The government is investigating 69 suicides that may be linked to its overhaul of welfare – but a key watchdog thinks there may be more.
The National Audit Office has said it is “highly unlikely” the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has yet captured the true scale of self-inflicted deaths connected to benefits over the last six years.
A failure to keep a robust records, failing to give clear guidance and the DWP only investigating deaths when the media shone light on individual cases were highlighted as part of the NAO’s report on Friday.
The alarming warning from the watchdog comes amid a torrent of criticism over the rollout of the government’s flagship Universal Credit benefit, with the Trussell Trust having repeatedly underlined the programme as the main reason people were using foodbanks.
Only nine internal process reviews (IPRs) arose from communications with coroners, 19 were prompted by media reports while others were triggered by claimants’ families.
Figures also showed a steady rise of investigations, with the 21 probed between April and November outnumbering the total of the previous two years combined.
“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,” the report said.
The department does not have a “robust record” of contact from coroners, with no single clear route for them to get in touch, meaning some may have failed to prompt IPRs.
When cases should be investigated has “not always been clear” and the DWP admitted “not all its staff are aware of the IPR guidance”.
Internal advice says the reports are mandatory when a claimant has died by suicide and it is alleged “department activity” may have contributed.
But the DWP told the watchdog that an IPR should be completed when it becomes aware “of any suicide of a benefit claimant”, regardless of further allegations.
The report adds: “The department has only recently taken a more proactive approach to conducting IPRs into suicides of benefits claimants.
“This is partly a result of investigating more cases where information received from the media was the trigger.”
A DWP spokesperson said the department was taking the findings “extremely seriously”.
“We are urgently working to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from these tragic cases,” she added.
“We will now carefully consider the NAO’s findings as part of our ongoing work.”