The DWP has destroyed its own investigations into claimant deaths

A graveyard and the DWP logo
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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted it’s destroyed its own investigations into claimant deaths. This would include at least 49 people who had died or taken their own lives. It comes as the DWP has been mired in scandal over people dying on its watch.

The DWP is claiming that it destroyed the reports due to data protection laws. But The Canary has looked into this. It seems not to be the case. Meanwhile, a Labour MP just broke down in parliament talking about claimant deaths. She asked a DWP minister whether he felt “ashamed”. He didn’t answer.

The DWP: countless deaths on its watch

As The Canary has documented, the number of deaths on the DWP’s watch has become a scandal. As Disability News Service (DNS) first reported, the department has had to set up a Serious Case Panel. It will look at the DWP’s Internal Process Reviews (IPRs). These are local DWP investigations when a claimant takes their own life. They also happen when a vulnerable claimant complains to the DWP. But the panel has already faced criticism, not least because some DWP civil servants will sit on it. On 24 February, DWP minister of state Justin Tomlinson said:

The Serious Case Panel met on 30 September 2019 and 7 November 2019 and will meet quarterly from now on.

But he refused to say if the DWP will make the agendas of these panels public.

The Serious Case Panel will be looking at cases like that of Errol Graham. He starved to death after the DWP stopped his benefits:

Read on...

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Ignoring systemic issues

But it won’t be looking into more systemic issues which come from macro data. For example, it seems it won’t investigate figures that show:

  • 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”.

This is because IPRs don’t deal with this kind of information. And as The Canary previously wrote:

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.

Since then, the DWP has released the full number of IPRs it did between June 2015 and January 2020. It carried out 131 of these. That’s an average of more than two reviews a month. This is higher than the DWP previously admitted.

But we now know that even the IPRs the Serious Case Panel will be looking at are incomplete. Because the DWP has admitted it destroyed all of those carried out prior to June 2015.

Wiping the records

It was responding to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. The DWP stated that:

Peer Reviews were renamed Internal Process Reviews in 2015.

Records prior to 2015-16 have been destroyed or are incomplete in line with GDPR/data retention policies. The retention of customer documentation is directed by the Information  Management Policy, which specifies guidance for the retention of customer claims. The Data Protection Act 2018 dictates that ‘personal data kept for any purpose should not be kept for longer than necessary’.

Thanks to the work of John Pring at DNS, we know how many reviews, as a minimum, the DWP will have destroyed.

As Pring reported, the DWP carried out 49 Peer Reviews between February 2012 and October 2014. It’s unclear how many reviews the DWP did between November 2014 and June 2015. Some of the reviews were critical of how the DWP treated vulnerable claimants. One stated:

The risk associated with disregarding the possibility that some of these claimants need more support or a different form of engagement is that we fail to recognise more cases like [REDACTED], with consequent potential impact on the claimant.

David Clapson. Remember his name.

One such report could be about David Clapson. His death in 2013 was high profile. As DNS reported, Clapson died after the DWP stopped his benefits. He was diabetic and had run out of electricity. So he had no power for his fridge. It was where he kept his insulin. DNS noted:

An autopsy found his stomach was empty, and the only food left in his flat in Stevenage was six tea bags, a tin of soup and an out-of-date can of sardines. He had just £3.44 left in his bank account.

There has never been an inquest into Clapson’s death. Nor do IPRs from this time now exist.

So, does the law allow the DWP to destroy them?

Bogus claims?

The DWP claims it’s sticking to the Data Protection Act 2018. This is because the reports have people’s personal details in them. The DWP refers to its Information Management Policy in the FOI response. But this document does not say how long it must keep IPRs for. It took another FOI to find this out.

The DWP released its records management policy after an FOI in 2017. The policy from the same year states that internal reviews should be kept for six years. This is the latest publicly available policy. So, it’s using the Data Protection Act to defend destroying IPRs. But the legislation doesn’t match what the DWP is saying.


Law firm Beale & Co wrote for Lexology:

The GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and DPA [Data Protection Act] 2018 specifically set out exemptions where data can be kept for longer than ‘necessary’. These include keeping data for public interest archiving, scientific or historical research, or statistical purposes. If you are keeping data for any of these purposes, this must be your only purpose for holding data and you cannot later use the data for another purpose particularly, for making decisions that may affect an individual whose data you hold. Further, you cannot hold data ‘just in case’ it might be useful in the future.

It also noted:

personal data cannot be kept for longer than you need it. However, there is no specific time limit.

So the DWP can decide itself how long to keep IPRs for. Moreover, it could keep them for as long as it wanted, as it could use them for research or statistics.

But here’s the catch: so far, the DWP has never even bothered to research the information from IPRs properly. Nor has it bothered to check if their recommendations are carried out. It doesn’t class the IPRs as documents for research or statistical use. It classes them as “customer claims”.

The DWP says…

The Canary asked the DWP for comment. We specifically asked it:

  • How long it must keep IPRs for.
  • What the decision making process was that decided the length of time to keep IPRs.

A spokesperson told The Canary that it could only provide those answers if we made an FOI.

Wilful ignorance

The Canary previously wrote:

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.

We now know that this neglect extends to the DWP destroying official documents. Moreover, it previously broke the law by doing the same thing.

“Enough is enough”

But it’s perhaps Labour MP Debbie Abrahams who summed the scandal up best. During a speech in which she broke down in tears and had to stop, she said that “enough is enough”.

Abrahams held a debate on the deaths of DWP claimants since 2014. During it, she named dozens of people who had died, many taking their own lives, after the DWP stopped their benefits. She quoted a government report which says the DWP:

does not have a robust record of all contact from coroners.

Abrahams lost her composure at this point. She said:

How can that be? This is a government department for heaven’s sakes.

She continued, angrily saying of IPRs:

What’s the point of doing them if [DWP staff] are not aware [of them]?. …

It beggars belief. … Do you not feel ashamed?. …

This is just absolutely damning.

At one point she accused Tomlinson of ‘smirking’. She also took direct aim at the press, saying:

this is rarely covered in the media. So I hope everyone in the press gallery is going to be reporting on this. This is a scandal.

And she summed up by saying:

The death of any person as a result of a government policy is nothing more than a scandal. And it’s clear from the cases that I talked about… this is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what’s going on. For too long, the department has failed to address the effects of its policies. It must now act. Enough is enough.

DWP deaths: systemic and systematic

The DWP destroying IPRs is just the latest, damning twist in this saga. At best, it’s government red tape getting in the way of the sensible functioning of a department. But at worst, the DWP has intentionally destroyed the IPRs. It may have done this to hide its systemic failings and its systematic mistreatment of claimants. We will now never properly be able to hold the DWP to account for so many deaths. Like the death of David Clapson.

Enough is indeed enough. But it has been enough for many years now. And the DWP shows no signs of improving.

Watch Abrahams’ full speech below:


Featured image via Flickr – Matthew Murdoch / Wikimedia – UK Government

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