The Labour party has sparked anger over its “shameful” and “inexcusable” failure to promise a public inquiry into deaths linked to the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) if it wins power at the next general election.
Confidential policy documents that will form the basis for the party’s general election manifesto, passed to Disability News this week, do not include any mention of an inquiry.
Evidence stretching back more than a decade has shown how DWP repeatedly ignored recommendations to improve the safety of its disability benefits assessment system, leading to hundreds, and probably thousands, of avoidable deaths of disabled claimants.
It also shows how DWP ensured that key evidence linking its actions with those deaths was not considered by the independent reviews it commissioned into the assessments.
Disabled activists and relatives of those who have died – backed by Disability News Service – have repeatedly called for a statutory public inquiry into the deaths.
Labour shadow ministers have met with relatives but have refused to promise a public inquiry.
Now the policy documents, produced by the party’s National Policy Forum (NPF), suggest that Labour has no intention of ordering an inquiry if it wins the next general election.
It may have calculated that the decision of the Labour-led Commons work and pensions committee to launch an inquiry into DWP safeguarding would ease calls for a public inquiry.
But Imogen Day, whose sister Philippa’s death was caused by widespread flaws in the disability benefits system, said Labour’s failure to promise an inquiry was “shameful”.
She said: “It feels like they are more comfortable maintaining the status quo than making the necessary changes, and I’m not sure why.”
She said the committee’s inquiry would not produce the change that was needed and would not uncover the truth about DWP’s actions as a statutory inquiry would.
She said: “It’s not going to create the changes that we need and it’s not going to prevent further deaths.
“You have to know exactly why things fell apart to rebuild. If you don’t get to the bottom of this you can’t create systemic change.”
She said she would keep pushing the party to change its mind and promise an inquiry.
But she added: “We are running out of time. If we miss this opportunity, it is not going to happen and it’s not going to change.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said it would be “inexcusable” not to have a public inquiry under a Labour government.
He said: “It is an insult to those we have lost and their families that such a glaring injustice is not being addressed.
“It is shameful that they have turned their backs on us.
“They are totally whitewashing the history of deaths and avoidable harm caused by the system.”
And he added: “They need to face up to their responsibility for introducing the work capability assessment system in the first place [in 2008, under the last Labour government].
“They must address the issues which we have consistently raised over the last 13 years.”
Commenting on various concerns raised about the NPF documents, Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “The National Policy Forum plays an important role in shaping Labour’s policy platform, but this is not the end of the journey.
“The report outlines a credible and ambitious policy programme that will be further discussed at our party conference and we will set out our manifesto in full before the next general election.
“Unlike the Tories, Labour is committed to co-production and ensuring we work with disabled people right from the start.”
The section on social security in the NPF report says that a Labour government would provide a “reliable safety net” for those who cannot work because of “ill health or disability” and would allow disabled people to try paid work without having to be reassessed if the job does not work out.
It says Labour would ensure that “respect and dignity are once more at the heart of our social security system”, would end “punitive” benefit sanctions, and would promise that “every stage of the social security system will be supportive and accessible”.
It also promises to replace the current system of work capability assessments (WCAs) but provides no details of what it would replace it with.
This may alarm many disabled people already distressed by Conservative proposals to further tighten the WCA after the next general election – described by disabled activists as “cynical” and “horrendously dangerous” – and Conservative plans to scrap the WCA and rely instead on the personal independence payment assessment and the judgement of work coaches, changes that have been described as “heartless”.
Labour is also promising to “fix” the Access to Work scheme, with “improved targets for assessment waiting times at reasonable time scales”, and provide “in principle” awards to disabled people looking for work.
October’s party conference will decide which parts of the NPF documents are included in the party programme.
Ahead of a general election, Labour representatives will then attend a so-called clause V meeting to decide which elements of the party programme will be included in the manifesto.
Picture: Philippa Day (left) with her son and her sister Imogen
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…