DWP could be forced to publish secret details of benefit claimant suicides

The Government had previously refused to make public details of the 49 cases the department had investigated where benefit claimants had killed themselves

DWP Secretary Stephen Crabb
DWP Secretary Stephen Crabb

Secret Government investigations into the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants may have to be partly published, after Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) lost a legal appeal.

A Freedom of Information tribunal ruled that the DWP was wrong to refuse to hand over any details of the 49 cases the department had investigated where benefit claimants had killed themselves or died after cuts to their financial support.

The decision by the first-tier information rights tribunal will mean that, pending any appeal by the DWP, the Government will be forced to hand over details of the investigations that do not directly relate to those who died.

John Pring, of the Disability News Service which pursued the court challenge, said the data was crucial in order to hold the DWP to account over deaths linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of benefits and fit-for-work tests.

It is expected to show whether the department has implemented changes to its procedures to avoid such deaths happening again.

“It is good news and hopefully will allow us to hold DWP to account for actions they have taken with regard to benefit deaths,” said Mr Pring.

But he added it was unclear what the records would show, because any findings or lessons to be learned relating to “a particular person” in the reviews would be exempt under the Social Security Administrations Act.

Andrew Bartlett, QC, the tribunal judge who led the three-person tribunal panel, said in the ruling: “We express the hope that DWP will revisit Mr Pring’s information request in the light of our decision to allow the appeal and set aside the [information commissioner’s] decision notice and, under the oversight of the commissioner, disclose what should have been disclosed in answer to his request.”

Linda Cooksey, who battled for two years to get information from the DWP in the case of her partially sighted brother, Tim Salter, who killed himself after being judged fit for work welcomed the news.

“It’s been a very long, drawn-out process to get any information at all. You have to keep going, to keep pushing, to keep writing letters,” she told The Guardian.

She received an apology from the DWP this year after a health service ombudsman partially upheld her complaint over the case of her brother, who died in September 2013.

Ms Cooksey said she has still not seen her brother’s peer review, but believes all 49 secret investigations should be published, so that lessons could be learned and other families helped to come to terms with what had happened.

“It could help other families and stop it happening again,” she said.

Anita Bellows, of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The department’s culture of secrecy means that mistakes were and are covered up, and not rectified. DWP always maintained that these peer reviews only dealt with DWP procedures compliance and were not a forensic examination of what went wrong. Therefore they are unlikely to have led to major improvements in the way claimants are treated, but they can offer us a very useful insight into the way the DWP works, or not.”

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