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“We’re just numbers to them”: Powerful new report highlights DWP failure to investigate claimant deaths and serious harm

09 March 2022

Many people, particularly those with existing mental health problems, find the experience of navigating the benefits system difficult and distressing. This can make people more unwell, sometimes to the point where they feel compelled to harm themselves or try to end their lives. 

The DWP is supposed to conduct an Internal Process Review (IPR) whenever its actions may have played a part in someone dying (such as by suicide) or experiencing ‘serious harm’.

However, Rethink Mental Illness, following its July 2021 report Tip of the Iceberg: Deaths and Serious Harm in the Benefit System, has established that only 21% of the Internal Process Reviews IPRs since conducted by the DWP have investigated serious harm.

As self-harm, mental health crises and suicide attempts are more common than suicide. This suggests that the DWP’s internal investigations have a vacuum where most of their work should be. 

Rethink has now published powerful new research, based on a survey and detailed claimant interviews, to establish more about the harm people have experienced as a result of their interactions with the benefits system, and how the DWP responded to them.

“We’re just numbers to them” – The DWP’s failure to investigate death and serious harm, highlights the experiences of the people being desperately failed and harmed by the welfare system.

Key findings from the research include:

  1. Cases of death and serious harm related to the benefits system are a current issue, not just a historical one. Almost three-quarters of incidents where a date was provided occurred in the last five years. Experiences related to applications, assessments and appeals were the largest cause of harm.
  2. The number of cases of serious harm suggests that the DWP is not instigating IPRs as often as it should be.
  3. In particular, the DWP is failing to investigate cases of serious harm that do not involve a death. Suicide attempts and self-harm occur much more frequently than deaths by suicide. The proportion of serious harm cases compared to deaths suggests there should have been many hundreds of serious harm IPRs since July 2019, compared to the 31 that the DWP instigated.
  4. Many cases of serious harm do not get reported to the DWP because of a lack of awareness about the process and a lack of trust in the department. As well as claimants not reporting cases, there is no adequate process for professionals outside the DWP who support claimants, such as clinicians or social workers, to report suspected incidents of serious harm investigation.
  5. The definition of serious harm used by the DWP is not clear. For example, it’s not set out if a mental health crisis that does not involve self-harm or a suicide attempt should trigger an IPR. This is made worse by a lack of published guidance or official analysis of cases, trends and IPR recommendations, which adds to the impression that the process is opaque and unaccountable.
  6. Cases where people’s negative experiences may fall below the DWP’s threshold of serious harm nevertheless raise wider concerns about the adverse mental health impact of the benefits system and whether enough is being done to address this.

As a result, Rethink says that the following immediate actions are needed:

  • The DWP should inform claimants, their appointees and - where there has been a death - the next of kin about whether an IPR is taking place. They should also inform them of any recommendations they make and progress on delivering those recommendations.
  • The DWP should publish annual reports on the IPRs that it has conducted. These should include statistics on the characteristics of the cases examined and the people affected (including the type of harm experienced, and the aspects of the benefit system associated with the harm).
  • The DWP should establish a simple process by which incidents of suspected death or serious harm associated with the benefits system can be reported. This includes reporting incidents online, by telephone or in person at Jobcentres by claimants or by their family, friends, appointees or professionals working with them.
  • Once a new reporting process has been set up, the DWP should write to all to claimants and professionals who work with people supported by benefits, setting out the IPR process.
  • The DWP should provide a clearer definition of what constitutes ‘serious harm’. They must strengthen and clarify guidance for their staff about the nature and process of cases that should be referred for an IPR. Where cases later come to light in which it is found that earlier opportunities to instigate an IPR were missed, this should be considered a serious – and potentially disciplinary – matter for the staff or services in question. 

The full Rethink report We’re just numbers to them – The DWP’s failure to investigate death and serious harm is available from rethink.org.