The Department of Work and Pensions has investigated 69 suicides of benefit claimants in the past six years and said this could be a small fraction of the total number of such deaths, a government watchdog has said.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said it is unlikely this figure represents the true number of benefit-related suicides, in part because the DWP did not until recently actively seek information from coroners and other sources about such cases.
The NAO notes that although the DWP regards the investigations as tools to improve the safety and quality of its services, it admits it has no idea whether lessons from the reviews are ever implemented.
The NAO undertook the investigation last year after the former MP Frank Field – at the time the chair of the work and pensions select committee – reported that the DWP had refused to answer his requests for information on the numbers of suicide-related deaths, saying it would be too expensive to gather the information.
Concern over deaths of vulnerable benefit claimants, often because their benefits were withdrawn, leaving them stressed and penniless, has been growing in recent months. Of nine such cases known to the Guardian, suicide was identified as the formal cause of death.
Last week the Guardian reported the death by starvation in 2018 of Errol Graham, a 57-year-old Nottingham grandfather with a history of mental illness. Graham died months after his benefits were cut off after he failed to attend a fit-for-work test.
The watchdog’s report published on Friday reveals that 69 internal process reviews (IPRs) into claimant suicides where “alleged department activity” may have contributed to the claimant’s death have been completed by the DWP since 2014-15.
Of these almost a third were carried out in a seven-month period between April and November last year, reflecting a more proactive approach from the department in recent months. “This is partly a result of investigating more cases where information received from the media was the trigger [for the investigation].”
However, because there was no clear route for such cases to be communicated to the department, and because there was confusion internally as to whether a case should be investigated, some cases will have slipped under the radar, the NAO says.
“It is highly unlikely that the 69 cases the department has investigated represents the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years,” it concludes.
The IPRs apparently do not come to a judgment as to whether benefits-related issues were the cause of the suicide, but instead scrutinise departmental processes and “identify recommendations for change to the customer journey”, which are then in theory passed on to frontline teams.
However, the NAO notes there was no systematic tracking or monitoring of the lessons that emerge from the IPRs. “As a result, the department does not know whether the suggested improvements are implemented.”
The DWP does not seek to identify wider trends that emerge from across the IPR reports, the NAO notes, and the reports themselves are restricted internally. This means “systemic issues which might be brought to light through these reviews could be missed”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “Suicide is a devastating and complex issue. We take these matters and the NAO’s findings extremely seriously. We are urgently working to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from these tragic cases. We will now carefully consider the NAO’s findings as part of our ongoing work.”
Field, no longer an MP since December’s general election, told the Guardian: “This report presents a catastrophic situation for vulnerable claimants and their families. What we need now is a full investigation into the DWP’s processes, and for the necessary changes to be made, so that nobody is ever put into this situation again.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.