The DWP has investigated 69 suicides of benefits claimants since 2014, but is likely to have missed many more, the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed in a report today. The DWP refused to disclose this fact in the past because it would have cost more than £600 to count all the deaths.
The damning report was compiled by the NAO at the request of former Work and Pensions Committee chair Frank Field, after the DWP refused to look into the matter because it would have cost more than £600.
This figure is the limit above which a government department can choose to refuse to respond to a Freedom of Information request on cost grounds, if it chooses.
Field tabled a parliamentary question back in September 2019, asking
“How many inquests relating to benefits claimants who have ended their life by suicide her Department (Department for Work & Pensions) has submitted evidence to since 2013; and in how many inquests it was ruled that the policies of her Department were partly responsible for the deceased person’s state of mind.”
The DWP refused to provide the information, saying:
“Unfortunately, the information requested is not held centrally and is therefore unavailable without incurring a disproportionate cost.”
Field then asked the NAO to look into the matter.
The NAO looked only at information already held by the DWP.
It found that the DWP had carried out 69 Internal Process Reviews (IPRs) related to claimant suicides since 2014.
IPRs gather evidence and then make recommendations about how the DWP can act differently in the future
However, the NAO found that the DWP had no system for checking whether the recommendations are ever put into practice, so they do not know whether further suicides have occurred because changes were not implemented.
21 of the IPRs were completed between April and November 2019, compared with only 13 in 2018 and two in 2017.
This suggests that the DWP has only just begun to take the matter seriously as a result of increased media scrutiny.
The NAO also found that until 2016 there was no central point through which coroners could communicate with the DWP, meaning that many coroners concerns were only reported locally.
Even though the DWP set up a ‘coroners focal point’ in 2016 for coroners to report deaths to them, it made so little effort to inform coroners of its existence that many still do not use it.
Only 9 of the IPRs resulted from a coroner contacting the DWP.
In the other 60 cases it was protests from relatives or media attention that prompted the DWP to investigate.
The IPR also concluded that “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 believes that the DWP does not have a reliable record of all the contacts it has received from coroners and that there will have been cases where coroners contacted a local jobcentre and no further action was ever taken.
The likely figure for suicides in which the DWP was implicated is therefore likely to be considerably higher than the 69 cases which the NAO has uncovered.
The urgent need for an independent review of claimants deaths is now undeniable.
Whether it will ever happen whilst the DWP holds claimants’ lives so cheaply is another matter.