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Highly unlikely that 69 suicide cases DWP has investigated in the past six years represents the number of cases it could have investigated

07 February 2020

In a shocking briefing published today, the National Audit Office (NAO) says 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.

The NAO undertook an investigation last year after the former MP Frank Field – then the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee – reported that the DWP had refused to answer his requests for information on the numbers of suicide-related deaths, saying it would be too expensive to gather the information.

It finds that the DWP has investigated 69 suicides of benefit claimants since 2014/2015 –

The Department commissions Internal Process Reviews (IPRs) in response to a range of circumstances or events, including suicides of claimants. The IPR process involves the production of a factual report and sequence of events, followed by an internal panel of relevant subject experts, gathered to make recommendations at either a local or national level. The Department becomes aware of cases which may lead to IPRs via coroners, claimants’ families, the media, doctors and the police.

The NAO finds that the DWP received four Prevention of Future Death reports from coroners since 2013, of which two were related to suicide.

Of the 69 suicide-related IPRs the Department has completed since 2014/2015 -

  • 21 were completed between 1 April 2019 and 13 November 2019, compared with 13 in the whole of the 2018/2019 financial year, and two in the 2017/2018 financial year;
  • only nine cases arose as a result of communication from coroners. More were instigated as a result of communication from the claimants’ family or from the Department’s review of media reporting (19 cases each).
  • the Department told us that it has recently begun to more actively monitor intelligence about deaths by suicide from the media. The Department also becomes aware of cases from MPs, assessment or work programme providers, doctors and the police; and
  • the Department does not have a robust record of cases investigated before 2014/2015.”

 The NAO concludes that it is 'highly unlikely' that the 69 cases the Department has investigated represent the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years as -

“The Department does not have a robust record of all contact from coroners. Prior to 2016, when the Department established its coroner focal point, there was no single, clear route for coroners to contact the Department.

The Department also acknowledges that coroners still do not always use this route and that many will have contacted the Department through other routes, such as: job centres; service centres; or through other correspondence with the Department. This means that some contacts may not have resulted in an internal review being initiated. “

In addition, NAO says that the IPRs do not come to a judgment as to whether benefits-related issues were the cause of the suicide, but instead scrutinise departmental processes and “identify recommendations for change to the customer journey”, which are then in theory passed on to frontline teams.

The NAO notes there was no systematic tracking or monitoring of the lessons that emerge from the IPRs -

“As a result, the department does not know whether the suggested improvements are implemented.”

Further that the DWP does not seek to identify wider trends that emerge from across the IPR reports, the NAO notes, and the reports themselves are restricted internally. This means “systemic issues which might be brought to light through these reviews could be missed”.

In order to improve its processes, the NAO reports that the DWP is seeking to -

  • improving the coroner’s focal point;
  • overseeing a newly established serious case panel; and
  • carrying out a review, focusing on strengthening the operation of Internal Process Reviews.

Ken Butler DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser said:

"Just last week, we highlighted that a disabled man, Errol Graham starved to death after the DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income.

"This new NAO briefing shows yet again that the DWP is failing in its safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable disabled people.

"The Disability News Service has continued to chronicle the tragic deaths of disabled people who have lost their lives due to welfare reform and DWP processes.

"That the DWP told the NAO “that it has recently begun to more actively monitor intelligence about deaths by suicide from the media” is a self indictment of how its own safeguarding policy and processes are failing disabled people.

"As a minimum it should make public its safeguarding policy. And immediately halt all benefit sanctions against disabled people – as recommended by the all-party Work and Pensions Committee in 2018.

"The Government needs urgently to commit to a radical reform of the disability benefits system so that it is one that supports disabled people and does not impoverish them and remove their independence."

The NAO briefing Information held by the DWP on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants is available @ nao.org.uk

For more information see the following Disability News Service stories: