Cross-party MP letter to Stop Benefit Deaths
13 October 2022
Four opposition parties have written to Chloe Smith, the new Work and Pensions Secretary calling for a public inquiry into suicides and serious harm linked to the benefits system. The letter is signed by MPs representing the Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.
Dear Secretary of State,
Re: public inquiry into serious harm and deaths related to the social security system
Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at such a critical time. The huge financial strain that many households are under means that it is more important than ever that the benefit system is safe and supportive for everyone who needs it. We are therefore writing to you as opposition work and pensions spokespeople to urge you to establish public inquiry into serious harm and deaths linked to the social security system and to improve the way that such cases are investigated.
As you know, the social security system is intended to be a safety net for people who find themselves unable to work or in need of financial support. Many of those supported by benefits live with mental illness or other disabilities and the system should be designed to meet their needs. Unfortunately, problems with the design and operation of the system can hurt those who it is supposed to help.
It is vital that when people are seriously harmed—or tragically lose their lives—lessons are learnt in a transparent, timely and accountable way. Yet, despite an almost three-fold increase in the number of Internal Process Reviews being conducted by the department into death or serious harm in recent years (to 179 in the last three years), we believe that many cases are being missed. Far more people experience mental health crisis, self-harm or suicide attempts than die by suicide, so it is concerning that there just 21% of the cases investigated over the last three years related to serious harm, rather than deaths. We find it hard to believe that only one serious harm case per month merits investigation.
A public inquiry is vital to learn the lessons from death and serious harm linked to the social security system and stop further harm. The need for a public inquiry has been repeatedly raised in parliament and has the backing of bereaved families, alongside a range of charities and campaigners.
There is also an urgent need to reform how cases of death and serious harm are investigated. Ultimately, we believe there should be an independent process but in the interim, we urge you to take on the recommendations made by Rethink Mental Illness for changes such as publishing annual reports on the number of IPRs conducted and lessons learned, establishing a simple process by which incidents can be reported and providing a clearer definition of what constitutes ‘serious harm’.
We hope you will reconsider the case for a public inquiry and, in the interim, implement changes to make investigations into these serious incidents more effective, transparent and accountable. Finally, we have been impressed by the bravery of the bereaved relatives who have been campaigning for justice, so that other families do not face the tragic loss that they have. We ask you to meet with them.
Kirsty Blackman MP, Work and Pensions Spokesperson, Scottish National Party
Wendy Chamberlain, Work and Pensions Spokesperson, Liberal Democrats
Hywel Williams, Work and Pensions Spokesperson, Plaid Cymru
Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party