Under a Labour government, the DWP and its contractors would face an independent inquiry into claimant deaths – forcing answers the DWP claims it can’t afford to confirm.
Work done by the Disability News Service (DNS) prompted the party to meet the demands of the Justice for Jodey Whiting parliamentary petition and its 55,000 plus signatures calling for such an inquiry.
A case is also to be made for criminal investigations should the evidence suggest so.
Labour already intends to scrap Universal Credit and replace it with “an alternative system that treats people with dignity and respect”.
24housing recently revealed the National Audit Office (NAO) as ready to investigate the DWP’s monitoring of claimant suicides – monitoring that the DWP claims it costs too much to do.
Then, Frank Field MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, wrote to the NAO saying he “struggled to believe” that, given the time it must take to put together evidence for inquests, attend court hearings, and internally review the decisions, the DWP had no record of claimant suicides available.
The DWP could face a Work and Pensions Committee investigation into how a false advertising campaign purportedly promoting Universal Credit was sanctioned and signed off by the department’s senior management.
This campaign was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that the DWP said it had the support of.
Although the inquiry pledge was not included in the Labour manifesto, the DNS reports that an independent inquiry would take place if Labour won power, and that it would cover the period from the introduction of Universal Credit in April 2013 to the end of this year.
The manifesto did reference the “cruelty and heartlessness of the Tories” as making the DWP a “symbol of fear”.
It said: “When people feel the DWP is more about harassment than a helping hand, something has gone seriously wrong.”
Labour plans to replace the DWP with a new Department for Social Security that would “be there to help and support people, not punish and police them”.
There is also an intention to scrap the “dehumanising work capability and [personal independence payment] assessments, which repeatedly and falsely find ill or disabled people fit to work” and ensure instead that all assessments are carried out in house.
In April this year, Labour’s shadow minister for the disabled people, Marsha de Cordova, accused the DWP of being “its own judge and jury”.
The DNS has published an article making the case for a criminal investigation into the actions of DWP ministers and senior management.
Labour has told DNS that it will set up a serious case review panel to look at future deaths linked to benefits processes and cases that have caused claimants serious harm, similar to the serious case reviews already undertaken following deaths or serious harm caused to children or adults at risk of abuse.
In addressing “years of secrecy” of claimant deaths, the inquiry would have terms of reference set out by public consultation – with input from disability rights campaigners and communities of disabled people.
In October, the DWP said it cost too much to confirm costs related to claimant suicides.
Responding to a written Commons question from Frank Field, DWP minister Justin Tomlinson said: “The information requested is not held centrally and is therefore unavailable without incurring a disproportionate cost.”
In July, the Work and Pensions Committee branded Universal Credit among the worst examples of welfare reform “in the history of humankind”, saying the application process alone should come with a health warning.
The DWP has repeated brushed off the raising of links between welfare reform and suicide, claiming causes are “complex” and citing survey analysis.
Earlier this year, then DWP minister Sarah Newton said in the Commons that MPs should be “careful” before making such allegations.
“Virtually every time I come into this House…people make allegations about the causal link between people being on benefits and them tragically taking their lives,” she said.
Activists such as the Black Triangle Campaign have amassed dozens of individual claims of benefit claimants’ suicides since the Tories took power in 2010.
Disability campaigners also march with a banner listing names of people who “died due to sanctions and benefit cuts”.