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Social Security Claimant Deaths

Volume 662: debated on Thursday 4 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement to clarify what documents concerning the peer reviews and coroners’ reports into social security claimant deaths since 2010 are held by her Department, and whether all of these were supplied to Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield, the independent reviewers of the work capability assessment.

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. That change means we now hold more information, including the original commission, all emails relating to the case, the final report and any recommendations resulting from the internal review process.

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 WCA. The Department fully co-operated with the reviews and shared all relevant information as requested. To assist the WCA 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 indeed and always conduct an investigation into the circumstances where we are informed that the claimant committed suicide. As the review contains extremely personal information, it would not be appropriate to declare which individual cases were shared with the reviewers on this occasion.

Thank you so much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

Let me refresh everybody’s memories following the point of order I raised about this yesterday. I have received a response to my letter of 10 May to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in which I expressed my concerns regarding the investigation and the information provided to the independent reviewers. I also asked for information on claimant deaths after being found fit for work following a work capability assessment, as well as on deaths in relation to the personal independence payment, and I still have not received any information on that.

In the reply from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, nearly two months later, he said that although a

“robust and thorough search was carried out of information held by the Department…the outcome is that the Department does not hold any information”

in relation to what peer review reports were supplied to the independent reviewers. He also said that this was due to

“the length of time since the reviews were carried out, factors such as document retention policies, organisational changes and staff turnover”.

These documents relate to the circumstances of people’s deaths as little as five years ago. The independent reviewers were investigating the work capability assessment process, including the impact of assessments. It is deeply troubling that the Department appears to have no record of what was supplied to the reviews, especially as both Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield say that they did not receive such documents. In the same response, the Minister tried to suggest that the reviewers did not request these reports. It prompts the question whether the Department’s record keeping systems are fit for purpose or whether these documents were deliberately withheld.

Can the Minister confirm that these documents were not sent to Dr Litchfield in 2013? Why does his Department not hold records on what information was supplied to Dr Litchfield and to his predecessor, Professor Harrington? The Minister said in his response that the retention policy is that the Department does not keep these records. I find that deeply concerning, considering other Departments’ requirements under the law to keep these data.

What steps will the Minister take to ensure any departmental reorganisation or staff turnover does not lead to the loss of such important and sensitive information in the future? Will he commit to an investigation into what happened to these documents, and will he report back to the House on the outcomes of this investigation? The Information Commissioner’s Office spoke to members of staff who were in the Department at the time of the Litchfield review. How many members of staff who were in the Department at that time still remain?

Has the Department approached Dr Litchfield and Professor Harrington about the information they received, and if not, why not? The letter I received yesterday from the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work stated that the Department shared

“all relevant information which was requested by Prof Harrington and Dr Litchfield”.

However, if they were unaware of the existence of these documents, how could they request them? Given that their remit was to examine the work capability assessment and that many of these reviews and coroners’ letters contained grave concerns about the assessment process, why did the Department not provide them?

Since 2015, the Department has undertaken 84 internal process reviews, and six more have been received. The Minister will be aware of the ruling in John Pring v. the Information Commissioner and the Department for Work and Pensions, which led to the redacted publication of peer reviews in 2016. Will he commit to publishing redacted reports of these internal process reviews?

We are talking about the circumstances of people’s deaths, as I have said. A Government’s first duty is to protect their people—all their people—but they are failing the sick and disabled, and this reveals the enormity of that failure.

The Department takes the death of any claimant extremely seriously and always conducts an investigation into the circumstances. The Department is continually working to improve its safeguarding practices, working with partner agencies and local government. The Department is presently undertaking a review of the departmental safeguarding policy and guidance available to staff, which will report in the autumn of 2019. The scope of the review is considering what more we at the Department can do to support vulnerable claimants, with an emphasis both on ensuring safety and on working with partners to provide the necessary support when and where necessary. The review covers all areas of DWP delivery activities.

The last independent review was in 2014. As I said in my opening response, we do not hold emails going back over 12 months, under our document retention policy. My understanding, however, is that the documentation was not requested by the independent reviewers, but we hold such information on the peer review process for six years. I should stress that we would share outcomes and lessons learned. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, we have about 20 to 25 internal process reviews a year —they do not all relate to suicides—but I would stress that we are fully compliant with the law when it comes to data.

