The Department for Work and Pensions is facing renewed calls for an independent review into its handling of benefit claims that have been linked to deaths by suicide, as the department revealed plans for a suite of internal measures to improve its processes.
Former Work and Pensions Committee chair Frank Field called for a “full investigation into the DWP’s processes” after the National Audit Office revealed at least 69 suicides have been linked to the department’s handling of benefits claims since 2014-15.
The NAO investigation into the information DWP collects on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants found that the department has internally reviewed 69 cases in which “alleged department activity” may have been among the reasons for such death. However, it said gaps in reporting meant the actual figure was likely to be higher.
It said the department did not seek to draw trends from the findings of internal reviews, meaning that “systemic issues which might be brought to light through these reviews could be missed”.
The review is among a suite of internal mechanisms DWP is developing to identify and tackle systemic problems in its work, and improve the way it investigates and "learns lessons from its customers’ experiences".
DWP told the NAO that its review will look at how its Internal Process Reviews are used to improve processes and prevent harm in future, across three areas – identification of cases, improving the analysis of recommendations, and better prevention.
It will look at how to improve analysis of the reviews “to ensure that the department is aware of any systemic themes and issues, and is able to act to put in place effective corresponding improvements”.
And it will also look at how staff decide whether to carry out an reviews in the first place. It will improve internal guidance and communication “to ensure staff are aware of and understand the processes for reporting a suicide”, the NAO said.
The watchdog noted that DWP guidance has “not always been clear” on when cases should be investigated, and not all its staff were even aware of the guidance.
The review will be led by a new unit that has been set up within DWP to “improve the department’s approaches to identifying, investigating and learning lessons from customers’ experiences; and to ensure lessons are fed back into improvement processes”, the NAO report said.
Among other things, the unit will also be tasked with improving the coroner’s focal point – a mechanism put in place in 2016 to improve communication with coroners, including about suicide cases.
It will also be responsible for the serious case panel DWP has established in recent months, which it said would “consider the most serious systemic issues” identified in internal reviews and by the Independent Case Examiner.
“The panel will make recommendations to the department and help to assign accountability at the most senior levels in the organisation for ensuring sustainable improvements are implemented,” the NAO said.
“In doing so, the department aims to focus on learning how to avoid similar issues in the future.”
This is the first information about the panel’s remit that has been published. DWP has so far refused to answer queries from CSW and others about the panel’s scope, purpose and members.
‘We need a full investigation’
The NAO launched its investigation at the request of Frank Field, then Work and Pensions Committee chair, last year, after Field said DWP had refused to share statistics on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants.
Responding to the report, Field said the report “presents a catastrophic situation for vulnerable claimants and their families”.
“What we need now is a full investigation into the DWP’s processes, and for the necessary changes to be made, so that nobody is ever put into this situation again.”
Shadow minister for disabled people Marsha De Cordova echoed the call, saying: “This is heart breaking, and families who have been affected deserve answers and all the support we can give them.”
"The government must immediately establish a broader independent inquiry into deaths related to social security," she said.
The comments come after campaigners told CSW last week that DWP must allow independent scrutiny of cases where the department's actions may have caused people hardship, warning that the serious case panel could otherwise become a "whitewash".
Field had contacted the NAO after DWP turned down his request for statistics about inquests relating to benefits claimants who had ended their lives by suicide, and their findings. DWP told Field in September that the information was “not held centrally” and would therefore be too expensive to locate.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Suicide is a devastating and complex issue. We take these matters and the NAO's findings extremely seriously.
"We are urgently working to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from these tragic cases.
"We will now carefully consider the NAO’s findings as part of our ongoing work."