DWP either ‘incompetent’ or ‘covering up’ claimant death emails, MP claims

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) will be viewed as being “incompetent” or as having “covered up” its handling of emails relating to claimant deaths, an MP has claimed.

Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) echoed calls from Labour for an independent inquiry to look at the department’s data retention policies.

Work and Pensions minister Will Quince said every death is investigated by a coroner which “is an independent investigation”.

Ms Jardine (pictured) added: “To the public and those affected it will seem that there can be only two acceptable or reasonable reasons which are either that it was deliberately withheld or covered up – or it was incompetence.

“In order to get to the bottom of this and to reassure the public will the minister give those today who are asking for that inquiry be given the assurance it will do everything it possibly can to get to the bottom of this?”

Mr Quince replied: “What I would say is that in cases of this nature our enquires and investigations nearly always go alongside a coroner’s investigation.

“So it is important to say that there is already that independent investigation and we do work very closely and supply information as required by a coroner’s court.”

Earlier, Labour MP Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) called for clarity on what documents on social security claimant deaths are held by the Department for Work and Pensions.

She said some documents may have been “deliberately withheld” from independent reviewers.

Responding to Ms Abrahams urgent question in the Commons, Mr Quince said: “All these documents are kept for six years from the date of the final report.

“In October 2015, we moved from conducting peer reviews to internal process reviews.

“This change means we now hold more information, including the original commission, all emails relating to the case, the final report, and any recommendations resulting from the internal review process.”

He said the DWP had “fully co-operated with the reviews and shared all relevant information as requested”.

Ms Abrahams said: “It begs the question of whether the department’s record-keeping systems are fit for purpose, or whether these documents were deliberately withheld.”

She added: “We are talking about the circumstances of people’s deaths.

“A government’s first duty is to protect its people, all its people.

“But they are failing the sick and disabled, and this reveals the enormity of this failure.”

Mr Quince replied: “The department takes the death of any claimant extremely seriously and always conducts an investigation into the circumstances.

“The department is continually working to improve its safeguarding practices working with partner agencies and local government, and the department is presently undertaking a review of the departmental safeguarding policy and guidance available to staff, and will report in the autumn of 2019.”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood said it was “deeply shocking” that the Department for Work and Pensions had not kept documents relating to the deaths of people relating to the department’s processes.

Ms Greenwood said freedom of information requests showed that these documents were not handed to those carrying out the statutory review of work capability assessments.

She said: “The minister’s letter in response to the member of Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) said that the documents have not been kept for a range of reasons including document retention policies, organisational changes and staff turnover.

“That bureaucratic language is wholly out of keeping with the pain that families and friends affected by the death of a loved one feel.”

Mr Quince said he was “disappointed” with his opposite number’s line of questioning.

He said: “As I have said twice already we take incredibly seriously the death of any claimant and we always conduct an investigation into the circumstances.”

Mr Quince added: “We have shared outcomes and lessons learned and we would have shared further information with the independent reviewers but as I said my understanding is they were not requested.”

Tory MP Philip Hollobone (Kettering) said he was “surprised that such a short time period” was required before emails were deleted.

He also asked how many of the 84 “independent process reviews” of claimant deaths were related to suicides.

Responding, Mr Quince said: “We don’t know in terms of the number of suicides compared to the overall number of cases that are investigated under the internal review process.

“We do carry those out for a number of reasons as I said.

“Under the previous system, we didn’t hold emails going back over 12 months under the independent review process.

“Under the peer review process, we do hold that information for six years.”

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