic, complex case and our sympathies are with Mr Graham’s family. We take this very seriously and have referred this to our Serious Case Panel, which includes independent members to help scrutinise and establish any lessons.

It seems from this answer that the Serious Case Panel will look at the DWP’s role in claimant deaths. But it would not answer Pring’s extra questions about the panel. He wanted to know:

  • The panel’s “purpose, aims and membership”.
  • Why the DWP has not told MPs about the panel’s launch.

So The Canary stepped in. We went to the DWP and asked the same questions. And we got some answers.

The DWP says…

A DWP spokesperson told The Canary:

We are committed to improving our services, especially to the most vulnerable which is why we have set up a serious case panel. This is a new process and is currently being established and terms of reference are being formalised. The panel will be chaired by a director and members will be senior civil servants from across the department.

The DWP also told The Canary that the director of the panel will be a civil servant.

So in short, it’s appointing a panel made up entirely of civil servants. This seems at complete odds with the chancellor’s and the DWP’s claims that the panel would be “independent”. Moreover, without any terms of reference, the public still doesn’t know what the panel will look into. The DWP is now subject to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request on this issue. But it’s quite likely the panel’s work won’t go far enough.

Going far enough?

There have been many high-profile deaths on the DWP’s watch. Pring forensically documented some of these in an article called DWP: The case for the prosecution.

One such case is Jodey Whiting. As The Canary previously reported, Whiting took her own life after the DWP stopped her benefits. It was because she didn’t go to a WCA. But Whiting didn’t go because she was seriously ill in hospital. Her family is trying to get the High Court to agree to a second inquest into her death.

Any death of a claimant is tragic. But there’s a bigger question that needs an answer: what about the deaths we don’t hear about?

Systemic failings

It seems the DWP has systemic failings when it comes to claimants dying on its watch. Because on average:

  • Between April 2013 and 30 April 2018 almost 12 people a day died. They were waiting for the DWP to make a decision on Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claims.
  • Between March 2014 and February 2017 around 10 ESA claimants a day died. These were people in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG). The DWP said they should be moving towards work.
  • Also, in the same period, around one claimant a day died after the DWP said they were “fit for work”.

So, in January 2017 alone, 10 months before the DWP stopped Graham’s benefits, over 700 people could have died on its watch. The DWP told some they have to work. It told others they have to get ready to work. And it left others waiting for payments right up until their last breath. That’s around 8,000 people a year, dead. Many died amid stress, upset, financial ruin, and misery, amplified by DWP incompetence and neglect.

The ‘whitewash’ begins?

Paula Peters is a well-known activist and disability rights campaigner. She told The Canary:

The DWP has completely ignored WCA outcomes that have led to claimants’ deaths for the last 10 years. It has ignored further medical evidence, or never obtained it in the first place, during the process. That’s a travesty.

We remember the names of every human being who has died after the DWP found them fit for work. They should not have been, and died in tragic circumstances as a result. Mark Wood, Ms DE, Jodey Whiting and Errol Graham. But this is the tip of the iceberg. Their names are forever etched in our memories.

Campaigners have been calling for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths for a long time. Now we learn that the DWP panel looking into benefit deaths will be made up of DWP civil servants. This is an outrage. This will amount to a complete whitewash.

Meanwhile, the DWP still subjects claimants to the horrors of the WCA. It’s not learned lessons and has not put safeguards in place. This latest move by the DWP is an insult to every family who mourn their loved ones. We will continue the fight for justice, for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths linked to the DWP, and to hold those responsible to account and bring them to justice.

Sweeping aside thousands of corpses

In Graham’s case, the DWP told the inquest it had acted “appropriately”. This stock response is similar to its other ones when claimants have died. As DNS said, coroners have again and again criticised the DWP and its actions. Yet nothing changes.

It seems that the Serious Case Panel will continue that trend. Because an “independent” group of DWP civil servants sounds as far removed from ‘independence’ as you can get. As Peters said, expect a whitewash like no other, sweeping thousands of corpses aside with it.

Featured image via Flickr – Ann Larie Valentine

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