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DWP ordered to change the way it treats disabled benefit claimants

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Written by: Rebecca Goodman
20/04/2022
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must take action to improve the way it treats disabled people who claim benefits through a legally-binding agreement.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has made the demand following serious concerns related to people with mental health impairments and learning disabilities.

It comes after disability campaigners asked the EHRC in February 2021 to ‘undertake an investigation into the deaths of vulnerable claimants by suicide and other causes between 2008 and 2020’.

Throughout 2021, the EHRC examined whether the DWP had made reasonable adjustments to its processes for disabled people and those with medical health conditions. This is required under the Equality Act 2010.

During the investigation the DWP outlined the steps it was taking to meet its legal obligations to disabled people claiming benefits. But despite this, the EHRC claimed more action was required.

As a result, the EHRC and DWP are now drawing up a legally-binding agreement which will commit the government to an action plan to meet the needs of those with learning disabilities and mental health impairments.

Chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Marcial Boo, said: “The EHRC is committed to stamping out discrimination against all disabled people, including those with mental health conditions and learning disabilities whose needs can be overlooked.

“Government bodies often deliver essential services to vulnerable people. They must meet high standards and make reasonable adjustments for those who need them. The EHRC will hold them to account if they do not.

“This agreement with DWP will build on the improvements already taking place for disabled benefits claimants. We are pleased that officials are working cooperatively with us to address our concerns, and we expect the binding legal agreement to be in place shortly. We will monitor its delivery.”

Death and serious harm in the benefit system are an ‘ongoing issue’

The charity Rethink Mental Illness published two recent reports detailing the ‘failures’ it found in the benefit system.

One of these was the fact that the DWP is meant to conduct an internal process review (IPR) whenever its actions may have played a part in someone dying, such as by suicide, or experiencing serious harm. Yet the charity said that since July 2021, only 21% of these reviews have been conducted by the DWP after serious harm had taken place.

It also found that cases of death and serious harm related to the benefit system were an ongoing issue – not a historical one – and that reviews into them weren’t taking place as often as they were meant to be by the DWP.

Alex Kennedy, head of campaigns at Rethink Mental Illness, said: “We welcome the news that the EHRC is taking action to tackle these serious problems with the way that disabled people, including people living with mental illness, are treated by the benefits system.

“This is yet more evidence that the deaths and serious harm suffered by people who should be supported by the DWP are part of a systemic problem. To restore public trust in the benefit system, we need a full public inquiry and a new, independent process to investigate future cases of death and serious harm.”

The charity has previously suggested a series of actions which need to take place.

These include the DWP informing claimants and their next of kin in the event of a death, when an IPR takes place, annual reports being published of the number carried out, and a new system to be introduced so incidents of suspected deaths or serious harm can be reported- such as through a Jobcentre.

The charity also said the DWP needs to provide a clearer definition of what ‘serious harm’ means and strengthen guidance for staff for dealing with these cases.

Paul Alexander, policy manager at disability charity Scope, said: “Sadly, these findings don’t come as a surprise.

“The assessment process is broken and inflexible. The use of Informal Observations, the rigid and narrow scoring criteria, and assessors not having specialist knowledge of claimant conditions, are all failings of the system.
Disabled people’s trust in the DWP is lacking as a result.

“We hope this Action Plan will inject compassion and trust into the system. A benefits system which works for disabled people instead of against them will make a world of difference to many thousands of claimants”.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to providing a compassionate and responsive service to all our customers, and are constantly improving our processes to deliver consistently reliable and high quality standards.

“We have not so far identified any systemic unlawful action by the department. We will continue to work collaboratively towards our shared goals with the Commission, addressing their concerns and delivering for our customers.”

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