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DWP to be investigated on how it handled disability benefits

head office for department for work and pensions

The human rights watchdog is to investigate how the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] failed chronically sick and disabled people who lost their lives.

An inquest by the Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC] will decide if the government was responsible for not protecting vulnerable people with learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, told The Guardian: “I welcome the EHRC’s decision to use the full force of its powers and officially launch an investigation into the DWP and the tragic deaths of vulnerable welfare claimants.”

The investigation will focus on health checks which determine if people are eligible for benefits such as personal independence payment [PIP] and “fit for work” tests.

Kishwer Falkner, the chair of the EHRC, said: “We are extremely worried about the treatment of some disabled benefits claimants by the DWP. We suspect the department may have broken equality law. We have decided we need to take the strongest possible action and that’s why we’ve launched this investigation.”

The benefit system has been criticised for years for the way it decides who is eligible for financial support, with many believing the system needs to change. 

At least 69 people have taken their own lives between 2014 and 2020 after they failed to qualify for their benefits.

But, finally, an investigation is addressing the issue which will examine the the “deaths of vulnerable claimants by suicide and other causes”.

The inquest will gather information from firms which have carried out benefit assessments over the years including Atos, Capita and Maximus as well as speaking to whistle-blowers who worked for the department and senior DWP officials between January 2021 and the present day.

Abrahams said: “I am pleased that the EHRC have now said enough is enough and will be undertaking a formal investigation. I hope this can be done as a matter of urgency.”

James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at disability charity Scope, said: “We know just how many disabled people have a poor and degrading experience when trying to make use of our benefit system. Our welfare system should be a safety net, built on kindness and trust, where disabled people can access support. Instead, many disabled people have to fight for even basic support.”

Megan Pennell, head of public affairs at the charity Mind, welcomed the investigation: “This is extremely concerning but sadly it echoes what we hear from people with mental health problems on a daily basis – that the DWP is failing to make assessments fair for people with mental health problems.”

Anna Morell of Disability Rights UK said: “There has been a systemic failure of disabled people, and a culture of distrust, disbelief and punishment exists when it comes to the DWP providing benefits and support for disabled people.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “The government is committed to improving the lives of disabled people and our recent disability action plan sets out 32 actions we are taking to make the UK the most accessible country in the world for disabled people to live, work and thrive.

“The DWP is committed to providing a compassionate service to all our customers. Benefits assessments are carried out by qualified health professionals with reasonable adjustments available to protect vulnerable claimants.

“We take our obligations under the Equality Act incredibly seriously, including the public sector equality duty, and will continue to cooperate with the commission.”

[ There has been been three secretaries of state for work and pensions: Mel Stride, Thérèse Coffey and Chloe Smith between January 2021 and the present day. ]

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