A watchdog is to investigate the government’s monitoring of suicides among benefit claimants amid concerns about links between welfare reforms and declining mental health.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said it would call on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to reveal what information it held on the issue, after ministers refused to provide an MP with figures on the number of people in the welfare system who had taken their own lives.
In a letter seen by The Independent, the watchdog said it was “clearly a very important and serious” topic and that it would consider trying to collate the information itself if the government could not provide it.
It comes as charities raise concerns about links between welfare reforms and declining mental health among claimants, with an increasing number of self-inflicted deaths being associated with financial difficulties stemming from cuts to support.
A number of recent studies have established links specifically between universal credit and suicide risk, with experts blaming the “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive” nature of the new benefit and the frequency at which it pushes people into debt and rent arrears.
Frank Field MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, who requested the data from ministers in a written question, said in his subsequent letter to the NAO: “I struggle to believe that, given the time it must take to put together evidence for inquests, attend court hearings, and internally review the decisions, that there is no record of such.
“It shocks me even more that the DWP is apparently unconcerned with the most drastic efforts of its policies and conducts no internal monitoring of the tragedies in which it is complicit.”
He told The Independent he was “pleased” to hear that the NAO was now looking into the issue, adding: “This for the first time will give us some concrete facts on the link between the current welfare system and suicide rates among claimants.”
In one suicide case, published in April in Derbyshire Live, a man who took his own life after running out of money for his electricity meter reportedly left a suicide note sarcastically “thanking” universal credit bosses.
In another, an inquest ruled last month that the mental health of a disabled man who took his life after his benefits were cut was “severely and adversely” affected after the DWP declared him fit for work, as reported by the i newspaper.
Concern was also raised in December 2017 when an analysis of NHS data showed that attempted suicides among out-of-work disability benefit claimants had more than doubled since the introduction of fit-to-work assessments in 2008.
Campaigners said it was “disappointing” that the DWP did not appear to record suicides among claimants and that it was “vital” for it to start doing so in order to assess the impact of changes to the welfare system.
Kamran Mallick, from Disability Rights UK, said: “This is a crucial issue which demands a thorough review. The welfare benefits system is confusing and challenging to navigate at the best of times.
“The causes of suicide are complex and multi-layered. But there’s no doubt that few disabled people find the benefits system welcoming and supportive, and for some it induces high levels of mental and emotional distress.”
Deborah Coles, director of charity Inquest, said: “That people have been so desperate to take their own lives as a result of the punitive and cruel benefits system is a serious concern that requires much greater scrutiny.”
Ayaz Manji, senior policy and campaigns officer at Mind, said: “Suicides are not inevitable, they can be prevented, and the DWP is responsible for making make sure its processes and policies are safe for those of us at our most unwell, and not causing serious harm.
“We still hear every week from people with mental health problems who have struggled to cope with the impact of sanctions, repeated and unnecessary fit-for-work assessments, and other changes to their benefits.
“It’s important that the DWP is held to account when independent investigations cite problems with benefits as a factor in someone taking their life. We cannot continue to wait until someone else takes their own lives before change happens.”
Sara Willcocks, head of communications at charity Turn2us, said: “It is disappointing that the DWP does not already know how many of its claimants have committed suicide. We believe it is vital that the department records this data so it can draw correlations between changes to the welfare benefits system and increases or decreases in suicide.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The death of a claimant is always a tragedy and whilst this is not an inquiry, we will engage with the NAO on this important topic.”
If you’re feeling suicidal, you can contact your GP, call 999, go to A&E, call the Samaritans on 116 123, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org