A grieving sister today accused the Tory government of a "cover-up" after it destroyed dozens of secret inquiries into benefit claimants' deaths.
Linda Cooksey blasted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for deleting or partly deleting at least 49 "peer reviews" into people who died while caught up in the welfare system.
Her brother Tim Salter took his own life aged 53 in 2013 after being ruled fit for work, despite being partly blind and mentally ill. A coroner said having his benefits slashed was a "major factor" in Tim's death and the DWP apologised in 2015 for "errors" in his claim.
Yet Linda, 66, from Stourbridge, West Midlands, has never even been told if a peer review was carried out into Tim's case.
And now she may never know – as the DWP has admitted it has destroyed or partly destroyed its peer reviews from before 2015-16.
Responding to a Freedom of Information request last week, the DWP claimed it removed the reviews – at least 49 of which existed – due to data protection policies.
But Linda told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What happened about freedom of information? We should be allowed to find out what's happened.
"Why would they want to destroy them? What are they hiding?"
Linda said she wanted to see the review because "we just want to know why and how they could let it happen." She added: "It was a bit of a shock but it doesn't surprise me at all. They're trying to cover up all the other peer reviews as well at the same time."
The DWP destroyed the reviews despite the fact they were at the heart of a two-year freedom of information battle – and were reportedly withheld from two independent probes into fit-for-work tests.
Officials finally released heavily redacted versions of 49 peer reviews, carried out up to 2014, to the Disability News Service after a tribunal forced them to – but families said there were still unanswered questions.
Labour MP Stephen Timms, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, condemned the blackout.
He said data protection law does not order the DWP to delete peer reviews when they are five years old. He told the Mirror: "It looks as though they're just throwing the whole thing out and forgetting about it.
"They're not taking it seriously and they need to be taking it seriously."
The DWP's admission came last week in a response to a Freedom of Information request by Lee Jefferson.
He asked for the titles and dates of all peer reviews – now called Internal Process Reviews – since 2010.
But the DWP replied: "Records prior to 2015-16 have been destroyed or are incomplete in line with GDPR/data retention policies. The retention of customer documentation is directed by the Information Management Policy, which specifies guidance for the retention of customer claims.
"The Data Protection Act 2018 dictates that 'personal data kept for any purpose should not be kept for longer than necessary'.
Mr Timms told the BBC: "I think families should be entitled to see these reports. The law does not specify five years or six years, and I think this kind of information should be held for longer."
He added: "I think all of this raises very troubling questions for the department.
"For a long time they refused to address them at all. Now they're starting to address them but in a very secretive and unsatisfactory way.
"I think for a long time they were very reluctant to accept that what they were doing had contributed to these deaths at all. I think they are now being forced to own up to the fact that is happening, but they're doing it very reluctantly and very slowly and trying to keep the thing as hush-hush as possible.
"It's not good enough."
It comes as the DWP continues to face questions even now over how it investigates benefit claimants' deaths.
It has refused to provide key details of a new 'Serious Case Panel' that will look into key cases – including Errol Graham, who starved to death weighing five stone after his benefits were stopped.
Last month the DWP conceded the Panel would include some members who were not DWP staff, after initially suggesting it would only be civil servants inside the department.
This week, however, a minister revealed the panel will only meet once every three months – and appeared to suggest it may not investigate individual cases.
Instead he said the panel "will consider the most serious systematic issues that have been identified".
This year the National Audit Office revealed the Tory government has probed 69 benefit claimants' suicides since 2014. The NAO warned the true figure was probably higher because of a failure to keep "robust records" inside the DWP.
Asked to respond to the "cover-up" row, a DWP spokesman said only: “We take these reviews extremely seriously and ensure cases are investigated, concluded and any lessons learned.”
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