From my work in the Department, I know that Ministers take this issue extremely seriously, and they will be concerned to hear about the cases that were reasonably and sensitively raised by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). Will the Minister confirm that whenever a claimant dies, a thorough review is undertaken by the Department and that that is the right process to follow?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and the way he put it. We take all cases of this nature incredibly seriously, and the Department has undertaken 84 internal process reviews since 2015. It carries out such reviews for a number of reasons, not only in cases that relate to suicide. I stress that these reviews do not mean that the Department was at fault, and in the majority of cases they contain very personal information that it would not be right to publish. Nevertheless, it is incredibly important to carry out such reviews because, where lessons can be learned, they should be. Indeed, in numerous cases, they have been learned.

It is deeply shocking that the Department for Work and Pensions has not kept documents relating to deaths that could have been related to DWP activity. We know from a freedom of information request that such documents were not passed to Professor Harrington and Dr Litchfield who carried out the statutory review of the work capability assessment. Surely, it was the Department’s responsibility to ensure that those reviewers had all the relevant information.

The Minister’s letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) states that the documents have not been kept for a range of reasons, including document retention policies, organisational changes and staff turnover. Such bureaucratic language is wholly out of keeping with the pain felt by families and friends who are affected by the death of a loved one.

There is a systemic problem at DWP when it comes to meeting the needs of disabled people, and the facts speak for themselves: more than 1 million sanctions have been imposed on disabled people since 2010, and in 2018-19, 73% of PIP and ESA cases that went to tribunal were found in favour of the appellant. The Government are currently carrying out seven reviews into different aspects of the social security system where disabled people were wrongly denied the support to which they should have been entitled.

What action is the Department taking to ensure that any documents relating to deaths in serious and complex cases that were related to DWP activity are retained in future? Will the Government now accede to widespread calls for an independent inquiry into the way that assessments are carried out and demand that medical evidence about the impact of such assessments on the health and wellbeing of claimants is fully considered? Will the Government commit to an independent review into the deaths of ill or disabled people that may have been linked to DWP activity? The Department owes a duty of care not only to those who it assesses for support, but to those families and friends who have lost loved ones in the most tragic of circumstances. The DWP has failed disabled people again.

I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s line of questioning. As I have had said twice already, we take incredibly seriously the death of any claimant, and we always conduct an investigation into the circumstances. The last independent review was in 2014, and under our data retention policy, emails going back more than 12 months were not retained. However, under the peer review, such emails are held for six years, and we would have shared outcomes and lessons learned. We would have shared further information with the independent reviewers, but my understanding is that it was not requested.

The hon. Lady raises broader disability issues. This year, we are spending more than £55 billion on benefits to support disabled people and those with health conditions, which is around 2.5% of our GDP, and more than 6% of Government spending. This year, spending on the main disability benefits—the personal independence payment, disability living allowance and attendance allowance—will be more than £6 billion higher than in 2010, and disability spending will be higher every year up to 2023 than it was in 2010.

I know that my hon. Friend takes these issues extremely seriously, but I am curious about two things. He said there were 84 internal reviews, but that not all were related to alleged suicides. How many were related to alleged suicides? He said that emails are destroyed after 12 months, and I am surprised by such a short period. Is that in line with the policies of other Departments?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We do not know the number of suicides compared to the overall number of cases investigated under the internal review process. As I said, we carry them out for a number of reasons. Under the previous system, we did not hold emails going back over 12 months under the independent review process. Under the peer review process, however, we hold that information for six years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) on securing the urgent question.

The Government’s austerity measures have led to a system that no longer considers people as vulnerable individuals in need of support, but views them with suspicion from the outset. It is sickening that, when faced with such serious allegations as people’s deaths, the Government took so long to admit their failure to send their own independent reviewer documents that Ministers knew would have linked the fitness to work test with the deaths of disabled benefit claimants. Why was that not deemed a top priority by the Government?

The Government seem content with private sector providers prioritising profits over people. How frequently does the Department assess the treatment of claimants by private sector companies? Will the Department follow the Scottish Government’s lead and introduce audio recordings of assessments as standard to ensure accuracy and transparency?

