DWP admits multiple universal credit failures before disabled woman’s death

by 24britishtvMay 16, 2024, 6 p.m. 21
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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted missing multiple opportunities to record the “vulnerability” of a disabled woman whose death was later linked by a coroner to failings at the heart of its universal credit benefits system.

DWP has admitted that staff made key errors in dealing with the claim of Nazerine (known as Naz) Anderson, from Melton Mowbray, who died in June last year.

But it also appears to have admitted a significant ongoing safeguarding flaw in the system that could continue to put many other disabled claimants at risk, just as it prepares to roll out its forced “migration” to universal credit that will affect hundreds of thousands of existing claimants of employment and support allowance.

The department was responding to a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report sent to the department by coroner Fiona Butler.

In her report, written at the end of an inquest in February, she highlighted how DWP missed six opportunities to record Anderson’s “vulnerability” on its IT system while it was reviewing her universal credit claim, and had failed to act on the mental distress she showed in phone calls about her claim.

It also repeatedly failed to act on requests to direct its telephone calls and letters to her daughter.

The review of her universal credit claim “continued to preoccupy her thoughts” and six days after receiving the final piece of correspondence from DWP, she took an overdose.

Although Anderson did not intend to take her own life, the overdose caused irreversible damage to her liver, and she died a month later, on 19 June 2023, while receiving palliative care at Melton Mowbray Hospital.

Now, in its response to the PFD report, sent to the coroner last month, DWP admits there were “missed” opportunities to share information about her universal credit (UC) claim, and to consider whether an appointee should act on her behalf.

But it also appears to highlight a serious ongoing flaw in the UC system, which is caused by groups of universal credit staff having “different access levels on departmental systems”.

As a result of this, DWP admits, “some colleagues cannot pin information to claims or use the additional support function on the UC system”.

The IT system allows up to three pieces of key information to be “pinned” to a UC claim, so they are immediately obvious to any staff member viewing that claim, while the additional support tab allows a claimant’s “complex needs” to be displayed “prominently” on their account.

The PFD response says training is taking place that will highlight the importance of sharing information about a claimant’s vulnerabilities with UC colleagues, but it is not clear if DWP has resolved the serious flaw that means some staff working on UC are unable to share key information about a claimant’s support needs.

DWP refused to say yesterday (Wednesday) whether some staff working on UC were still unable to use these safeguarding tools, how many staff this affected, and whether it would now fix this flaw.

It said only that it reviews access to its IT system and will grant “enhanced access” to the system for an individual or a team if there is a “business need” for it.

In its response to the coroner, DWP also admits repeated failings to use the additional support tab that should have alerted those dealing with Naz Anderson’s claim to her support needs.

It says it is redesigning the additional support tab and will be carrying out a campaign “to promote awareness and understanding of the additional support tab amongst UC colleagues” later this year.

The response also reveals that – due to “learning from serious cases” – DWP is reviewing how it handles cases where a universal credit claimant cannot manage their own affairs and needs an “appointee” to act on their behalf.

And it admits in its response that there were “missed opportunities” during Anderson’s claim to “consider the appropriateness of gaining her explicit consent to speak to a third party about her UC claim”.

It says it has updated how the UC system deals with cases where a claimant gives a representative “explicit consent” to seek information about their case, and it has carried out awareness and training exercises with staff on “what explicit consent is and how to record this consent on the UC system”.

Naz Anderson had been admitted to Leicester’s Bradgate Mental Health Unit in December 2022 after a decline in her mental health that a consultant psychiatrist told the coroner was triggered by a review of her universal credit claim by DWP’s performance review team.

DWP had suggested she had been overpaid and would need to pay back the debt.

During the six months it took DWP to complete the review, it missed at least six opportunities to highlight her need for additional support on the universal credit system.

It failed to take this action “despite Naz being tearful and distressed on the telephone on more than one occasion and advising the DWP of information surrounding her mental health and her inability to cope”, the PFD had revealed.

DWP also repeatedly failed to pass information between its performance review and universal credit case handling teams about the need to correspond with her daughter, a request made because “corresponding with Naz was of serous detriment to her mental health”.

Her daughter’s written request had sat in another DWP computer system for four months, and even when uploaded to the main DWP computer system it was not acted upon.

The request had been renewed by Naz Anderson during telephone calls to DWP and in entries on her universal credit online journal.

In the four weeks before her overdose, she received two telephone calls from DWP asking for detailed information, a universal credit message through her online journal that she did not understand, and three letters warning her that the amount she owed was increasing.

“We have responded to the coroner’s report in full, setting out support for vulnerable claimants, mandatory mental health training for frontline staff, and changes we are making in response to the report.”

Meanwhile, DWP has announced that the rollout of universal credit to the remaining hundreds of thousands of disabled people still receiving income-related employment and support allowance is likely to begin in September.

The government had previously delayed the start of the rollout until 2028, but prime minister Rishi Sunak announced in a widely-condemned speech last month that the government would accelerate that process.

In a regular update to local authority housing benefit staff, DWP says its “current planning assumption is that we would begin notifying this group in September 2024, with the aim of notifying everyone to make the move by December 2025”.

It says that it hopes its new Move to UC communications campaign will “tackle claimant fear and anxiety about moving to Universal Credit”.

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