Campaigners have warned that a panel set up by the Department for Work and Pensions to investigate safeguarding failures risks becoming a "whitewash" because of a lack of independence and transparency.
The department has come under fire after saying a Serious Case Panel would investigate circumstances around the death of Errol Graham in 2018, eight months after his benefits were stopped. A coroner last month concluded Graham had died of starvation.
Last week a DWP spokesperson said of Graham's death: “This is a tragic, complex case… We take this very seriously and have referred this to our Serious Case Panel, which includes independent members to help scrutinise and establish any lessons."
It later admitted the panel is comprised of civil servants and led by a director. Panel members "will be independent of the case, not necessarily the department", they said.
The comments appear to be the first time the department has referred publicly to the panel, which appears to have been set up within the last five months. Last September's Spending Round included £36m “to “ensure DWP decision-making is accurate and the application processes are straightforward and accessible, as well as improving safeguarding by creating a new independent Serious Case Panel”.
No further details about the panel have been published, and the department has refused to answer further questions about how it works.
Responding to a series of questions from CSW about the group's remit, the appointment process for members and any oversight mechanisms in place, a DWP spokesperson said the department had "nothing further to add at this stage".
Campaigners called on the DWP to t improve transparency by publishing information about the panel's work and allowing its reports to be made public. This information must be used to ensure the panel is truly independent of the department – and if it is not, to replace it with an independent panel, they said.
Ayaz Manji, senior policy and campaigns officer at the mental health charity Mind, said the news of Graham's death "has again shown the dire need for independent regulation".
DWP stopped Graham’s Employment Support Allowance cut in October 2017 after he did not attend a fit-for-work test. When his body was discovered by bailiffs in June 2018, the 57-year-old weighed less than five stone and there was almost no food left in his house. Graham.
Assistant coroner Elizabeth Didcock said the “‘safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it”.
The department said it had tried to contact Graham, who suffered from severe anxiety, several times.
But Didcock said: “He needed the DWP to obtain more evidence [from his GP] at the time his ESA was stopped, to make a more informed decision about him, particularly following the failed safeguarding visits.”
Manji said DWP had a “moral responsibility” to put stronger safeguards in place to prevent similar cases happening again, and that the Serious Case Panel “could be an opportunity to do that”.
“But if it’s going to meaningfully change things then it needs to be properly independent and capable of holding the DWP to account," he said.
The department must appoint independent safeguarding and medical experts, including those who have worked with vulnerable adults, to the panel and "involve families and loved ones openly in its investigations", he said.
"And it means working transparently by publishing reports which outline any systematic failings it uncovers and its recommendations for change.
Anita Bellows, a researcher for the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts, said more information about the scope of the panel was needed in order to know if it was fit for purpose.
"Once we know the terms of reference of the panel, we will know whether DWP is really serious about identifying the flaws in the system, or whether it is only looking at these serious cases solely through the prism of 'safeguarding measures', meaning whether DWP would look to tighten the safeguarding measures rather than looking at the policies and systemic failures," she told CSW.
"An internal review won't look at policies and their impact on claimants, so it is the wrong approach. It needs to be independent with a broader remit
"Without this broad approach, it will be seen as a whitewash."
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving our services, especially to the most vulnerable, which is why we have set up a Serious Case Panel."