Families and campaigners are demanding a public inquiry after a report found at least 69 suicides could have been linked to problems with benefit claims over the last six years.
The National Audit Office (NAO), which conducted the research, warned the true number of deaths linked to Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) claims could be much higher.
It added that until recently the DWP had failed to actively seek information from coroners and families, or investigate all of the cases that were reported to it.
The NAO undertook the investigation last year after former MP Frank Field – at the time the chair of the work and pensions select committee – wrote to it to complain that the DWP had blocked his requests for data on suicide-related deaths on the grounds that to gather the information would be too expensive.
“This report presents a catastrophic situation for vulnerable claimants and their families,” Frank told the Guardian. “What we need now is a full investigation into the DWP’s processes, and for the necessary changes to be made, so that nobody is ever put into this situation again.”
The NAO’s report reveals that 69 internal process reviews (IPRs) into claimant suicides where “alleged department activity” may have contributed to the claimant’s death have been completed by the DWP since 2014-15. The figure does not include benefit-related deaths which were not a result of suicide.
Of the 69, almost a third were carried out in a seven-month period between April and November last year. “This is partly a result of investigating more cases where information received from the media was the trigger [for the investigation],” the NAO said.
It added that because there was no clear route for such cases to be communicated to the department, and there was confusion internally as to whether a reported case should be investigated, it is likely incidents that should have been investigated will have slipped under the radar.
“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 states.
Michael Paul, from Disability Rights UK, said the report is yet more evidence that the welfare benefits system is unfit for purpose.
A DWP spokesperson acknowledged the NAO’s findings and said it took them “extremely seriously”.
“Suicide is a devastating and complex issue,” the spokesperson said. “We are urgently working to drive forward improvements and learn the lessons from these tragic cases. We will now carefully consider the NAO’s findings as part of our ongoing work.”