The public will struggle to have any trust in the Government to deliver these Government-commissioned assessments for employment and support allowance, PIP and universal credit. Will the Department undertake a review of all commissioned assessments to ensure they do not lead to similar circumstances?

Finally, we very strongly support the hon. Lady’s call for an independent inquiry into all deaths linked to the Government’s social security reforms. Will the Minister commit to starting that immediately?

We take the independent reviews, the peer reviews and the findings of coroners incredibly seriously. Where there are lessons to be learned, the Department absolutely looks at how we can improve our processes and procedures to improve the service we provide to claimants. On reviewing the third parties we work with, we are already trialling audio recording of assessments. We will consider the results and whether it is appropriate to roll that out further in due course. I assure the hon. Lady and other hon. Members across the House that we of course audit and take a very close look at all those who provide services to the Department.

When I raised the death of one of my constituents shortly after he lost his personal independence payment, I asked for an independent inquiry, which the Secretary of State refused. Given our exchanges today, will the Minister take the message back to her that I would like her to reconsider her decision? As the Prime Minister laid down for Hillsborough and the poisoned blood inquiry, it is the duty of Departments to produce information, not for the chair of an inquiry to fish for information crucial to the proper consideration of events that lead to someone’s death.

The right hon. Gentleman knows the huge respect I have for him and the respect the Secretary of State has for him. I understand that she has already taken into consideration what he put to her at oral questions. We take it very seriously indeed.

Before I ask my question, may I remind the House that no one in the United Kingdom commits suicide? People take their own lives. The word “commit” relates to a crime. Suicide is not a crime in this country and has not been for some time.

When seeking information on the removal of the six-month time limit for terminal illness claimants, I asked for information about people who died while waiting for a decision relating to PIP. Between 2013 and 2018, 17,000 people died while waiting for a decision on their PIP assessment. I asked for the same figures in relation to universal credit, but was told that they were not available and could only be provided at disproportionate cost. How can the Minister say that he covers all deaths and takes them seriously when it is not possible to provide hon. Members with information on the deaths of people, many of whom have been found to be terminally ill, who have not been able to access universal credit?

I thank the hon. Lady for what she said on suicide. Language is important, and she was right to pull me and others across the House up for using that language. She raises a hugely important point. We are working closely with stakeholders in that regard, to see what more we can do, and I would be happy to meet her to explain in further detail the written answer that was given to the parliamentary question that she submitted.

Five hundred and eighty of my constituents were displaced in the transition from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—a loss of £2 million a year. What is the Department doing to track the outcomes faced by those who are not in receipt of Government support? I think particularly of a case of mine, where a young man was forced to rely on his mother’s financial support in the last months of his life before he died of a terminal brain tumour, because the Government rejected his claim for support. What will the Government do to track such cases?

What we are doing is spending £6 billion more, and we will continue to work with stakeholders where possible, to ensure that we can improve our processes.

The Department has, as has been said, given us a number of reasons why this information is not available, but to the public and to those affected, it will seem that there can be only two acceptable or reasonable reasons—that the information was deliberately withheld and covered up, or that it was incompetence. To get to the bottom of this and to reassure the public, will the Minister give those of us who are asking today for that inquiry, the assurance that the Department will do everything it possibly can to get to the bottom of this?

In cases of this nature, our inquiries and investigations nearly always go alongside a coroner’s investigation. So it is important to say that there is already that independent investigation, and we do work very closely with coroners and supply information as required by them.

When we consider the sensitive issue of death by suicide of particular claimants, I want to press the Minister specifically on the issue of assessments being carried out inappropriately. For example, if someone presents for an assessment with a mental health issue, quite often they find that they are being assessed by a physiotherapist. What actions are the Government taking to ensure that assessments are done properly, by those with relevant qualifications?

Under PIP, people with a mental health condition are five times more likely to be exempted than under the legacy benefit system. However, it is important to say that it was the Labour party that introduced the work capability assessment, in 2008, and that we have made significant improvements to the WCA since its introduction. We will continue to work with stakeholders and Members from across the House to improve the process where we can.