Since 2012, the Department of Work and Pensions has conducted more than 150 investigations into the deaths or serious harm caused to benefit applicants, a BBC report has found.
Additionally, the BBC investigation reports that 82 applicants died as a result of suspected DWP action such as benefit termination or reduction.
According to the study, mental health vulnerabilities played a role in the deaths of 35 of those individuals.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams has called for an independent investigation into the Department of Work and Pensions’ involvement in these deaths and the avoidable damage caused to benefit claimants.
Ms Abrahams said: “There needs to be an independent inquiry investigating why these deaths are happening and the scale of the deaths needs to be properly understood.”
Leading charities and mental health organisations, including Disability Rights UK and the mental health charity MIND, have also called for an independent inquiry.
The DWP stated in 2019 that it had formed a new Serious Case Panel to examine trends found in serious cases.
Merry Varney and Tessa Gregory of Leigh Day are representing three families impacted by the DWP reviews. The families met with the BBC to discuss their experiences and the status of their cases in the legal system.
Philippa Day, who had a long-standing mental health condition and was diabetic, died in October 2019 at the age of 27, two months after she was discovered collapsed at her Nottingham home.
On 27 January 2021, Gordon Clow, HM Assistant Coroner for Nottinghamshire, concluded that Philippa’s difficulties with her disability insurance application were “the predominant…and the only factor” that drove her to take action on 8 August 2019 that proved fatal.
Following the inquest, a letter of claim was sent to DWP and Capita alleging human rights violations and negligence on the part of DWP and Capita in connection with the events leading up to Philippa’s death and seeking justice for the wrongs suffered by Philippa and her family. DWP and Capita have three months to answer before High Court charges can be pursued.
Jodey Whiting, 42, committed suicide on February 21, 2017. She had serious mental health issues and had her benefits terminated a fortnight beforehand for failing to attend a Work Capability Assessment, leaving her with zero income.
Last year, the Attorney General consented to an appeal to the High Court for a new inquest into her death, which will be heard on 22 June 2021. Jodey’s mother has requested a new inquest to ensure that the DWP’s involvement in her daughter’s death is thoroughly investigated publicly.
Merry Varney, a Leigh Day associate, represents the families of Jodey and Philippa.
Errol Graham, 57, was discovered dead in June 2018, eight months after his benefits were terminated for failing to appear for a fit for work assessment. Mr Graham weighed four and a half stone when his body was discovered.
In 2019, an inquest determined that DWP and NHS workers had ignored chances to save Graham, and the coroner concluded that “the safety net that should have surrounded vulnerable people like Errol in our community had gaps.”
Mr Graham’s family, represented by Tessa Gregory of Leigh Day, has filed an application with the Court of Appeal following the failure of their judicial review challenging the legality of the DWP’s safeguarding policies.
The family argues that Errol’s benefits were terminated unlawfully in 2017 and that the DWP’s safeguarding procedures and processes should be overhauled to offer better security to vulnerable welfare applicants who, like Errol, suffer from mental health problems.
Ken Butler, Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser at Disability Rights UK, said: “Disabled people had their benefits cut and suffered fear and anxiety due to poor and inaccurate medical assessments carried out on behalf of the DWP by the private contractors Capita, the Independent Assessment Services (formerly called Atos) and Maximus.”