An average of two benefits related deaths every month are secretly investigated by the DWP, it has been revealed. But the evidence from such reviews may not be being passed on to coroners courts or bereaved relatives. In addition, the DWP are refusing to follow an official recommendation that a medically qualified person should always review any Atos medical report following a benefits related death.
Last week, Disability News Service revealed that the DWP has carried out 60 ‘peer reviews’ of benefit related deaths of claimants since February 2012. Reviews carried out before this date have not been collated nationally and the DWP has no plans to do so.
The disclosure of the 60 reviews comes after years of the DWP denying that any such investigations take place.
In reality the reviews are so standard that guidelines exist on when they should be instigated and how they should be conducted.
"Under Iain Duncan Smith, the DWP have set a value on a claimant’s life of less than £200."
According to DNS the reviews should take place in every case where ‘suicide is associated with DWP activity’ and they may also need to be carried out in relation to claimants with ‘additional needs’ or who are ‘vulnerable’.
Benefits and Work has found additional detailed information about peer reviews in a report published in March of this year by a statutory body, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, into the death of a claimant referred to as Ms DE.
The Commission are scathing of the review process, pointing out that it does not include a review of the Atos report by a medically qualified reviewer. One of Commission’s recommendations was that:
‘The peer review process should include a review by a suitably qualified medical practitioner of an assessment made by an Atos healthcare professional.’
However, in their response the DWP refuse to do this, saying only that:
‘. . . where the peer review author identifies that it might be useful for the Atos Healthcare report to be reviewed by a qualified medical practitioner then a referral is made for them to either review internally or ask Atos Healthcare to formally review.’
The Commission reply that:
‘. . . the Peer Review does not involve a medical practitioner unless the reviewer (not medically
qualified) makes a referral. We continue to recommend medical peer review as a more robust assurance of the quality of medical assessments.’
Instead of a qualified review of the medical evidence, the check by the DWP looks solely into whether they have followed their own policy and guidance throughout the ‘five stages’ of an ESA claim: ‘the initial letter being sent; the ESA50 form; the Atos examination; the decision making; and appeal and closure.’
Nonetheless, this could still be vital evidence where, for example, the DWP fail to properly define a claimant as being vulnerable or fail to carry out a home visit to a vulnerable claimant when their ESA claim is turned down and they do not respond to phone calls.
The fact that the DWP have refused, until very recently, to even admit the existence of these reports in response to freedom of Information requests suggests that they are treating them as internal management reviews of procedures, instead of vital evidence relating to claimant deaths that should be made available to interested parties.
In the case of Ms DE, the DWP did not even carry out the review until nine months after her death.
The secrecy and slowness of the peer review process leads to the conclusion that this is not information that the DWP wants ever to be in the public domain. It seems unlikely, then, that coroners are informed in advance by the DWP that a review is available, or that one could be carried out and made available.
In the case of Atos, we are absolutely not suggesting that poorly conducted WCAs have been proven to contribute to the deaths of any specific claimants. However, the fact that the DWP bluntly refuse to automatically have WCA reports checked by someone medically qualified as a routine precaution to potentially prevent other deaths, means that we cannot have any certainty.
The reality is that it would cost no more than a few hundred pounds to have a different health professional review an Atos medical report. The fact that the DWP refuse to do so does tell us one thing with absolute certainty: under Iain Duncan Smith, the DWP have set a value on a claimant’s life of less than £200.