COMMONS

Minister questioned over safeguarding vulnerable people

02 July 2020

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will face questions from MPs amid concerns about how her Department learns lessons from cases involving the deaths of vulnerable people who claim benefits.

The Committee will question Thérèse Coffey on the DWP’s response to a National Audit Office report which identified systemic weaknesses in the Department’s approach to investigating and implementing changes after serious cases, including those involving deaths by suicide.

Following publication of the report, Work and Pensions Committee Chair Stephen Timms wrote to the Secretary of State to ask what actions were being taken and how the DWP was reviewing its processes. Mr Timms warned that the report exposed ‘significant weaknesses’ in how the DWP learnt lessons from serious cases and that the DWP was ‘missing opportunities to prevent the deaths of people it serves’.

A further letter from the Chair and response from the Secretary of State have been published today.

The Secretary of State’s reply explains that the Department’s own internal review of its investigation processes will not lead to a published report. She also makes no commitment to publish information about the Serious Case Panel, set up to improve the Department’s capacity for learning lessons from cases, including its terms of reference or the recommendations it makes.

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Stephen Timms, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:

“The welfare of people who rely on the social security system ought to be one of DWP’s highest priorities. But its failure to learn lessons from tragic cases in which people lose their lives, revealed so starkly by the National Audit Office earlier this year, suggested that the Department simply wasn’t taking this seriously enough.

It is appropriate, and welcome, that the Secretary of State is now making this work a priority even in the midst of a pandemic. Her willingness to appear before the Committee is a significant step forward. But the Department seems still to be too wedded to secrecy, reluctant even to publish the terms of reference—let alone the recommendations—of a panel set up to look into its most serious failures.

Without transparency, there can be little hope of the wider public—and, most importantly, the people DWP serves—having confidence that it has really learned the lessons of the past.

The report Information held by the Department for Work & Pensions on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants published by the NAO on February 7 found that the DWP did not have robust records of contact by coroners and that staff did not always receive clear guidance on when to investigate a case.

It concluded that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that the 69 deaths by suicide investigated by the DWP in the previous six years represented the number that could have been looked into. The report also concluded that the DWP did not track findings and recommendations from its investigations and therefore did not know whether improvements had been made.

Further information

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