The Department for Work and Pensions has been accused of “a cover-up” after destroying reports into suicides linked to benefits being stopped.
Around 50 reviews into deaths following the loss of social security payments before 2015 have been shredded, officials have admitted – blaming data protection laws.
However, the data watchdog has said there was no requirement to destroy the reports by any particular date and that a “public interest” exemption could have been used.
The sister of Tim Salter, a benefit claimant who killed himself soon after his benefits were stopped in 2013, accused the DWP of “trying to cover up” what was happening to “vulnerable” people.
“We should be allowed to find out what happened? Why would they want to destroy them? What are they hiding?” Linda Cooksey asked.
Stephen Timms, the chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, agreed it was a possible cover-up, saying: “I’m very sympathetic with that view.
“It all underlines a lack of seriousness by the department about putting things right when they go wrong.”
Mr Timms, who said his committee would demand answers about the shredded reports, pointed out a scathing National Audit Office report had warned the DWP was unable to show it was learning lessons.
Having been “very secretive”, it was now “very reluctantly” becoming more open, he said – but “trying to keep things as hush-hush as possible – and it’s not good enough”.
On the DWP claim that data rules required the destruction of old investigations, Mr Timms said: “The law does not specify five years or six years and this kind of information should be held for longer
“In any case, the lessons learned from these reviews, there’s no reason why they should be destroyed. They should be kept and progress on implementing improvements monitored.”
Up to 49 internal reviews carried out before 2015 have been destroyed, a freedom of information response to a campaigner revealed, the BBC reported.
More than 100 have taken place over the last decade, amid growing concern over deaths linked to harsh benefit cuts and sanctions introduced by Iain Duncan Smith.
When Ms Cooksey found her brother’s body, there was no food in the house, no money in his bank account and a letter from his housing association threatening him with eviction.
Mr Salter had been left partially sighted by a previous suicide attempt and had mental health conditions – but was found fit for work and had his benefits cut back drastically nine months before his death.
This week, Labour MP Debbie Abrahams fought back tears in the Commons as she read out a list of 24 people who died after problems with their benefits.
On 69 reviews since 2015, she told ministers: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not even know the actual number of people who have taken their own life as a result of what they went through.”
In a statement, the DWP said: “We take these reviews extremely seriously and ensure cases are investigated and concluded and any lessons learned.”
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