The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
DWP released the figures in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests by DNS.
It said in one response that DWP had carried out “60 peer reviews following the death of a customer” since February 2012.
There have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the employment and support allowance (ESA) claim process, or the refusal or removal of ESA and other benefits, including the writer Paul Reekie, who killed himself in 2010, and the deaths of Nick Barker, Jacqueline Harris, Ms DE, and Brian McArdle.
The Scottish-based, user-led campaign group Black Triangle has collected more than 40 examples of people – most of them disabled – who appear to have died as a result of being found “fit for work” through a work capability assessment (WCA), or having their entitlement to benefits otherwise refused or removed.
Many of the cases became widely-known through media reports of inquests, but in the case of Ms DE, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland concluded that the WCA process and the subsequent denial of ESA was at least a “major factor in her decision to take her own life”.
But DWP has consistently denied any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of benefit claimants.
This week, DWP also released guidance used by its staff to decide whether a peer review was necessary, and guidance for authors of a peer review.
This reveals that the role of a review is to “determine whether local and national standards have been followed or need to be revised/improved”, while a review must be carried out in every case where “suicide is associated with DWP activity”.
It also says that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving “customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers”.
As with previous FoI requests by DNS and many other disabled campaigners, DWP refused to answer some of the questions because it claimed that it planned to publish information itself “in due course”.
It also said it had only begun to keep national records of internal reviews since February 2012, and that it was too expensive to find figures from local and district records showing how many such reviews there had been before that date.
Another of the FoI responses stated that it was too expensive to produce information showing how many letters DWP has received from coroners expressing concern that a death may have been linked to the non-payment or withdrawal of a benefit.
Bob Ellard, speaking on behalf of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said the disclosure that DWP had investigated 60 claimant deaths since 2012 was a “damming revelation”.
He called for an urgent independent inquiry into the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants.
Ellard said: “We still don’t know enough about this as the DWP continue to use the small print in the FoI laws to prevent disclosure of information that is in the public interest.
“We are calling for the deaths and suicides of benefit claimants to be urgently investigated by an independent authority.
“We believe that these tragic deaths are as a direct result of [Conservative work and pensions secretary] Iain Duncan Smith’s policies and we want him to be called to account.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said that if 60 people had died in a major accident there would have been “hell to pay” and a “massive inquiry”.
He said NHS figures showed a general rise in self-harm and suicide, which Black Triangle (BT) believes is connected with the effects of “cuts and austerity”.
McArdle said he would like to know how many coroners had made recommendations to DWP in the wake of inquests into benefit-related suicides and other deaths.
He said: “I think the public has a right to know whether coroners have made these recommendations to prevent similar tragedies happening again.”
DNS reported last month how DWP had repeatedly contradicted its own position on benefit-related deaths.
It originally stated, in an FoI response, that it did not hold any records on deaths linked to, or partially caused by, the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits.
Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, later told DNS that he did not “accept the premise” that DWP should collect and analyse reports of such deaths.
But the Liberal Democrat DWP minister Steve Webb appeared to contradict Harper when he said the following week that when the department becomes aware of worrying cases “they do get looked at”.
A DWP spokesman finally told DNS last month that it carries out reviews into individual cases, where it is “appropriate”.