35,000 deaths later, the DWP still denies its problems are ‘systemic’

The Royal Courts of Justice and the DWP logo

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has denied that it has “systemic” problems. This was during an inquest into the death of a claimant. Instead, the department has blamed its staff – but it doesn’t appear to be fooling the judges. And all the evidence points to a system broken beyond repair, with over 35,000 deaths on its watch.

Jodey Whiting

As The Canary previously reported, Jodey Whiting was a 42-year old mother. She took her own life after the DWP stopped her social security. Because the DWP stopped Whiting’s ESA, she also lost her Housing Benefit and Council Tax Reduction. Whiting lived with various health conditions and mental health issues.These included a brain cyst, curvature of the spine, and bipolar disorder. Whiting was taking 23 tablets a day for her illnesses and conditions.

She took her own life on 21 February 2017, three days after the DWP made her last Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payment. This was because she missed a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). According to solicitors Leigh Day:

  • The DWP failed to arrange a home visit for Whiting for her WCA. Instead, it arranged an appointment at an assessment centre, despite Whiting’s request for a home assessment because she “rarely left the house due to her health”.
  • It also failed to take into consideration that Whiting had made the department aware she lived with “suicidal thoughts a lot of the time and could not cope with work or looking for work”.
  • It further didn’t complete a Mandatory Reconsideration of its decision to stop Whiting’s ESA until after her death.

In May 2017, a coroner failed to consider any role the DWP and its decisions had in Whiting’s death. So her family and Leigh Day have taken the matter to the High Court. And the court is now conducting a new inquest into her death.

Common sense?

Disability News Service (DNS) has been following the case. And the evidence coming out is damning.

The DWP has left the judges unimpressed. For example, as DNS‘s editor John Pring wrote:

Mrs Justice Farbey told DWP’s barrister David Griffiths this week that Whiting had been on out-of-work disability benefits since 2006, and had been in the ESA support group since 2012, after she was transferred across from the old incapacity benefit system.

Read on...

She asked Griffiths: “Why on earth in these circumstances didn’t someone pick up the phone?”

She said it was “surely common sense” for DWP to call Whiting about her missed assessment if she had been claiming benefits for so long

But it’s perhaps the DWP’s defence of itself which is most troubling.


The DWP’s defence is centred around the idea that Whiting’s death is an isolated case. As Pring wrote, Griffiths argued:

that Whiting’s death was the result of errors by individuals within DWP, but was not caused by flaws in the benefits system itself.

He said her death should be placed in the “context” of the “scale and scope” of the millions of claimants who DWP deals with.

Griffiths said:

People make mistakes. I can understand in this arena and with the tragic events that happened that those failures are highlighted, and rightly so. The system has failed but it does not fail a great many times.

And as Pring wrote:

[Griffiths] claimed that if there was a systemic problem then “given the quantity the numbers of people who are dealt with one would see far greater problems within the DWP than apparently is the case”.

Except Griffiths’ claim that the DWP “does not fail a great many times” is simply not true.

Countless deaths

Thousands of people have died on the DWP’s watch. Among these are:

  • Around 90 people a month between December 2011 and February 2014. The DWP said these people were fit for work.
  • Roughly 10 people a day died between March 2014 and February 2017 – a period of almost three years. The DWP had put these people in the ESA Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). This meant it told them they were healthy enough to start moving towards work.
  • Nearly 12 people died daily over a period of five years – between April 2013 and April 2018. The DWP was making them wait for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claims to be processed when they died.

That’s over 34,000 people. They died either waiting for the DWP to sort their claims or after it said they were well enough to work or start moving towards work. Moreover, in 2018 alone there could have been 750 (if not more) people who took their own lives while claiming from the DWP. But across five years, the department only reviewed 69 cases of people taking their own lives.

Clearly the DWP thinks that nearly 35,000 (recorded) deaths doesn’t constitute a systemic problem. But the judges and the family’s lawyer in Whiting’s case seem to disagree.

“Basic stuff”

Farbey asked Griffiths of Whiting’s case:

Why shouldn’t this court infer that this is a systems failure?

She also noted that:

There are a large number of claimants. It ought to be basic stuff. This is largely stuff that the DWP does every day and it should have systems that work to surveil.

Another judge said:

An inference may be drawn that despite the appearance of working systems, there is a non-working system in the problem of culture and training and arguably so.

And Leigh Day’s lawyer said:

The only inference… that can be drawn is that there is a systemic problem here. It cannot possibly be suggested that that is not the case.

The judges will give their decision in Whiting’s case at a later date.

“Nothing more than a scandal”

In February 2020, Labour MP Debbie Abrahams spoke about deaths on the DWP’s watch in parliament. She read out the names of some of those who had died. This included Errol Graham who effectively starved to death:

Abrahams said:

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 [DWP] has failed to address the effects of its policies. It must now act. Enough is enough.

This was nearly 18 months ago. From what the DWP said in court, it appears not to recognise Abraham’s point: that one death is one too many. Moreover, since she spoke, little has changed. The inquiry into Whiting’s death may bring closure for the family. It may also expose the systemic failings in one case. But whether or not it shines a light on the pernicious, human rights-abusing culture that’s pervaded the DWP and successive Tory governments for more than a decade remains to be seen.

Featured image via Dan Perry – Flickr and Wikimedia 

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  • Show Comments
    1. As someone who has seen the best and worse of the system, no one possibly claim the problems are not systemic. Your life literally rests in the hands of an individual who may or may not have any knowledge of your condition and who may or may not have any empathy or compassion. Its just shear luck as to whether your passage through the benefits system is easy or devastatingly awful.

    2. With over 23 years in the free advice sector I can categorically say there is a hostile environment in the DWP, implanted and supported by the cheap and nasty Tory party
      It appeals to their base and has a devastating effect on some of the most vulnerable people in the country
      When people live so close to the edge it does not take a lot to tip them over
      The safety net does not exist anymore, basic checks and balances no longer exist, the default setting is punishment and sanctions, which leaves people with nothing
      Then what
      If the case is framed in that context then you force the DWP and Government to prove otherwise, one point would be, what is the level of benefits below which no one is allowed to fall
      What is the subsistence figure, because if that does not exist then they are responsible for all of those deaths
      Good Luck

    3. My friend, severely crippled with arthritis, at one point had her disability car withdrawn after a spiteful complaint from malicious neighbors. This vehicle was was eventually returned after much litigation. The judge overseeing the case declared that the removal of the car “should never have happened”. How much effort and money was wasted by the DWP who preferred to listen to vicious trouble causers rather than someone suffering from a devastating illness,

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