My Lords, I will now repeat a Statement made earlier in another place as an Answer to an Urgent Question. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, the department holds the original commission and final report for all peer reviews of disability benefit claimants’ deaths up to 2015. All these documents are kept for six years from the date of the final report. In October 2015, we moved from conducting peer reviews to internal process reviews. This change means we hold more information, including the original commission, all emails relating to the case, the final report and any recommendations resulting from the internal process review.
As the House may be aware, the Welfare Reform Act 2007 committed the Secretary of State to publish an independent report on the work capability assessment each year for the first five years of its operation. In 2013 and 2014, Dr Litchfield led the fourth and fifth independent reviews of the work capability assessment. The department fully co-operated with the reviews and shared all relevant information as requested. To assist the work capability assessment independent reviews and in response to a freedom of information request, we carried out a robust search to supply all necessary information to the reviewers. The record of the documents requested by or shared with the independent reviewers no longer exists, in line with the department’s document retention policy.
We take the death of any disability benefits claimant very seriously and always conduct an investigation into the circumstances where we are informed that the claimant committed suicide. As the reviews contain extremely personal information, it would not be appropriate to declare which individual cases were shared with the reviewers on this occasion”.
I thank the Minister for repeating that slightly opaque Answer. This is really serious. There have long been complaints about the WCA process from campaigners concerned about the impact on people—including, in some cases, their deaths—following assessments.
The DWP conducts peer reviews into serious outcomes and deaths associated with DWP activity. The independent statutory reviews the Minister mentioned were conducted by Paul Litchfield in 2013 and 2014. Disability News Service reported earlier this year that letters to Ministers from coroners, along with several peer reviews, were not given to Dr Litchfield’s team. The DWP will not confirm that, but DNS says that it then lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner and that the summary of its discussions with the DWP shows that that information was not passed along to the review team.
In response to a letter from my honourable friend Debbie Abrahams, the DWP finally said that it has had a good look around the department and that despite,
“a robust and thorough search”,
it could not find any information about this, citing,
“the length of time since the reviews were carried out”,
“factors such as document retention”.
It also implied, as the Minister did, that the review team did not ask for them. These were documents related to the circumstances of people’s deaths. The independent reviewers were investigating the WCA process, including its impacts on the clients. Either these documents were withheld from the reviewers or the DWP’s record keeping is so poor that the department does not know whether they were passed across. I regret that, given the level of anger and mistrust of the DWP out there as a result of repeated cuts and the profoundly dysfunctional nature of the benefit assessment system, this will inevitably fuel suspicions that there was something in those documents that the DWP did not want an independent reviewer to see.
Does the Minister accept that it is the department’s responsibility to ensure that an independent reviewer has any potentially relevant information? It is not their responsibility to work out what to ask for. If that is true, why did it not include all peer reviews and coroners’ letters?
Secondly, since trust is now so low, will the Government accede to the widespread calls for an independent inquiry into how assessments are carried out and the medical evidence of their impact on the health and well-being of claimants? Will she guarantee that all documents relating to deaths or serious and complex cases related to DWP activity will be shared with any future independent reviewer? This is a matter of justice and it is the only way to restore trust in a deeply discredited system.
My Lords, I refute the allegation that this is a deeply discredited system. The Department for Work and Pensions takes the death of any claimant very seriously. Where it is made aware that a person has died and it is suggested that that is associated in any way with the department’s activity, a review will be undertaken to identify any lessons that can be learned. It is important to make it very clear that in a case of suicide, a mandatory internal assessment review is undertaken. All these reports will be kept for six years from the date of the final report.
In October 2015, we moved from peer reviews to an internal review process, which is what I meant to call it in the first place. That process means that we hold more information, including all emails relating to the case, the original commission, the final report and any recommendations resulting from the internal process review. That relates to the death of any individual who has been in receipt of any benefit—not necessarily just the work capability assessment but any benefit at all.
It is important to make the point that we retain that information for six years. Some of it is highly confidential. What we do not retain for more than one year is the day-to-day business on emails which is where requests come in and out about who is asking for what information. That is in line with normal practice. We retain that information for only one year. Complex issues are involved in the decision-making for this, however, and we examine those issues with great care, also taking into account letters from the coroners’ courts. Once again, the department takes the death of any claimant seriously and always conducts an investigation into the circumstances.
My Lords, despite what the Minister said, if all that information is available, why do families not get to see those reports? Take, for example, the Justice for Jodey Whiting campaign. She died in February 2017. She took her own life 15 days after her disability benefits were stopped for missing a work capability assessment, when she was already seriously ill. Her family have repeatedly asked for that review and have never had permission to see it. Three disabled members of staff at the DWP wrote a safeguarding report, which was magically lost in the system. I understand that that was also not passed to the investigators.
The DWP changes its story every time. In May 2018, it claimed that it had no record of the reports or whether it shared vital documents linking fitness to work with the death of benefit claimants. Most extraordinarily, it recently said that the independent reviewers did not ask for documents. How on earth can they ask for documents that they do not know exist? I echo the call for an inquiry, but I want to add another couple of questions.
The Minister’s department claims that it does not hold information on claimants who have lost their lives. On the issue of the length of time for which certain documents are kept, surely there must be a full review of all documents and for how long they are held. Either it is incompetence or, more alarmingly, it is a cover-up. Will the Minister ensure that there is a proper, independent investigation specifically into those missing documents? Why were those documents hidden from the independent reviewer? It is just not good enough to say that they were not asked for, when the independent reviewers did not know about them. Finally, what scrutiny has the department given the private sector contractors, Maximus, Capita and Atos, carrying out the WCA and their record-keeping and passing on of information to assist the DWP when it gets requests from campaigners such as John Pring at Disability News Service, who has campaigned tirelessly for two years on this matter?
My Lords, I cannot respond to the specific case that the noble Baroness mentioned, but I will write to her. I can only repeat what I have already said. This is not a question of keeping information from individuals. As I said in the Statement, the reviews that we carry out—84 since 2015—contain extremely personal information. It would not be appropriate to declare which individual cases were shared with the reviewers on this occasion. We instituted a change in October 2015 when we moved from peer reviews to the internal review process to ensure that we can hold more information, including all emails relating to the case, the original commission, the final report and any recommendations resulting from the internal review process. In line with the department’s document retention policy, any records of whether peer reviews and coroners’ reports since 2010 were either requested by or shared with the independent reviewers of the work capability assessment do not exist. As I said, we keep the information for six years from the date of the final report in the case of the reports and active emails—the day-to-day business of the department—for only one year.
I stress, however, that we take this situation and this issue very seriously. I do not accept that the department has in any way sought to withhold information for any ulterior motive. The department works hard to do the right thing. If one looked across the private and public sectors, one would see that the period for which we hold information of this kind is absolutely in line with normal practice.
I thank my noble friend for that question because this instance relates to the work capability assessment. As I said, we carry out an independent review of any case where there has been a death by suicide. Yes, we are working hard to reassess the work capability assessments to support claimants and we will integrate the services that deliver both PIP and the WCA from 2021. We are testing the feasibility of having one assessment for people who apply for PIP and universal credit at the same time and we will test how to build better relationships with universal credit customers awaiting an assessment or in the limited capability for work group by changing how conditionality is tailored. We also want to explore whether we can improve the mandatory reconsideration process to reduce the volume of cases going to appeal. All of this of course goes towards doing everything we can to support claimants and reassure them through the process of obtaining support.