Welfare reform minister Lord Freud has described a suicide linked to his controversial bedroom tax policy as a "desperately sad event".
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, which is investigating the impact of housing benefit reforms in Wales, Lord Freud extended his condolences to the family of Stephanie Bottrill, who left a note in which she blamed the government for her death.
Ms Bottrill, from Solihull in the West Midlands, died in the early hours of 4 May after she was struck by a lorry on the M6 motorway. In a letter to her family she blamed the bedroom tax, writing: "Don't blame yourself for me ending my life. The only people to blame are the government."
Ms Bottrill lived alone in a three-bedroom council house in Kingshurst and had had her housing benefit cut by £80 per month. Under the new rules, she was deemed to be under-occupying her social home by two bedrooms.
Lord Freud told MPs at the hearing this week: “Clearly it is a desperately sad and tragic event, as you say. I and my colleagues send our condolences to the family.
“I’m not in a position to make any more comment. The relevant authorities need to investigate exactly what happened.”
Committee member and Labour MP Stephen Doughty warned that the bedroom tax and other benefit changes were “pushing some people over the edge” and asked if charities like the Samaritans had been asked to make an assessment of the impact.
The MP said: “Even the fear of this, rather than the effect, is causing a lot of distress and I’m wondering what sort of evidential assessment you have made about increased stress, depression, concerns of that nature.”
Lord Freud replied “I’m not aware of any” assessment of what the changes might be doing to vulnerable people.
He did, however, say that the Department for Work and Pensions was monitoring the impact of the under-occupation charge very closely and was "talking directly" to 80 local authorities. The results of these findings were yet to be published, he added.
When questioned about the performance of Welsh housing association Bron Afon in the Universal Credit demonstration projects for direct payments of housing benefit to social housing tenants, Lord Freud said it had been "one of the better performers".
Bron Afon released figures earlier this year that showed that tenants given responsibility for settling their rent using benefit paid to them direct by the DWP owed an average of £100 more than other households at the association.
Duncan Forbes, Bron Afon’s chief executive, said at the time he was expecting arrears to rise for tenants in the demonstration project but not on such a scale.
Lord Freud said "the trick" to getting round direct payments was to stop "people who are likely to be a problem going onto them in the first place - or at least not without a lot of support".
He added that the demonstration projects had shown that arrears generally start high but go down as more people are moved into managed payments. Lessons are still being learned, he said, but that was the whole point of the projects.