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DWP and assessors fail to refer claimants at risk of harm to social services, research finds

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and its private sector contractors have been failing for years to alert local authorities to concerns about benefit claimants whose safety was at risk, “shocking” new research has shown.

Years of previous research have shown how government social security reforms have often caused serious harm to disabled people claiming benefits, or even led to their deaths.

But only 25 of 80 council social services departments across England, Scotland and Wales said they had received a single safeguarding alert from DWP over the last three years, freedom of information (FoI) responses have shown.

The record of DWP’s three private sector outsourcing companies was even worse, with Maximus – which carries out work capability assessments (WCAs) on behalf of the department – failing to make a single safeguarding referral to any of the 80 social services departments.

Atos and Capita – which both assess claimants for person independence payment (PIP) – made just two referrals each over three years.

The FoI requests were submitted by disabled campaigner and former safeguarding expert Mike Owen, who has become increasingly concerned about the failure of staff working for DWP and its contractors to alert local social services departments when a benefit claimant’s safety is at risk.

He said he was “deeply shocked” by the figures, which showed “a massive failure” by DWP to support people in vulnerable situations.

Owen said the figures showed yet again the need for an independent inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of claimants, and for any evidence of criminal misconduct to be passed to the police, as called for by the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*.

He said: “My research shows the clear need for an inquiry to take place due to the levels of which both the Department for Work and Pensions and its outsourced private assessment providers have ignored serious concerns raised by the claimants and medical professionals about their health and wellbeing.”

He highlighted the case of Stephen Smith, who died last week, months after he was found fit for work by DWP, despite being in hospital with such severe health problems that his weight had fallen to six stone.

The Liverpool Echo revealed this week that DWP had ignored two separate doctors’ letters about Smith’s serious health problems.

Owen decided to carry out his research mainly because of the injustice he faced when disclosing to DWP that he was a survivor of child sexual exploitation and was experiencing significant mental health issues because of that trauma.

He said he had been told by DWP that “sensitive” issues like his are not passed on to assessment providers, which he said can mean that the companies are not aware of the need to make certain adjustments to ensure their safety.

One DWP PIP manager even told him: “Safeguarding is not my responsibility.”

But DWP’s own internal guidance says that if a claimant who is at greater than normal risk of abuse or neglect “faces clear and significant risks to their welfare or safety”, such as the risk of injury, ill-treatment, abuse, neglect or exploitation, staff should “take any reasonable steps which [they] feel are necessary in order to address these risks… without any undue delay”.

The guidance adds: “You should volunteer information which is directly relevant to the issue of concern to Social Services, Social Work Department in Scotland or the police, as appropriate, without the customer’s or individual’s consent.”

But of the 80 local authorities that sent Owen figures for the whole three-year period he requested, only 25 said they had received any referrals from DWP between January 2016 and January 2019.

In total, there were just 111 DWP referrals in three years across the 25 councils, with 17 of them being sent to one Scottish local authority – North Ayrshire – 15 to Staffordshire County Council, and 11 to Newcastle City Council.

So far, more than 50 other councils have been unable to comply with Owen’s FoI request in full or in part.

Owen’s research is just the latest evidence of the failure of government ministers to ensure the safety of benefit claimants over the last decade.

In March, the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition* was launched, calling for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP failings, and for the department to “urgently change its policies and administration of social security benefits to make the safety of all claimants a priority”.

The petition has so far secured nearly 38,000 signatures, and needs to reach 100,000 to be considered for a House of Commons debate.

In January, Disability News Service (DNS) revealed how ministers had failed to include DWP in a new cross-government plan aimed at reducing suicides, despite years of evidence linking such deaths with the disability benefits system and social security reforms.

The following month, Owen told DNS how he had been informed by a senior Maximus executive that the company did not have a safeguarding policy, nearly four years after taking on the WCA contract, although it claimed it was in the process of creating one.

In February, the Independent Case Examiner found that DWP had failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to the suicide of Jodey Whiting, a disabled woman with a long history of mental distress who had had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a WCA, and took her own life just 15 days later.

And last month, DNS revealed how DWP destroyed a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres, preventing it being released under freedom of information laws.

This week, DWP denied that Owen’s research suggested that it was failing to ensure the safety of the disabled people it assessed for disability benefits or that it needed to take urgent action to guarantee this safety.

But a DWP spokesperson admitted that the department kept no central record of how many safeguarding referrals were made, because they were “made locally by staff on a case by case basis”.

He said the department did not know how or if each council recorded its data and therefore the FoI responses could not be an accurate portrayal of when referrals were made.

He said: “We have clear guidance on making referrals to local authorities for all DWP staff dealing with claimants, to ensure vulnerable claimants get the support they need, however we cannot control how or if local authorities record these.

“It would not be accurate therefore to compare responses from councils on the number of recorded referrals, to those actually made by the department.”

Atos refused to say why it had made so few safeguarding referrals to local authorities, and whether the figures suggested the company was failing to ensure the safety of the disabled people it assessed.

But an Atos spokesperson said in a statement: “We take the safety of claimants seriously and follow DWP guidance to alert their GP to any concerns we identify.”

Maximus also refused to answer the questions or say whether its failings were connected with the company’s previous failure to have a written safeguarding policy in relation to the disabled people it assessed for benefits.

A Maximus spokesperson said in a statement: “We have always trained our staff to identify safeguarding issues, and all concerns are referred to the customer’s GP or the appropriate authorities.”

Capita refused to comment.

Owen said he was shocked by these responses, and added: “It is highly inappropriate for the private assessment providers to refer safeguarding concerns to the claimants’ GPs because it could delay any safeguarding needs that need to be urgently met.”

And he said he was pleased DWP had admitted not recording safeguarding referrals centrally because that was one of the measures that needed to be introduced.

*To sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, click on this link. If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

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