Holes in the safety net: benefits and claimant deaths
Owen Stevens reviews DWP responses to claimant deaths.
In official and media reports, DWP actions have been associated with claimant deaths and serious incidents.1Including the cases of Stephen Carré (unpublished Rule 43 report) and Ms DE (mwcscot.org.uk/sites/default/files/2019-06/who_benefits_final.pdf), Michael O’Sullivan, Faiza Ahmed and Alexander Boamah (PFD reports available at judiciary.uk); ‘Deaths of people on benefits prompt inquiry call’, BBC News, 10 May 2021,
These cases highlight failures to follow vulnerability processes but also the inadequacy of the processes themselves, even if properly followed.
Jodey Whiting took her life after missing an employment and support allowance (ESA) work capability assessment (WCA). A coroner found no fault with the DWP, but the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) subsequently concluded that the DWP made significant errors. Reportedly, the DWP failed to pass on her home assessment request, call or visit, contact her GP, or consider mental ill health before stopping benefit. The High Court is, at the time of writing, considering an application for a fresh inquest.
Errol Graham died of starvation after missing an ESA WCA. The DWP had followed safe-guarding guidance, having attempted to visit him before stopping benefit. The coroner stated ‘the safety net that should surround vulnerable people like Errol in our society had holes within it’, but did not send a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report as the DWP had committed to reviewing its vulnerability processes.2In its first year, no dedicated business unit was responsible for this; it was not a formal review and had no terms of reference, no scoping paper or plan, no consolidated report, and there are limited handwritten records. ICE Decision Notice, IC-48363-C8Q5, 22 March 2021
Permission to appeal a High Court challenge is being sought.3Turner, R (on the application of) v SSWP  EWHC 465 (Admin) (3 March 2021)
Philippa Day died after being referred to a personal independence payment assessment, despite the DWP having been warned by her community psychiatric nurse of an overdose risk. A PFD report stated that the administration of benefits was the predominant factor affecting her decision to take an overdose.4judiciary.uk/publications/philippa-day
It also criticised the vulnerability training of staff and poor vulnerability record keeping, contributing to poor decisions. Her family is bringing a legal case against the DWP.
The National Audit Office found that 69 internal process reviews (IPRs – conducted by the DWP following serious incidents or deaths) carried out since 2014 –15 were unlikely to represent all the cases that could have been investigated.5Information Held by the Department for Work and Pensions on Deaths by Suicide of Benefit Claimants, National Audit Office, 7 February 2020
Although IPRs were the main mechanism for learning from serious cases, the DWP did not track recommendations, the implementation of improvements, or attempt to identify themes – meaning systemic issues could be missed.6The DWP had previously committed to rectifying this issue in 2017: .
A total of £36 million was allocated for 2020 –21 to improve DWP decision making and safe-guarding. To lead this, the DWP created a Service Excellence Group and, within that, a Customer Experience Directorate.
A Serious Case Panel investigates systemic issues arising from IPRs, complaints, coroners’ reports, etc. The Serious Case Panel chair updates the DWP board (including the Secretary of State) as necessary.7The DWP’s Annual Report and Accounts 2020-21, published as this article went to press, provides an update on the Serious Case Panel’s work, .
Minutes are published online.8‘[the minutes are] so brief and redacted as to be pretty much entirely unrevealing’, House of Lords, Hansard, 8 June 2021, Vol 812, col 1131
A Customer Experience and Learning team within Service Excellence provides Serious Case Panel secretariat, tracks Serious Case Panel recommendations, and has a policy-focused approach to vulnerability.
An Advanced Customer Support Senior Leaders (ACSSLs – formerly Senior Safeguarding Leaders) network will represent the DWP at local authority Adult Safeguarding Boards, lead on IPRs, provide internal expertise on vulnerability, and provide an escalation point for staff and third parties on cases involving safeguarding concerns.9Case studies involving ACSSL assistance can be submitted to .
The Advanced Customer Support Team provides ACSSLs with operational support and expertise.
An Internal Process Review Group oversees and reviews IPRs and tracks IPR recommendations.
Complaint handling was centralised, aiming for quicker resolution and enabling the DWP to gain insight into complaints.
An Equality and Accessibility team was established to improve the accessibility of DWP services.
The DWP committed to improve contact with coroners and clarify when IPRs are carried out. Priority is now given to complaints involving potential suicide, high-profile cases, vulnerable people, outstanding claims, payment-related/severe hardship, evictions/homelessness.
‘Claimant profiles’ ensure that universal credit (UC) vulnerability is recorded and the DWP hopes to develop the ability to track the experiences of claimants with specific vulnerabilities.
The DWP will implement a ‘pause’ to identify vulnerabilities and carry out a ‘case conference’ if it fails to contact (by phone and home visit) a vulnerable claimant at risk of sanction or of having benefit stopped – eg, for missing a WCA. Case conferences (which can include third parties) examine alternatives to stopping or reducing benefit. If no alternative is identified, then an ACSSL will consider whether to notify a third party, such as social services, so the case is raised with a body with responsibility for safeguarding.
The upcoming health and disability green paper may provide for independent advocates to help vulnerable claimants navigate the benefits system.
The DWP appears to have begun producing internal statistics monitoring the use of processes aimed at protecting vulnerable claimants.10The DWP now monitors the use of safeguarding visits, having previously relied on estimates. However, it appears that the DWP does not collect statistics on case conferences, ACSSL referrals, or whether benefit was stopped after a home visit.
The DWP is reviewing processes so reasonable adjustments are factored into service design and delivery.
Local authorities as a safety net?
If the DWP, having followed vulnerability processes, still plans to stop benefit, then it refers to an organisation with safeguarding responsibility. However, referrals may not always be dealt with adequately.
Roy Curtis had been admitted to hospital after missing a WCA and being told his ESA would stop. He was referred to adult social care and discharged. Benefits were reinstated and it was presumed the risk had been mitigated – a social care assessment was not completed. He was subsequently found dead. A PFD report was sent to the local authority, as the procedure responding to urgent social care referrals was bureaucratic and not afforded sufficient priority.11Safeguarding Adults Review: ‘Adult D’ September 2020 – overview report, November 2020, available at ;
Managed migration safeguards?
The UC managed migration process will require all legacy claimants to submit new claims for UC or, ultimately, have their benefits stopped. The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) raised safety concerns.12Report by the Social Security Advisory Committee: The Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) (Managed Migration) Amendment Regulations 2018, 5 October 2018
The DWP’s response stated the requirement would remain and that the DWP’s ‘focus will be on safeguarding claimants’.13DWP Response to the Social Security Advisory Committee’s Recommendations on the Universal Credit (Managed Migration) Draft Regulations 2018, 5 November 2018
The SSAC remained ‘concerned by the degree to which the safeguards in the migration process depend on the Secretary of State’s discretion and administrative practice, rather than as rights that claimants can exercise’.14SSAC Response to DWP: Universal Credit (Managed Migration) Regulations 2018, 13 December 2018
CPAG shares these concerns – especially given the serious incidents since the SSAC raised concerns and the new, and unevaluated, DWP processes.15