Faced with accusations of incompetence or a cover up, a DWP minister, already branded “flippant” and forced into a Commons apology, rejected links between benefit assessments and claimant deaths.
The DWP is in frame over claims it kept key documents hidden from reviews into fitness-for-work tests.
As reported by 24housing, the DWP this week left MPs ‘short-changed’ on Universal Credit (UC) questions raised in the Commons – claiming they were too expensive to answer.
Now, in the Commons, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams directly accused the DWP of “incompetence or cover-up” over the way it handled benefit claimants’ deaths.
Abrahams referenced two independent reviews into the so-called Work Capability Assessment in 2013 and 2014, carried out by Dr Paul Litchfield.
Earlier this year, the Disability News Service revealed that two letters from coroners – along with several ‘peer reviews’ after claimants’ deaths – were not given to Dr Litchfield’s team at the time.
Abrahams wrote to ministers two months ago demanding to know if the DNS’s report was correct.
The DWP finally replied this week – saying it was “too late to know for sure” and documents may have been destroyed.
In a letter to the Abrahams, DWP minister Justin Tomlinson maintained all relevant information requested by the review team had been shared.
It was, he said, up to the reviewers, not the DWP, to decide what documents they wanted to request and the DWP would not routinely share private information on claimant cases.
Abrahams told the Commons the stance smacked of “at least incompetence, at worst of a cover-up”, when the deaths occurred just five years ago.
Raising a point of order, Abrahams said the DWP must ensure it “keeps proper records and reports” and investigate the “missing documents”.
She also demanded an “independent inquiry into all deaths linked to the government’s social security reforms”.
Deputy Commons speaker Eleanor Laing said it was a “literally” a matter of life and death.
Tomlinson’s letter confirmed the DWP carried out 84 “internal process reviews” into individual benefit cases since 2015 to investigate links to a claimant’s death.
But he said it would not be right to publish them because they contained personal information and not all related to fit-for-work tests.
“Due to the length of time since the reviews were carried out, factors such as document retention policies, organisational changes and staff turnover mean that information that might help answer these queries is no longer available,” said Tomlinson.
“Therefore, as the information is no longer held by the department, we are unable to comment on this issue any further.
He added: “The [DWP] does not hold or collect data on the reason for death for benefit claimants.
“Whilst any death is extremely distressing for the family, no causal link can be made between the likelihood of dying and the fact that someone is claiming benefits,” he said.
Tomlinson has form.
In April, 24housing reported on Tomlinson refusing to confirm how many UC, attendance allowance, and employment support allowance claimants have died within six months of seeing applications rejected.
Labour’s Madeleine Moon asked in a written Commons question to get the figure.
Tomlinson said the information requested could only be provided “at disproportionate cost”.
Moon had the same answer from Tomlinson to her follow-up question, asking how many claimants of attendance allowance, employment support allowance, and UC have died after registering those claims – but prior to DWP making a decision on those claims – and how many of those claimants applied for those social security benefits under either normal or special rules.
Again, said Tomlinson, this could only be answered at “disproportionate cost”.
Moon had a third go asking how many employment support allowance claimants who have had their application rejected under normal rules have subsequently reapplied for that social security benefit under the special rules for terminal illness process; and what medical conditions those claimants had.
This information, said Tomlinson, was “not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost”.
Moon pressed on to ask how many attendance allowance claimants who have had their application rejected under normal rules have subsequently reapplied for that social security benefit under the special rules for terminal illness process; and what medical conditions those claimants had.
Tomlinson said this information not available.
Labour’s Martin Whitfield asked how many times a request for a Statement of Reasons pertaining to the allocation of UC (limited capability to work) has not been delivered within the statutory time limit of 14 days in each of the last three years for which data is available.
“The information requested is not readily available and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost,” said Tomlinson.
The same month saw Tomlinson apologising to Parliament for errors he made during a debate on the benefits freeze – having been branded “flippant” by the Commons Work and Pensions Committee.
In a written statement, Tomlinson acknowledged “inadvertent” factual blunders over a session on maintaining the freeze for the fourth year in a row.
The previous month, Tomlinson had been singled out in a damning Work and Pensions Committee report on the benefit cap that referenced “harrowing stories” of crippling rent arrears.
That report branded Tomlinson “flippant” for saying claimants avoided the cap by renegotiating rent or taking in a lodger.