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  • Writer's pictureTanya Fowles (Local Democracy Reporter)

Questions asked over impact on vulnerable people applying for Universal Credit

Universal Credit application form with money coins

Questions have been asked on the impact of the process on those applying for government benefits, particularly on those who are vulnerable. It comes after a man suffering with ill mental health, which was "exacerbated by his application for Universal Credit”, took his own life.

Having initially refused to answer specific questions around prevention of deaths, Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities (DfC) has now largely responded, while Westminster counterparts, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has refused to engage further.

As the departments responsible for running the benefits system, both were asked specific questions around prevention of deaths after a man in England struggling with serious mental health issues took his own life while awaiting an application for Universal Credit.

The Coroner for Cumbria, Kirsty Gomersal, issued a ruling following an inquest into the death of the man, whose treating psychiatrist, who saw him two days before his death, considered the deterioration in already fragile mental health was “exacerbated by his application for Universal Credit”.

The inquest heard the psychiatrist tried to contact the benefits office in the course of the victim’s last appointment; however, the call went unanswered.

The psychiatrist set out examples of poor experiences of those with mental health issues and their engagement with the DWP.

This was supported by a nursing director who said such concerns are “national”, while Ms. Gomersal described the process as “debilitating”.

Under her statutory duty, Ms. Gomersal referred to: “A risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.”

She held the current DWP procedures may not be practical for those with mental health illness and can exacerbate symptoms, particularly pointing to the complicated forms which “can be overwhelming for someone with a mental health illness”, and “there are long telephone queues to speak to a DWP advisor”.

Ms. Gomersal stated: “Action should be taken to prevent future deaths. I believe the DWP Secretary of State has the power to take such action.”

The DWP was asked if the coroner’s report had been considered, and in order to protect the Human Rights Article 2 and 3 of all benefits applicants.

They were also asked what measures are in place to ensure a similar situation does not occur again.

In a terse, two-line reply, a DWP spokesperson said: “Our condolences are with the victim’s family. We will review the coroner’s report and respond in due course.”

Meanwhile, DfC (Northern Ireland) were asked the same questions, to which a spokesperson replied:

“The Department ensures clear and comprehensive training and guidance is provided to support staff involved in the delivery of benefits, and has well-established processes for supporting vulnerable customers.

“We also work closely with the independent advice sector to signpost customers who need extra support or help.”

As neither department fully addressed the enquiries, particularly around human rights, the questions were sent back.

In response, a DfC spokesperson confirmed it “recognises obligations in relation to Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights and the importance of ensuring services are readily accessible at the point of need”.

They continued: “All social security legislation undergoes a Human Rights compatibility test, and all benefit decision-making activities in the Department take place within a carefully monitored and controlled statutory framework to ensure that fair, lawful, accurate and consistent decisions are made by highly-trained staff.”

In respect of ensuring a similar situation does not occur in Northern Ireland, the DfC spokesperson said: “The Department has a range of mechanisms to support vulnerable customers, including an Advanced Customer Support process embedded throughout all benefit delivery business areas to identify, help and signpost to internal/external support available, including:

• Benefit-specific information hubs to ensure guidance and online learning products are easily accessible to all staff, with a focus on providing responsive support for vulnerable customers;

• Specific guidance on supporting vulnerable customers along with a signposting directory outlining specialist support services, organisations, and charities;

• Clear signposting of customers to independent advice and, where required, referral to the Department’s Make the Call/Wraparound Service for home visits and assistance with form completion and advice on other services;

• The delivery of mandatory e-learning for staff on supporting customers declaring the intent to attempt suicide or self-harm, and well-established “six-point plan” processes across benefit areas, which include alerting emergency services, where necessary;

• Single points of contact in place to facilitate collaboration across benefit areas where this is needed to meet a customer’s needs;

• Regular engagement with voluntary and community sector organisations to discuss access to services for vulnerable customers and identify improvements, including an early warning system to escalate cases of concern; and

• A range of vulnerable customer support fora in place to share learning and best practice and to ensure consistency of approach.

The spokesperson concluded: “In addition to the provision of single points of contact and escalation routes for each benefit delivery business area, the Department’s telephone answer rate is high across all benefit areas.

“In terms of travel, the Department also provides the option of appointments at a location that suits the vulnerable person if travelling to the local office is not possible.”

Apart from DfC not specially addressing Human Rights Article 3 (prevention of inhuman and degrading treatment) the response was largely comprehensive.

In contrast DWP has, to date, declined further engagement.


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