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DWP under investigation over treatment of ill and disabled people after deaths of benefit claimants

Britain’s human rights watchdog will investigate whether the DWP has 'broken the law' in its treatment of disabled benefits claimants

Caxton house. The DWP is being investigated. Credit: DWP

Britain’s human rights watchdog will formally investigate whether the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has “broken the law” in its treatment of disabled benefits claimants.

The probe – the “strongest possible action” that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) can take – comes after several vulnerable people died following rejected benefit assessments.

The EHRC will examine whether the DWP failed to “reasonably adjust” its benefits assessments for people with learning disabilities or long-term mental health conditions.

“We are extremely worried about the treatment of some disabled benefits claimants by the DWP. We suspect the department may have broken equality law,” said Kishwer Falkner, the chair of the EHRC.

“We have decided we need to take the strongest possible action and that’s why we’ve launched this investigation.”

Campaigners have long argued that the assessments are humiliating and punitive. Mark Winstanley, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said that DWP failings have “destroyed countless lives”.

“People severely affected by mental illness rely on the DWP for essential support, but time and time again we hear how people find it to be a punitive system which is extremely challenging to navigate at the best of times, but particularly when you’re unwell,” he said.

“We hope this investigation by the EHRC is the catalyst that finally leads to real change in how people severely affected by mental illness are supported by the state.”

In 2018, 57-year-old Errol Graham reportedly died of starvation in Nottingham after his benefit payments were stopped. In 2013, former soldier David Clapson was found dead from diabetic ketoacidosis 18 days after his benefits were sanctioned.

A welfare and disability activist who goes by the name of Ben Claimant said the investigation was “welcome, albeit belated” – but regretted that it will largely focus on 2021 onwards.

“The terrible, dehumanising treatment of claimants goes back years before 2021, with David Clapson tragically dying in 2013, for example,” he said. “So I would urge EHRC to widen their investigation as currently it is focusing on 2021 onwards.”

Claimant also criticised the EHRC for not accepting submissions from individual members of the public. Only whistleblowers, charities, and other stakeholders will be able to contribute; full list here.

“I think this is wrong, select committees allow this, so why not the EHRC? This will prevent a lot of individuals who have been treated badly the opportunity to provide important, personal testimony,’ he said. “It creates extra barriers and they should reconsider.”

Mikey Erhardt, Campaigner at Disability Rights UK, said that campaigners wouldn’t wait on EHRC conclusions to fight for better ougcomes.

“Disabled people nationwide have been waiting for the EHRC to take action for years. We have all known that the DWP has been failing us – and that their policies over the years have caused our community unimaginable harm,” he said.

“We hope the EHRC has the courage to properly enforce its future conclusions and deliver sweeping reforms to our broken social security system. But we will not hold our breath for an institution of this government to deliver the change we all need. Instead, we will come together as a movement to fight for what we need.”

The probe comes as the government announces plans to ‘help more disabled people into work’ – a scheme campaigners have argued is actually a way to cut spending on benefits by making it more difficult for people to qualify. Last month, the High Court granted a disability activist the right to take the government to court over the controversial plans.

Why is the DWP under investigation?

The investigation is the latest – and most serious – development in an ongoing process of EHRC scrutiny.

The watchdog began looking into the DWP after a group of MPs recommended it investigate the deaths of vulnerable claimants, by suicide and other causes, between 2008 and 2020.

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In a report submitted to the UN earlier this year, it warned that disabled people face “psychological distress”, poverty and “avoidable deaths” due to DWP failures.  

The Big Issue has previously spoken to people have been driven to “psychological trauma to the point of being suicidal” when navigating the disability benefits system, and exposed the story of a young man who took his own life after facing anxiety that his disability benefits would be taken away.

The EHRC investigation will focus on whether the DWP has failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people with learning disabilities or long-term mental health conditions during the process to claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit.

Possible sanctions could include an unlimited fine.

Tom Pollard, head of social policy at New Economics Foundation, welcomed the inquiry on X, formerly known as twitter.

“For too long, the DWP has prioritised strictly policing the benefits system over upholding a meaningful duty of care toward ill & disabled people,” he posted. “The consequences are often harmful & sometimes tragic. This is an important & welcome inquiry from the EHRC.”

A spokesperson for the DWP 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.”

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