A ‘secret’ DWP deaths inquiry just turned into a farce

A black and white graveyard and the DWP logo

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP’s) ‘secret‘ panel which will look into claimant deaths is already not fit for purpose. Because answers a minister gave an MP show that the panel will barely scratch the surface. It may only deal with a few of the systemic failings at the DWP. But moreover, it will have no legal powers either. So anything the panel says, the DWP can just ignore.

The DWP: a not-so secret panel

As Disability News Service (DNS) first reported, the DWP has set up a 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 since then, the DWP and ministers have dodged questions about the panel. Then, in January, as The Canary exclusively revealed, the DWP confessed that the panel would be made up of civil servants. But it soon changed course, saying some members would be “independent”.

An NAO ‘suicide’ report

A National Audit Office (NAO) report shed more light on the panel. It noted that:

The panel’s role is to consider the most serious systemic issues which have been identified from IPRs and cases from the Department’s Independent Case Examiner.

“IPRs” are Internal Process Reviews. The DWP does these at local, not central, level. It carries them out when someone takes their own life. They also happen when a vulnerable claimant makes a complaint. Currently, the DWP does not track whether or not IPR recommendations are actually carried out.

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Meanwhile, the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) is a DWP body that reviews complaints against the DWP. It too makes recommendations to the department.

Back to the NAO report, and it also said the panel:

will make recommendations to the Department and help to assign accountability at the most senior levels in the organisation for ensuring sustainable improvements are implemented. In doing so, the Department aims to focus on learning how to avoid similar issues in the future.

Now, a minister has answered an MP’s questions in relation to the panel. And this has exposed a catalogue of errors already building.

An MP steps in

Lilian Greenwood asked the DWP four questions about the Serious Case Panel:

  • When does the DWP ‘instigate’ the panel?
  • Who sits on it?
  • Which processes will the panel use to investigate cases?
  • What is the panel’s remit?

DWP minister of state Justin Tomlinson said:

  • The panel meets quarterly.
  • It will be made up of civil servants and “independent” members.
  • The panel “takes themes and systemic issues that come out of case reviews, and makes recommendations for improvements across the relevant areas of the department”.

But Tomlinson’s and the DWP’s answers, and the NAO report, all simply open up more questions.

More questions than answers

Looking at the panel’s initial set up, there are already flaws in it. Not least:

  • The panel will have no legal powers. It will just make “recommendations” to the DWP. So who will ensure the DWP acts?
  • Who decides what IPRs and ICE complaints the panel will review? If it’s the DWP centrally, who will monitor how effective and independent this process is?
  • Who will have oversight of the panel itself?

The Canary asked the DWP these questions and for comment on this article. But it would not give us an official statement. Instead, it directed us to Tomlinson’s written answers.

But there’s another major flaw in this whole process.


The Serious Case Panel’s work will be based on the number of IPRs the DWP does. It will also get cases from the ICE. As DNS reported, the DWP carried out 50 IPRs between April 2016 and June 2018, an average of 1.85 a month. Then, in 2018/19, ICE upheld or partially upheld 125 complaints about working age benefits. That’s 10.41 a month.

So, the Serious Case Panel will have, at most, around 12 cases a month to look at. On the one hand, this means it could have 36 cases to review at each quarterly meeting. This seems like a lot for one panel to work through. But 36 cases only represents 0.0005% of the seven million total DWP working age claimants. And there’s reason to believe these cases are only the tip of the iceberg. As the NAO said about IPRs involving people taking their own lives:

It is highly unlikely that the 69 cases the Department has investigated represents the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years

It seems incomprehensible to think that only 0.0005% of working age claimants would have serious issues with the DWP in any given quarter. But moreover, as The Canary reported, the DWP will still not have the data it needs to make the process effective. It has no central record of, for example, how many vulnerable claimants’ benefits it stopped. Yet, as DNS reported, between April 2016 and June 2018, 19 of the IPRs which related to deaths involved vulnerable claimants.

Systemic failures before it even begins

The NAO’s claim that the panel will look into the DWP’s “serious systemic issues” is also dubious.  Because the most serious systemic issues don’t always come from IPRs. They come from the DWP’s own macro data. For example, will the panel look into:

  • Why 10 claimants a day were dying in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Work-Related Activity Group? These were people who the DWP said could move towards work. Their death rate was nearly four times higher than the average population.
  • The five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment? The Trussell Trust has linked this to increased foodbank use. Also, the NAO said 60% of claimants need an advance on their first payment.
  • Why, between April 2013 and April 2018, did the DWP deny around 381,000 people Personal Independence Payments (PIP)? These were people it said were previously entitled to Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

These systemic flaws will undermine the Serious Case Panel’s remit. It will effectively have its hands tied. But the fact it will also only be looking at such a tiny number of cases makes the panel’s work a drop in the ocean. And the lack of oversight of both the panel and the DWP will raise concerns it will just be another whitewash. If the Serious Case Panel is to be taken seriously, then it needs to be taken back to basics. And that’s a damning indictment considering it’s only just begun its work.

Featured image via Max Pixel and Wikimedia – UK Government

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