Government ministers knew back-to-work tests were hitting vulnerable hardest but took no action despite warnings.
Secret internal inquiries into the deaths of people claiming benefits reveal government ministers were warned that vulnerable claimants would suffer most.
The information is revealed in 49 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) inquiry reports, known as peer reviews, released to campaigners after the government finally gave in to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
The reviews were mostly undertaken after claimant suicides and though they do not make a direct link between benefit cuts and claimant deaths, they highlight widespread flaws that lead to vulnerable claimants experiencing trauma.
They show the DWP often failed to deal appropriately with vulnerable clients.
One report suggests that while official written policy demanded vulnerable claimants to be treated appropriately this was not implemented in practice. It says: “This case may highlight a dislocation between policy intent and what actually happens to claimants who are vulnerable.”
They have been playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and these peer reviews show that they have known this all the time - John McArdle
Another said that vulnerable claimants risked being overlooked by DWP officials, with potentially harmful consequences, because staff resources were stretched by a ministerial decision to push ahead with the speedy re-assessment of hundreds of thousands of incapacity benefit claimants.
It says: “We need to ask whether or not in the context of a fast-moving environment of high [claimant re-assessment] volumes and anticipated levels of performance, the current process requires, encourages and supports ... colleagues to independently and systematically consider claimant vulnerability.”
Work Capability Assessments (WCA), the test used to assess whether claimants are fit for work, have been at the centre of the problems. Campaigners argue the tests are flawed causing undue stress and exacerbating illness.
WCAs have since been linked to a number of deaths including poet Paul Reekie, former sheep farmer Nick Barker and ex-security guard Brian McArdle – all of whom died after being found “fit for work”.
Ministers initially denied back in 2014 that they held any records on people whose deaths may have been linked to benefits system.
However campaigners have pushed for the release of the documents and have now just received them.
John McArdle, co-founder of campaign group Black Triangle, said: “They have been playing Russian roulette with people’s lives and these peer reviews show that they have known this all the time.”
A DWP spokesman said it would be wrong to link benefit claims with deaths. “Any suicide is a tragedy and the reasons for them are complex, however it would be inaccurate and misleading to link it solely to a person’s benefit claim.”