Cara MacSherry, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health

People in vulnerable circumstances and the DWP: a statutory duty to safeguard

20 October 2023

Please note: this blog references allegations of serious harms and death in relation to the DWP. For support with your money or mental health, you can find some resources on our get help page.

  • Money and Mental Health have responded to the Work and Pensions Committee consultation regarding people in vulnerable circumstances and their interactions with the Department for Work and Pensions
  • As it stands, the DWP is under no obligation to ensure the safeguarding of people in vulnerable circumstances. This includes people with mental health problems
  • We’re calling for the introduction of a statutory duty to safeguard people in vulnerable circumstances. And we want to see the establishment of an independent body to oversee the work of the DWP and take appropriate action if they fail to uphold their duty.

Earlier this month we responded to The Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ‘supports vulnerable benefit claimants’. This inquiry was launched due to a noticeable rise in the number of investigations into allegations of inadequate case handling by the DWP which may have resulted in serious harm. 

In our response, we outline how the DWP should increase the transparency of their processes for identifying, recording and supporting claimants in vulnerable circumstances, and how this should be backed up by the introduction of a safeguarding duty.

A statutory duty to safeguard

On average, one in four people will experience mental health problems in any given year. Common mental health problems like anxiety and depression can affect our cognitive and psychological functions. Symptoms of these mental health problems, such as low motivation and memory problems, can make applying for and engaging with the benefits system especially difficult. 

The DWP reports that it has processes in place to support the needs and protect the wellbeing of people in vulnerable situations. But their process and guidance is not widely circulated.

Experiences shared by our Research Community suggest the processes the DWP currently have in place to support claimants in vulnerable circumstances are not sufficient, and risk missing clear opportunities to identify and support people who are experiencing mental health problems.

It [engaging with the DWP] caused me huge anxiety – something I suffer from anyway – so the whole application & assessment process exacerbated it over a very long period each time. it always felt as if the DWP set itself up in an adversarial position to try to stop people getting help, rather than a supportive role to provide what was essential to my life.” Expert by experience

Research conducted by Rethink found that the DWP’s failing to protect claimants’ well being can have devastating consequences. Despite this, people with mental health problems continue to receive limited support or flexibility from the DWP in making and managing a benefit claim. 

People also often face barriers to receiving support from third parties such as friends and family, which can exacerbate an already stressful situation. A lack of support from the DWP and the struggle to be granted support from third parties raises the risk of harmful financial and mental health consequences. Mental health and financial problems can form a devastating, self-reinforcing cycle. 

 For me it was dreadful experience which resulted in suicidal ideation and exacerbated my anxiety and stress massively. There was no help or support or indeed empathy or understanding. I was actually left feeling bullied, intimidated and left feeling scared and vulnerable at the service and treatment I experienced from DWP and work coaches…Horrific!” Expert by experience

In light of this and evidence from our Research Community of how engaging with the DWP can serve to exacerbate their mental health problems we recommend the DWP should be subject to  a statutory duty to safeguarding the wellbeing of claimants. 

This duty should be accompanied by the establishment of an independent body with powers to monitor and inspect safeguarding processes within the DWP. These powers would include the ability to take appropriate action in circumstances where the DWP fails to meet its duty to safeguard

What could this duty look like?

Any statutory duty should be developed in consultation with people in vulnerable circumstances and the relevant organisations that advocate and support them. While the details of such a duty should remain subject to a substantial period of development and consultation, there are two examples of existing legislation policymakers can look to for inspiration. 

Specifically The Children Act 2004 s.11 requires a range of organisations, including the DWP, to ensure their functions and services are carried out and delivered ‘with regard to the need to safeguard and promote the wellbeing of children.’ We would like to see a similar requirement for adults in vulnerable circumstances. 

The second piece of legislation is the 2014 Care Act, in particular, the six principles of the Act. The person-centred approach of these principles, including: empowerment, protection, prevention, proportionality, partnership and accountability – make them a good starting point for a DWP safeguarding duty. Central to any reform to the DWP’s role in supporting vulnerable claimants would be the establishment of an independent body that monitors and inspects DWP’s safeguarding practices and  accompanying clear and effective process for complaints and investigations.

Making it happen

No one should face distress or experience harm as a result of interacting with the social security system. Introducing a statutory duty to safeguard people in vulnerable situations in all interactions with the DWP could protect many people from harm. In some situations, it could even save lives.

Further consultation may be necessary in order to make this statutory duty the best it can be. Policymakers should work together to introduce such a necessary policy as soon as possible.