Is the DWP reviewing a link between suicides and welfare reform?

6 May 2015
What was claimed

The Department for Work and Pensions is or isn't carrying out a review of 60 suicides linked to benefits.

Our verdict

The DWP has carried out internal 'Peer Reviews' in 40 individual cases since February 2012 after the suicide or apparent suicide of a customer.

"We've got 60 people who have committed suicide and their suicides are linked to benefits [...] the Department of Work and Pensions is supposed to be reviewing 60 cases where people have committed suicide"—Jonathan Bartley, Green Party Work and Pensions spokesperson, 5 May 2015

"No, we have not carried out a review [...] you cannot make allegations about individual cases, in tragic cases where obviously things go badly wrong, you can't suddenly say this is directly as a result of government policy"—Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, 5 May 2015

Yesterday's Daily Politics welfare debate became heated when the Green Party's Jonathan Bartley raised the sensitive issue of suicides linked to welfare reform. Iain Duncan Smith dismissed the allegation of a link between changes to benefits and people taking their own lives as "scurrilous" and "cheap", denying the existence of a review into 60 such cases.

We can't say anything on the causal link between individual suicides and the government's welfare policy. But surely only one of the politicians can be right about the existence of a review: either it has happened or it hasn't?

Well, as is so often the case, there's more to it than that. It depends on what you mean by "a review".

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) carries out internal 'Peer Reviews' to ensure that its standards have been followed and to suggest improvements to how it does things. It stresses that "Peer Reviews are a continuous improvement tool and are not to be used to seek out or apportion blame". A minister has described the Peer Review process as asking the question "was everything that we did... right?" and helping to "ensure that we follow all of our processes correctly".

DWP guidance says that "where suicide is associated with DWP activity, a Peer Review must be undertaken".

There have been a number of Freedom of Information requests on this subject. The figure of 60 deaths (although not necessarily suicides) being reviewed appears in one of DWP's replies, from November 2014.

But in February 2015, the DWP said that this was an error, and "in fact only 49 of these reviews had been conducted in circumstances where the claimant had died". Of these, 40 were "following a suicide or apparent suicide".

33 of the reviews into deaths contained recommendations for either local DWP offices or national attention.

This figure only accounts for Peer Reviews from February 2012 onward—national records on Peer Reviews weren't kept before then.

The Conservative Party has told us that Mr Duncan Smith was referring specifically to the lack of "an overall review of any causality or anything that encompasses all of the 60 cases, other than the standard practice [of Peer Reviews]."

None of these Peer Reviews have been published. The DWP has given two reasons why it's not obliged to publish them under the Freedom of Information Act. These boil down to the fact that these reviews contain sensitive personal information, and the argument that disclosing them would prevent the authors of Peer Reviews from writing as candidly as they otherwise would—making them less useful internally.

The Disability News Service says that it has reported a concern about this interpretation of the law with the Information Commissioner's Office, which has the power to overrule the DWP.

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