The equality watchdog has been told to take “urgent” action over its failure to persuade the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to sign a legally-binding agreement that would force it to improve its treatment of disabled benefit claimants.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced plans in April for a voluntary agreement that would commit DWP to an action plan aimed at “resolving issues for DWP customers”.
The watchdog was seeking the agreement after countless deaths of disabled benefit claimants linked to DWP’s actions over the last decade.
EHRC said in April that the “section 23” agreement was likely to be signed “by summer 2022”.
It said then that this followed concerns raised by campaigners “about the deaths of DWP customers in vulnerable situations” and an examination into whether DWP was “making reasonable adjustments to its processes for people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties, as required under the Equality Act 2010”.
But more than six months later, the commission has told Disability News Service that the agreement has still not been signed, and that discussions are “ongoing”.
EHRC had refused to follow through on earlier plans for an inquiry into the deaths and decided to seek the section 23 agreement instead.
The decision to drop the inquiry led to EHRC being accused of failing disabled people and becoming “an extension of government”.
Its announcement in April of an imminent section 23 agreement – in place of the inquiry – was first placed in doubt two months later by work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey.
She told the work and pensions select committee that the agreement had “not yet been agreed with EHRC” and that her department was “awaiting further elements from the EHRC to some extent on why they have made the claims that they have”.
Now, two work and pensions secretaries and more than six months later, there is still no agreement in sight.
Mark Harrison, a steering group member of Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance, said: “It is clear now that there is no agreement between the EHRC and DWP, so the EHRC now needs to act to hold DWP to account for its violations of the Equality Act using their legal powers.
“Failure to do so will confirm what disabled people’s organisations fear: that they are no longer an independent or an effective human rights body and are not fit for purpose.
“Too many disabled people have died unnecessary deaths to delay further.”
Bob Ellard, a steering group member of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “EHRC and the DWP need to get some urgency into these discussions; all the time they delay, the lives of more disabled and non-disabled benefit claimants are at risk from shoddy DWP practices.
“This time, delay is not good enough; they need to get this sorted.”
Imogen Day, whose sister Philippa’s death was caused by systemic flaws in the personal independence payment system, said: “I am disheartened to hear that no agreement has been signed.
“I will continue to push for a full independent inquiry into benefit-related deaths.
“The reluctance of the DWP to voluntarily enter into an agreement with the EHRC is baffling and speaks to the insular nature of the DWP.”
She added: “The voluntary agreement was already a step down from having an inquiry.
“It is disappointing that it seems that the voices of claimants, disabled people and bereaved families has not been heard and the seriousness of the long-standing deaths and issues has not been taken into account.”
DWP declined to say this week why no agreement had yet been reached, or whether it expected to sign an agreement.
But 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 are engaging constructively with the EHRC to this end.”
Picture: Philippa Day (left), her son, and her sister, Imogen
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