The DWP has defended itself as “following policy” over its treatment of a man denied benefits despite being seriously ill and weighing 38kg (6st) before his death.
This defensive response came from the top, with Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd admitting crucial safeguarding opportunities were missed.
A subsequent review had, she said: “Identified areas where we need to change our policy.”
Frank Field MP, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said the response treated loss of life like a “package that got lost” within the DWP.
“It sums up much of what’s wrong with the DWP – which is apparently very short on human sympathy,” Field said.
The DWP has also dismissed official complaints from disabled charities over the heavily criticised series of unmarked adverts promoting Universal Credit (UC).
There was, the DWP said, no proof those responding to survey relating to UC struggles experienced by disabled claimants had ever received UC.
Rudd ordered an internal review over the death of Stephen Smith, deemed fit for work despite a range of debilitating illnesses including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis and an enlarged prostate.
He also used a colostomy bag.
Smith’s death made headlines in April, months after he was forced to get a pass to leave hospital to fight a decision by the DWP to deny him crucial benefits.
Barely able to walk, Smith was deemed fit for work after a work capability assessment in 2017, which meant his employment support allowance (ESA) payments were stopped.
In February, the government overturned the decision and agreed to pay back approximately £4,000 in wrongly denied benefits to Smith – instead, the sum was used to cover the cost of his funeral.
After his death, it emerged the DWP effectively ignored two letters from two different doctors, one of which stated Smith “could not mobilise a distance of 20 metres repeatedly without needing to stop due to pain and breathlessness”.
Amid widespread condemnation of the DWP’s treatment of Smith, Field wrote to Rudd calling for an official inquiry into the case.
Rudd refused to grant a full inquiry and instead ordered the internal review.
Writing to Field to reveal its results, Rudd said: “Whilst the policy guidance was followed in Mr Smith’s case, there were crucial safeguarding opportunities which were missed by the department. The review has identified areas where we need to change our policy and we will be implementing these changes to ensure our most vulnerable claimants are protected.
“The department will be working at pace to ensure that these are embedded and that vulnerable claimants are receiving the best possible support from the department. I am adamant that we will learn important lessons from this tragic case and make changes to protect people like Mr Smith in future.”
Intended changes outlined by Rudd included improving awareness of how changes to benefit entitlement could affect other benefits in payment or under appeal and “identifying other trigger points for information sharing between benefit lines to improve, join up and provide more holistic support”.
Meantime, disability charities have lodged an official complaint over the DWP’s UC adverts in the Metro newspaper – pitched as a ‘myth-busting’ but unattributed to the DWP.
The ads purportedly answered questions on delays to payments, paying rent and sanctions.
They were slammed as “embarrassing” by charities, who called for the money spent on the ads to be used to help claimants.
The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) – a coalition of more than 80 disability charities – has submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about the “deliberately misleading” ads.
A survey of almost 500 disabled people by the DBC found that, while 70% struggle to pay for food under UC, 85% had seen their health worsen since being moved to or starting on the benefit.
One respondent said: “I have considered suicide frequently. I’m not sure I can cope with this forever. The DWP are basically killing me.”
Anastasia Berry, policy manager at the MS Society and policy co-chair at the DBC, said: “These adverts masquerading as facts in a national newspaper are seriously damaging.
“The DWP says that claimants can get an advance of their benefits to help them, but it’s really just a glorified loan – and one that must be paid back over mere months.
“The omission of this fact is a major cause for concern and, coupled with everything else, points to a serious ignorance from the DWP.”
But a spokesperson for the DWP said there was “no proof” those responding to the DBC survey had ever received UC.
The DWP has said it consulted the Advertising Standards Authority before launching the ads which “reflected their advice”.