Last Thursday, just after Parliament had been prorogued, the Government published the peer review reports on the deaths of 49 social security claimants who had died between 2012 and 2014. Ministers had previously denied that they held any records on people whose deaths may have been linked to the social security system. They subsequently admitted that peer-review investigations into claimants deaths had been carried out since 2012, but argued in response to a FoI request for disclosure that social security laws prevented them from publishing them.
The Government had to be compelled to publish these reports, going through Departmental appeals, the Information Commissioner and ultimately the Information Rights Tribunal. They finally published them 3 hours after Parliament had been prorogued, 20 months after the initial FOI, hoping to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny, and the media’s and public’s attention. And by and large, they have been successful.
This is democracy under this Government.
The fact that the Government published these heavily redacted reports on the day that Parliament prorogued, in the same manner that it published data on the deaths of all people in receipt of social security benefits just before the August Bank Holiday during last year’s summer recess, is quite frankly an utter disgrace.
The reports themselves mostly relate to the recommendations for improvements – both at local and national level – made by the reviews’ authors. Information about the individual claimants, summaries, conclusions and background information and dates has almost all been redacted. This we have been led to believe is to protect the identity of the claimant, however, in a number of cases information identifying Job Centres where individuals made their claims was not redacted.
The peer reviews appear to challenge blanket claims by Ministers that there is no connection between government welfare reform policies, including the Work Capability Assessment process and new sanctions regime. I challenged the former Secretary of State directly on this at the Work and Pensions Select Committee and he denied that there had been any deaths.
However, we know from these 49 reports, 10 of the 49 peer reviewed deaths were following a sanction; and 40 of the 49 deaths related to a suicide or a suspected suicide. We also know that these deaths occurred across the country. The reports highlight widespread flaws in the handling by DWP officials of claims by ‘vulnerable’ claimants including people with mental health problems, learning difficulties or a learning disability. Several suggest that claimants who died may not have received adequate support from DWP staff handling their social security claims, indicating that the over-stretched workforce is driven by a top-down culture focused on targets. The Government’s priority has been to get claimants ‘off-flow’ with too little regard of the consequences.
Given the gravity of this matter, the Government needs to state what action has been taken to address the recommendations from these reports. I asked Chris Grayling, the Leader of the House of Commons about this yesterday in the house. You can watch my question here.
We must remember that each and every one of these reports is about a social security claimant who has lost their life. We must know if ministers made the changes recommended by the peer reviews, or if they simply ignored the lessons from these 49 tragic deaths as one of the peer reviews noted, because of the “resource implication”.
I have called for an independent body to be set up to investigate the deaths of vulnerable social security claimants.
The 2015 Work and Pensions Select Committee report ‘Sanctions Beyond the Oakley Review’ resulting from the inquiry which I initiated, recommended that the “DWP should seek to establish a body modelled on the Independent Police Complaints Commission, to conduct reviews, at the request of relatives, or automatically where no living relative remains, in all instances where an individual on an out-of-work working-age benefit dies whilst in receipt of that benefit.
“Such a model, operated within the purview of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, should ensure that the role of all publicly-funded agencies involved in the provision of services or benefits to the individual is scrutinised, so that a learning document can be produced setting out how policy, and the service delivery pathway, can be improved at every stage.” The Government rejected this recommendation. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions needs to look at this decision again with a view to learning lessons from every death of social security recipients.
Given that 1 in 5 of these deaths followed a sanction, Stephen Crabb, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, should also review another recommendation from this report calling for an independent inquiry into sanctions, as well as pausing the current pilot into sanctions for people in low paid work supported through tax credits or universal credit.
Media reports have stated that since the original submission of the FoI request for publication of the peer reviews, 9 further peer reviews have been undertaken within DWP. The Government needs to confirm that number and undertake to publish the reviews’ recommendations as soon as possible.
From nearly all of the peer reviews where it is possible to tell which type of social security payments were involved, they were commissioned following deaths linked to the work capability assessment (WCA), testing eligibility for ESA. Many of those related to the WCA process were also linked to the huge reassessment programme of hundreds of thousands of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB). There have been numerous calls for reform of the WCA since it was revised in 2011 ad it is clear it is not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul.
Like the NHS, our social security system is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us all of our dignity and the basics of life, should any one of us become ill or disabled, or fall on hard times. The Government would do well to remember this and should apologise to the families who have lost a loved one whilst they were meant to be supported by our social security system.