Opposition parties join growing call for public inquiry into harms of benefits system

13 October 2022

The Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have today backed the calls of bereaved families and the national mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness for an urgent public inquiry into deaths and serious harm linked to failings of the benefits system.

The MPs, who represent their parties on work and pensions, have written to Chloe Smith MP, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, warning ‘problems with the design and operation of the system can hurt those who it is supposed to help’, such as disabled people including those living with mental illness. These MPs are Wendy Chamberlain from the Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Blackman from the SNP, Hywel Williams from Plaid Cymru and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas.

The MPs say that, amid a cost of living crisis placing huge financial strain on households, it is now more important than ever that the benefits system is ‘safe and supportive.’

The letter also raises concerns that the DWP is not reviewing many cases where people’s mental health has been seriously harmed by administrative errors, miscommunication and a fundamental failing to understand their needs. This suggests the DWP is skipping the opportunity to learn lessons which could help prevent future deaths.

The number of internal reviews by the DWP of deaths and cases of serious harm linked to the benefits system has increased dramatically in recent years. However, the MPs highlight that though far more people experience mental health crisis, self-harm or suicide attempts than die by suicide, only one in five cases investigated over the last three years related to serious harm, compared with deaths. They add it is ‘hard to believe’ that only one case of serious harm per month merits investigation.

Families coping with the loss of a loved one asked for a meeting with the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey in July 2021, but requests were consistently met with silence. The MPs call in their letter for the new Secretary of State to meet the bereaved families.

Labour has recognised the devastating impact of DWP failures, with the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Jonathan Ashworth expected to meet soon with the bereaved families who have been campaigning for change.

The DWP has also been refusing to publish a series of hidden reports and pieces of research on harms of the benefits system. Rethink Mental Illness has called for the reports to be published immediately so that there is greater transparency around how the benefits system is damaging people’s lives, followed up with a clear plan of action.  

Mark Winstanley, Chief Executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “The benefits system was set up to keep people safe and provide a safety net when they are unable to work or struggling to make ends meet. But too often it fails in this most basic objective, often denying people the support they desperately need and acting as a force of harm and distress in their lives.

“The DWP must stop focusing its energy on avoiding scrutiny and instead openly and honestly show that it is learning from its mistakes. The department must publish hidden reports on harms of the benefits system, launch a public inquiry and meet bereaved families to give them the answers they deserve. Most importantly, we must see real change – warm words will not save lives.”

The DWP has been implicated in a series of deaths and cases where people have been seriously harmed. This includes Kevin Dooley, who took his own life after he was deemed ‘fit to work’ despite his significant physical health problems, depression and anxiety.

Kevin’s daughter Leanne said: “I tried to convince my Dad that his benefits wouldn’t be stopped and everything would be okay, because I thought there was no chance a man that ill would be forced to work. But then the DWP did the unthinkable, and my Dad couldn’t cope.

“The benefits system deals with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, yet they can be so harsh and uncaring to the point of being cruel. Despite all this, DWP ministers don’t have the decency to meet families like mine face-to-face. Their continued refusal to learn lessons is an insult. A public inquiry won’t bring Dad back, but it will help make sure other disabled people and their families don’t have to suffer such painful hardship and loss.”

Liberal Democrat MP Wendy Chamberlain said: “As MPs we see time and time again the immense stress which applying for benefits can put on people. Stress which seriously impacts on their mental health and tragically can lead to people taking their own lives. This is a massive failure of our social security safety net. The Government must commit to a full inquiry. But in the short term, common sense measures such as capping deductions and accepting written medical evidence would go a long way to stopping further needless harm and death.”

Read the letter from MPs calling for a public inquiry into death and serious harm linked to the benefits system.


Notes to editors 

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About Rethink Mental Illness 

No matter how bad things are, we can help people severely affected by mental illness to improve their lives. We’re Rethink Mental Illness, a leading charity provider of mental health services in England.  

  • We support tens of thousands of people through our groups, services and advice and information.  
  • We train employees, employers and members of the public on how best to support someone affected by mental illness.  
  • We campaign for the rights of people living with mental illness and their carers.  

Working alongside the people we support, we are saving lives.  

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