Tory ministers have been hauled to the Commons and launched a safeguarding review after they were accused of “incompetence or a cover-up”
MPs today demanded a full inquiry into benefit claimants’ deaths after an “independent” review into fit-for-work tests was carried out without key documents.
Tory ministers were hauled to the Commons today over a scandal one MP called “incompetence or a cover-up”.
Dr Paul Litchfield led two reviews into fit-for-work tests for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2013 and 2014.
But the Disability News Service revealed two letters from coroners – and several ‘peer reviews’ after claimants’ deaths – were not given to Dr Litchfield’s team.
The DWP now admits it would not normally have handed over the documents unless asked. And today minister Will Quince confessed: “My understanding is the documentation was not requested”.
Mr Quince revealed the DWP is now reviewing its entire safeguarding policy and has carried out 84 reviews into benefit cases since 2015, many of them suicides.
But his confession left MPs furious.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood said: “The DWP has failed disabled people again”.
She added: “Will the government now accede to the widespread calls for an independent inquiry into the way in which assessments are carried out?
“Will the government commit to an independent review into deaths of ill or disabled people when they may have been linked to DWP activity?”
Mr Quince said the DWP keeps e-mail records for just 12 months. So even if the documents were handed over, any evidence that they were will long since have been deleted.
Lib Dem welfare chief Christine Jardine said there were only two possibilities – “either it was deliberately withheld and covered up, or it was incompetence.”
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who raised today’s Urgent Question, also questioned if the documents were “deliberately withheld”.
“If they were unaware of the existence of these documents, how could they request them?” she said.
“It is deeply troubling that the department appears to have had no record of what was supplied to the reviews.”
She added: “A government’s first duty is to protect its people, all its people, but they are failing the sick and disabled. And this reveals the enormity of this failure.”
Frank Field said in the Hillsborough and tainted blood inquiries the government had to volunteer information – not wait to be asked.
The MP, who chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said: “[It’s] not for the chair of an inquiry to fish for information which would be crucial to the proper consideration of events that lead to someone’s death.”
Since 2015 the DWP has carried out 84 “internal process reviews” into individual benefit cases.
Mr Quince told MPs not all 84 reviews related to suicides of benefit claimants – but couldn’t say how many did.
He added records of these reviews are kept for six years, rather than the 12 months for other e-mail records.
Mr Quince said the DWP is currently reviewing the safeguarding guidance for staff and will report back in Autumn 2019.
“The scope of the review is considering what more we at the DWP can do to support vulnerable claimants,” he announced.
“With an emphasis on both ensuring safety and working with partners to provide necessary support.
“The review covers all areas of DWP delivery activities.”
He added: “We take the death of any disability benefits claimant very seriously indeed.
“And [we] always conduct an investigation into the circumstances where we are informed the claimant committed suicide.
“As the review contains extremely personal information, it would not be appropriate to declare which individual cases were shared with the reviewers on this occasion.”
But even this vow drew ire because he used the phrase “commit suicide”.
Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon said: “No one in the UK commits suicide. People take their own life, but the word commit relates to a crime. Suicide is not a crime in this country and hasn’t been for some time.”
Mr Quince replied: “Language is important and she was right to pull me and others across the House up for the use of that language.”