An official review has been carried out into the death of a mum whose benefits were reportedly stopped before she passed away.
Elaine Morrall, 44, of Runcorn, Cheshire, was found dead wrapped in a scarf and hat at her freezing home in 2017, it is claimed.
Her grieving family said she could not afford to put on the heating after her benefits were stopped several times, the Liverpool Echo reports.
On one occasion her payments were halted after she missed a Universal Credit interview while she was in intensive care, her mum Linda said.
Warrington Coroner’s Office told the ECHO in 2018 the matter did not go to inquest as her death was ruled to have been due to “natural causes”.
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An investigation carried out by the BBC Shared Data Unit has unearthed Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) records showing Elaine’s tragedy was not an isolated incident.
Her death was among 144 reviews carried out by the DWP.
The reviews were conducted between 2012 and July, 2019, when Justin Thompson MP, minister for disabled people, health and work, said an additional six reviews would be “conducted shortly”.
These reviews take place when there is a “suggestion or allegation” that the DWP’s actions had a negative impact.
Investigations are also held when the DWP thinks lessons can be learned about its processes and a claimant has died or suffered serious harm including by suicide or attempted suicide, or when it has been named as an “interested party” at an inquest, or the DWP is asked to participate in a Safeguarding Adults Board.
The data unit has also seen copies of internal reviews which began after July 2019, which suggests fatal mistakes continued to be made.
The DWP will not reveal the identities of the people or cases subject to these internal reviews.
However, the data unit sifted through press reports naming 82 individuals who died after some alleged DWP activity such as termination of benefits over the same time period.
Mental health vulnerabilities were a contributing factor in 35 of those people’s deaths.
Many of these individuals took their own lives, or were even discovered after having starved to death.
Others died within days of being found fit to work, by the Government’s Work Capability Assessment (WCA) process, which determines if claimants are entitled to sickness or out-of-work benefits.
Since 2014, four Prevention of Future Death (PFD) reports have been issued to the DWP by coroners following inquests into the deaths of benefits claimants.
Coroners have a statutory duty to issue these reports if they believe action should be taken to prevent a future death.
One PFD report was submitted to the DWP after the death of single mum Philippa Day, of Nottingham after a coroner found 28 errors were made in managing her case.
The 27-year-old took a fatal overdose in 2019 after her benefits payments were cut.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey maintains the DWP, “does not have a duty of care or statutory safeguarding duty”.
But human rights specialist Tessa Gregory, partner at Leigh Day said there was a “dissonance” between the DWP’s legal stance and its role in some instances providing the sole income for vulnerable people.
She said: “When DWP decision making goes wrong it can, as we have seen in far too many cases have devastating and sometimes fatal consequences, so it is vital that decisions are taken with full regard to a person’s disability.
“The case for reform is clear as we desperately need a benefits system which serves to support, rather than endanger, the lives of vulnerable individuals.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser at the charity Disability Rights UK, said people had their benefits cut and suffered “fear and anxiety” due to “poor and inaccurate medical assessments” carried out on behalf of the DWP by the private contractors Capita, the Independent Assessment Services (formerly called Atos) and Maximus.
He added: “Even if it is legally correct that the DWP does not have a statutory duty of care, surely it would be better for it to operate on the basis that it does?”
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams MP, who previously read out the names of 29 individuals to have died during a Commons debate, including six-stone Stephen Smith, of Liverpool, told the BBC there should be an independent inquiry into the scale and number of deaths allegedly linked to DWP activity.
She said: “These deaths have definitely not received the attention they should have. I believe that the ones that you have collated are just the tip of the iceberg.
“There’s too often an assumption that these deaths are from natural causes.
“That there has been such a lack of openness and transparency to enable us to properly examine reports on all deaths is a disgrace.
“There needs to be an independent inquiry investigating why these deaths are happening and the scale of the deaths needs to be properly understood.
“Then there needs to be an independent body set up to investigate any future deaths. It needs to be taken out of the hands of the DWP.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We support millions of people a year and our priority is that they get the benefits to which they are entitled promptly and receive a supportive and compassionate service.
“In the vast majority of cases this happens but when, sadly, there is a tragic case we take it very seriously.
“In those circumstances it’s absolutely right we carry out an internal review to check if the correct processes were followed and identify any lessons learned to inform future policy and service.”