Duty of Care and the DWP

The recent inquest into the tragic death of Philippa Day has once again, shown the inadequacies and cruelty of a benefits system that damages the mental health of claimants.

The disability benefits system engenders a culture of systemic disbelief towards claimants, creating a hostile environment towards the very people it is supposed to support. Reports of claimants who complete suicide or starve to death as a result of traumatic assessments or benefit sanctions do not appear to have prompted any change in policy or procedure by successive ministers in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

In October 2020 the current post holder Therese Coffey, even told a told a committee of MPs that the DWP had: ‘no duty of care or statutory safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable claimants’.

Is it really the case that DWP officials, talking to a benefit claimant, who was clearly desperate and crying, saying the she cannot survive, have no responsibility towards that person?

The DWP makes it extremely difficult to find out information on its policies and procedures. Occasionally, it is possible to find out a snippet of information which appears to indicate that Ms Coffey may not be correct in her assertion.

In 2016 John Pring of Disability News Service won a long legal battle against the DWP who had previously refused to supply redacted information from IPRs (Internal Peer Reviews) of cases where claimants had died.

The following are some brief excerpts from the forty eight IPRs

Document 01 is headed ‘Failure to identify vulnerable claimant’.

Section 2 of the document reads: ‘Consider reviewing the ESA process to aid identification of Vulnerable Customers.’

Document 06’s heading includes ‘failure to provide vulnerability ‘flag’ on IT system.’

In Section 12 of the document, it is noted that: ‘The potential appears to exist for colleagues who are managing claimants through the national IBR (Incapacity Benefit Review) Process to do so with minimal reference to the plentiful Guidance and advice on the importance of engaging correctly with vulnerable claimants.’

The Recommendations include:

  1. ‘A review is undertaken of DWP’s ongoing Duty of Care in relation to the identification and support of claimants required to participate in the IBR Process, who as a result of a (REDACTED) may be vulnerable and have different or additional support needs.’
  2. When defined, the Duty of Care should be brought to the attention of all colleagues, including those from Atos (who at that time were the external contractor for face-to-face assessments)

Document 17 is headed ‘Failure to follow six-point plan for claimant with suicidal ideation.’

Recommendations include: Remind staff about the Six Point Plan

Document 46 is headed: ‘Failure to properly support vulnerable claimants…’

The list of recommendations begins with: ‘That the guidance for handling vulnerable customers is reviewed and that staff are reminded of the correct process.’

By using the website What do they know, which is a repository for Freedom of Information requests, I was able to access some of the documents mentioned.

In 2015 a Nick Easton made an FOI request to the DWP asking for their Vulnerability Guidance’. Whilst the guidance does not contain the words ‘Duty of Care’, sections 36 and 37 include references to the ‘Vulnerability Hub (previously known as the Vulnerable Customer Hub) is a DWP intranet site, designed to bring together existing information and guidance (a one stop shop of information), to help support individuals with complex needs, and those who require additional support.’ In section 38 there is mention of policy and guidance being available for how to handle (sic) individuals who make a declaration of suicide or self harm.

In January 2016 a Linda Saunders made an FOI request to the DWP asking for: ‘A list of the documents available on the Vulnerability Hub, the DWP information relating to claimants with complex needs / additional support. Please give a copy of the mini guides on Life events and Personal Circumstances, and the Hidden Impairments Toolkit.’ The request was refused on the grounds that the DWP believed that the person making the application had used a false name. Ms Saunders subsequently uploaded a copy of the DWP Hidden Impairments guidance to the What do they know’ website.

This document focuses solely on neurodivergent conditions such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, dyslexia, etc. There is no information anywhere in the document that explains the mental health distress that many people with these conditions experience. There is no mention of swimming, meltdowns, sensory overload, or of people closing down. The focus is solely on cognitive difficulties.

Previously in July 2016 Margaret Greenwood, Shadow Secretary of State for the DWP asked the then Secretary of State for the DWP, Stephen Crabb, to ‘publish the internal guidance that his Department issues to staff on the safeguards that those staff must observe when consideration is being given to (a) suspend or withhold payment, (b) impose a sanction or (c) terminate a claim in the case of a claimant of universal credit who has a mental health condition.” The Minister declined to do so.

In September 2018 a John Slater made a similar FOI request and received several documents, including Vulnerability Guidance.

This eleven page document appears to be guidance for Job Centre Plus staff. Section 5 contains the department’s rationale on vulnerability: ‘DWP has developed the DWP approach to vulnerability to support the Social Justice principles and there is a range of policies and procedures in place to help these individuals with difficult personal circumstances and/or life events (multiple disadvantages) access benefits and use our services.’ There is no mention anywhere in the document of mental illness or mental health distress. There is just one line stating that ‘Suicide and/or Self Harm Declaration’ is one of the Life Circumstances that may lead to vulnerability.

In 2017 the DWP published a two-page guidance on Claimant suicide or self-harm – DWP 6 Point Plan Framework, containing a very abbreviated 6 point plan and references other DWP guidance. Part of this is likely to be a document published six years earlier called ‘Managing Customers Suicide and Self Harm Declarations.’

At twenty pages long, it has a much fuller description of the Six Point Plan. It references the Jobcentre Plus staff having access to regional psychologists and there being Mental Health Co-ordinators whose role appears to focus on ‘Influencing local partners to consider whether the help currently available for those with mental health conditions satisfies local needs and encourage them to address any gaps or shortfall in provision.’

One of the most disturbing aspects of this document is a statement on page 4 saying: ‘It is a mistake to assume that suicide and mental illness are always closely linked, they are not. This is a dangerous fallacy. Mental Health First Aid England, which trains people to become Mental Health First Aiders via a network of trainers, quotes evidence to show that there are strong links between suicide and mental ill health. In their two-day Adult course they quote research from 2004 showing that ‘83.7% of people who attempt/die by suicide have a mental health condition, but not all are diagnosed.

It is clear from the documents released, that the DWP does have a Duty of Care towards claimants. That they have policies covering threatened self harm / suicide and have documentation relating to vulnerable claimants and those with hidden disabilities. Even though those documents are in many instances missing vital information or are woefully incomplete and in one instance factually incorrect, that does not remove responsibility for action when a claimant is distressed.

In his 2018 report the UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston “British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping, and elevate the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest economic levels of British society.”

His words ring true and mirror the experiences of every disabled person I have spoken to about claiming benefits.

The continued denial of a responsibility towards claimants by the DWP must be challenged. If government ministers cannot be held to account in the House of Commons, a legal challenge should be the next step.

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