How a single word shows DWP has finally owned up on benefit deaths


The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally admitted that it could be partly responsible for the deaths of some benefit claimants.

The admission came – quietly – after its release of heavily-redacted versions of 49 secret “peer reviews” into benefit-related deaths, following the loss of a 21-month battle with Disability News Service (DNS) to keep them secret.

Although the circumstances of each death are redacted, analysis of the recommendations for local and national improvements suggests strongly that the DWP civil servants who carried out the reviews believed that the way the benefit claimants had been treated had been partly responsible for many of the deaths.

One peer review author says: “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 NAME OF BENEFIT CLAIMANT WHO DIED], with consequent potential impact on the claimant.”

“Processes… have been revised to ensure it does not happen again, to make sure we provide adequate support for vulnerable customers,” says the author of another review into a claimant’s death.

But it is in comparing DWP’s response to the publication of the 49 reviews and its response to previous media reports of benefit-related deaths that demonstrate that it has now admitted it can no longer deny all links between its actions and the deaths of benefit claimants.

Since DNS first revealed the existence of the 49 reviews, DWP has repeatedly insisted that it was “wrong” and “misleading” to link the deaths of disabled people to their benefit claims.

In October last year, after the sister of a disabled man who died just three months after being found fit for work and then having his benefits sanctioned said the discredited work capability assessment (WCA) system was partly responsible for her brother’s death, a DWP spokeswoman said it was “wrong to suggest a link between a benefit decision and someone’s death”.

The following month, after the father of a man who took his own life after being found “fit for work” said he believed his son would still be alive if he had not been failed by the benefits system, a DWP spokesman said: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue and there are often many reasons why someone takes their life, so to link it to one event is misleading.”

And in response to hearing that a disabled man had died of a heart attack, just an hour after being told that DWP was threatening to stop paying his out-of-work disability benefits, a DWP spokeswoman again insisted that it was “misleading to link a death to someone’s benefit claim”.

DWP has delivered similar responses to other news organisations.

In February this year, after Scotland’s Daily Record described how a disabled man took his own life after his ESA was mistakenly stopped, a DWP spokesman told the newspaper: “Suicide is a tragic and complex issue, so to link a death to someone’s benefit claim is misleading.”

But now, following the publication of the 49 reviews, its position has changed.

In response to a story in The Guardian about the publication of the peer reviews – co-authored by DNS editor John Pring – a DWP spokesperson said: “Any suicide is a tragedy and the reasons for them are complex, however it would be inaccurate and misleading to link it solely to a person’s benefit claim.”

To show this was no accident, the same comment appeared in an article in The Independent the following day: “Any suicide is a tragedy and the reasons for them are complex, however it would be inaccurate and misleading to link it solely to a person’s benefit claim.”

The use of the word “solely” means that ministers have now accepted that the actions of their department can be partly responsible for benefit claimants taking their own lives, and for other benefit-related deaths.

19 May 2016

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