The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused of covering up reviews into the deaths of dozens of vulnerable benefit claimants, it has been reported.
The Disability News Service reports that the DWP has destroyed “secret reviews” into suicides and other benefit-related deaths following Freedom of Information requests.
The Government department admitted to trashing vital evidence, claiming that the decision was inline with official policy because “personal data kept for any purpose should not be kept for any longer than necessary”.
DWP officials have admitted to carrying out at least 69 “internal reviews” into the deaths of benefit claimants.
However, Disability News Service reports that a request for information by the ‘Stop UK Lies and Corruption’ campaign discovered that the DWP has destroyed the findings of reviews that pre-date April 2015.
All record of the internal reviews held before 2015 have either been destroyed, because of “data retention policies”, or are incomplete and no longer stored by the DWP.
Stephen Timms MP, the chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, has condemned the DWP’s “incredible secrecy” and said it is “unacceptable” for the government department “to keep obfuscating”.
He said: “The idea that people are taking their own life as a result of DWP actions is so awful. It is unacceptable for the DWP to keep obfuscating. It cannot avoid the subject any longer.”
“This is clearly something serious and it needs to engage and resolve it,” he said.
It follows the tragic death of 57-year-old Errol Graham, who starved to death after his benefits were stopped.
Mr Graham was found deceased in his flat weighing just four and a half stone, just months after the DWP halted his Employment and Support Allowance payment for failing to turn up to an appointment, which also resulted in his Housing Benefit being stopped.
In accordance with DWP policies a decision was made to end his benefits because he had not shown “good cause” for missing the appointment, even though the department were aware of his long history of severe mental health problems.
His family has now threatened legal action against the DWP, arguing that decisions carrying a risk of death continue to be made based on “scant and insufficient information”, and relevant statistics on the effects of significant DWP decisions on vulnerable claimants “are still not kept”.
Alison Turner, partner of Errol’s son, has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the DWP arguing that their systems and procedures regarding the termination of benefits for someone in Errol’s circumstances, and the decisions in his particular case, were unlawful.
Alison said: “The government owes it to Errol, his family and the country to explain why the DWP has repeatedly failed to learn from these tragedies over many years.
“In Errol’s memory I am determined to fight for change so that no more families have to live through the horror we have.”
Tessa Gregory, solicitor from law firm Leigh Day representing Alison, added: “One of the alarming features of Errol’s death is that according to the DWP their safeguarding policies were followed to the letter.
“Errol was flagged as highly vulnerable, and all the necessary steps under the policies were taken, but a decision was still made to terminate all of his benefits without finding anything out about his physical or mental health.
“This isn’t a case about DWP officials who made one-off mistakes, it is a case about a government department whose policies and systems are tragically and systematically failing the vulnerable people they are meant to protect.”
The DWP has been given until 10 March to respond to the threat of legal action. If no satisfactory response is received Alison will consider issuing judicial review proceedings in the High Court.
If you, or someone you know, has been affected by the issues raised in this article the Samaritans can be contacted free of charge (24hrs) on 116 123, or visit their website for more information.