Government department destroyed reviews into cases where benefit claimants killed themselves

Signage for the Department for Work & Pensions in Westminster. Photograph: Kirsty O'Connor/PA.

Signage for the Department for Work & Pensions in Westminster. Photograph: Kirsty O'Connor/PA. - Credit: PA

The Department for Work and Pensions has been accused of a cover-up after it emerged that officials destroyed reviews into suicides that took place more than five years ago, citing data protection rules for their actions.

Almost 50 internal reviews carried out before 2015 have been destroyed, according to a freedom of information response seen by the BBC.

Stephen Timms, chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee,said he was "sympathetic" to those who feared an internal cover-up, and speculated that the department was attempting to keep "hush-hush" any links between the deaths and decisions to stop benefits or deem the claimants fit to work.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the DWP should be looking to learn from past mistakes rather than disposing of evidence.

"I think families should be entitled to see these reports," said the Labour MP.

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"The law does not specify five years or six years, and I think this kind of information should be held for longer.

"In any case, there's no reason why they should be destroyed. They should be kept and progress on implementing improvements monitored."

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Timms said one of the early things his committee will look at when it meets for the first time in this parliament is to agree on a letter calling for "clarification and improvements" from welfare ministers.

If the response is not deemed satisfactory an inquiry will be considered, he confirmed.

He said: "I think all of this raises very troubling questions for the department.

"For a long time they refused to address them at all. Now they're starting to address them but in a very secretive and unsatisfactory way.

"I think for a long time they were very reluctant to accept that what they were doing had contributed to these deaths at all.

"I think they are now being forced to own up to the fact. That is happening, but they're doing it very reluctantly and very slowly and trying to keep the thing as hush-hush as possible, and it's not good enough."

It comes after Labour's Debbie Abrahams fought back tears in the Commons as she read out more than 20 names of people who died after experiencing difficulties with the benefits system.

The MP said some died after "taking (his/her) own life after being found fit for work" or through illness after losing their benefits.

The former shadow welfare secretary highlighted the cases of Jodey Whiting, who killed herself after her disability benefits were stopped, and Liverpool resident Stephen Smith, with MPs hearing his "emaciated" body was "more reminiscent of someone from a concentration camp rather than 21st century Britain".

The Commons heard he died of multiple organ failure after being found fit for work.

A DWP spokesman said: "We take these reviews extremely seriously and ensure cases are investigated, concluded and any lessons learned."

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