Rethink mental illness
“We’re just numbers to them”
The DWP’s failure to investigate death and serious harm.
We are campaigning to end serious harm and deaths in the benefits system. Our latest report, “We’re just numbers to them” – The DWP’s failure to investigate death and serious harm, highlights the experiences of the people being desperately failed by the welfare system.
Trigger warning: self-harm and suicide.
This webpage discusses self-harm and suicide, which readers may find upsetting.
Executive Summary

Many people, particularly those with existing mental health problems, find the experience of navigating the benefits system difficult and distressing. This can make people more unwell, sometimes to the point where they feel compelled to harm themselves or try to end their lives.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is supposed to conduct an Internal Process Review (IPR) whenever their actions may have played a part in someone dying (such as by suicide) or experiencing ‘serious harm’. The DWP has opened at least 289 IPRs into such cases since 2012. These internal investigations are intended to review processes and practice and identify any recommendations for change where there has been a death or ‘serious harm’ that may be linked to the DWP’s actions.

To explore these issues further, we conducted a survey to find out more about the harm people have experienced as a result of their interactions with the benefits system, and how the DWP responded. This report is based on the responses to that survey and detailed interviews with eight survey respondents.

We analysed 122 survey responses:


Five cases involved the suicide of a friend or family member.


There were 54 cases where a suicide attempt or self-harm was mentioned. Around a third of these respondents said that the DWP had been made aware of what had happened.


There were 63 cases involving a significant deterioration in someone’s mental health, often to the point of suicidal thoughts.
Key Findings
An ongoing problem
Cases of death and serious harm related to the benefit system are a current issue not only an historical one. Almost three quarters of incidents where a date was provided occurred in the last five years. Experiences related to applications, assessments and appeals were the largest cause of harm.
DWP doesn’t instigate enough internal reviews
The number of cases of serious harm we were able to identify through our relatively small survey sample suggests that the DWP is not instigating IPRs as often as it should be.
DWP particularly fails to investigate cases of serious harm
Suicide attempts and self-harm occur much more frequently than deaths by suicide. The proportion of serious harm cases compared to deaths reported in our survey suggests there should have been many hundreds of serious harm IPRs since July 2019, compared to the 31 that the DWP instigated.
Cases go unreported due to lack of trust in DWP
Many cases of serious harm do not get reported to the DWP because of a lack of awareness about the process and a lack of trust in the department. As well as claimants not reporting cases, there is no dedicated process for professionals outside the DWP who support claimants, such as clinicians or social workers, to report suspected incidents of serious harm.
Unclear definition of serious harm
The definition of serious harm used by the DWP is not clear. For example, it is not set out if a mental health crisis that does not involve self-harm or a suicide attempt should trigger an IPR. This is made worse by a lack of published guidance or official analysis of cases, trends and IPR recommendations, which adds to the impression that the process is opaque and unaccountable.
Falling below the threshold
Cases where people’s negative experiences may fall below the DWP’s threshold of ‘serious harm’ nevertheless raise wider concerns about the adverse mental health impact of the benefits system and whether enough is being done to address this.
Download the full report for recommendations.
The People Behind The Numbers
The benefits system is desperately failing the people it is supposed to support. We interviewed eight people who were seriously
harmed by the benefits process. Read their stories below.
*Names have been changed to protect their identity


Email the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions today.

Five families of people who died following catastrophic failings by the benefits system, wrote to Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in July calling for urgent action. After months of chasing, Thérèse Coffey told parliament that she has no intention of meeting the families. We don't think that's acceptable.

Write to Thérèse Coffey - ask her to meet with the families and commit to a public inquiry into deaths and serious harm linked to the benefit system.

We are calling on the government to immediately:

1. Establish a full public inquiry into benefit related deaths and cases of serious harm.

2. Set up an independent body to investigate future cases of death or serious harm in the benefits system.

Advice and Information
Please see below for advice and information, where you can find a list of crisis support organisations.

Relating to suicide:
Relating to self-harm:
If you are currently in a crisis or know someone who is, please visit our crisis support pages to find out which organisations can provide the most appropriate support depending on your circumstances:
Advice on benefits: visit our Mental Health & Money Advice service for practical support if you are experiencing issues with welfare benefits. You can find out what financial help is available and how to make a claim or appeal:

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