Many of the country’s biggest disability charities have refused to back a petition that calls for an inquiry into the links between the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
The charities – none of which are led and controlled by disabled people – are refusing to support the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*, with many of them rejecting its calls for any evidence of criminal misconduct by civil servants and ministers to be passed to police.
And many of them are also rejecting the petition’s demand for DWP to be branded institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose, and for it to take urgent steps to make the safety of benefit claimants a priority.
Jodey Whiting (pictured) died in February 2017, 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped for missing a work capability assessment.
The Independent Case Examiner concluded earlier this year that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling the case.
But her death was only the latest avoidable tragedy linked to DWP’s actions, stretching back nearly a decade.
The lukewarm response to the petition is likely to highlight concerns among grassroots groups that many of the disability charities that are run by non-disabled people are too close to the government, and particularly to DWP.
Only last week, Scope and Sense were included in a government press release, praising the prime minister for a much-criticised series of announcements on disability.
Only one of the 13 charities approached this week by Disability News Service (DNS) – Mind – has agreed to back the petition and its four demands.
None of the others have been willing to support the petition or issue a public statement supporting its aims.
At least two of these charities – RNIB and Leonard Cheshire – have signed Work and Health Programme contracts that include clauses preventing them bringing DWP and work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd into disrepute.
RNIB refused to back the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition this week, or to answer questions about its demands**.
Leonard Cheshire has also refused to back the petition, or answer questions about it, saying instead that it had “very real concerns about some of the ways the welfare system impacts disabled people”, and adding: “Clearly there needs to be further investigation into deaths connected to changes in benefits.”
Scope refused to back the petition and answer questions, calling instead for “urgent reform” to the benefits system and action to prevent further deaths like Jodey Whiting’s.
Sense, the other charity that supported the government last week, had refused by noon today (Thursday) to back the petition or answer questions about it.
Parkinson’s UK refused to back the petition or answer questions about its demands, saying instead that it continued to work with DWP to improve the system.
The National Autistic Society refused to support the petition or answer any questions about its demands.
Instead, it praised DWP for apologising for its failings in the Jodey Whiting case.
It said that “for any public body, any evidence of misconduct, criminal or otherwise, should be addressed by the appropriate authority”, and that “if there’s evidence of any criminal misconduct, then this of course must be investigated by the police”.
NAS said there was “a clear and urgent need to improve benefits assessments for autistic people”.
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, one of the grassroots, disabled-led organisations supporting the petition, said: “By their failure to oppose and condemn these systems and policies and join us in calling for an independent judicial inquiry they have blatantly betrayed all those for whom they were set up to support and defend.
“They are not on the side of disabled people.”
Mind is the only one of the 13 non-user-led disability charities approached by DNS this week to support the petition.
Vicki Nash, Mind’s head of policy and campaigns, said: “We support the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition.
“Jodey’s story is tragic and it’s also too common. We hear every week from people with mental health problems who have struggled to cope with the impact of sanctions and other changes to their benefits.
“While the causes of suicide are many and complex, the Department for Work and Pensions has a particular responsibility to make sure that its processes and policies do not cause avoidable harm.
“We believe an independent inquiry could hold the DWP accountable, shine a light on these issues and bring about changes to the system.
“An inquiry would need to establish what changes to the structure and culture of the DWP are needed to make it capable of providing safe and compassionate support to all disabled people navigating the benefits system.
“However, we also know that these inquiries are often slow-moving. An independent inquiry cannot be a substitute for immediate action to make the benefits system safer for people going through it.”
She added: “We are not aware of any evidence of criminal misconduct in these cases and so we have not been calling for such an investigation.
“But of course if any inquiry were to find evidence of criminal misconduct, it should be investigated appropriately.”
Other large disability charities have been far less supportive of the petition.
The MS Society has refused to back the petition or respond to questions about it, as have Action on Hearing Loss and Turning Point.
The mental health charity Rethink refused to support the petition or to answer questions about its demands.
It said instead that “changes in welfare policy have had a devasting impact on disabled people” and that the “most vulnerable are being left with the least support and the process of claiming is known to worsen health, including the mental health of claimants – including our supporters and members”.
Two of the charities did offer some support to some of the petition’s demands.
Mencap, while refusing to support the petition, said that the deaths of claimants such as Jodey Whiting should form the basis of an “independent examination” into DWP policies and practices in relation to “vulnerable claimants”.
A spokesperson said: “As part of this, the department must commit to act on recommendations to prevent future deaths.
“Should any evidence of criminal misconduct emerge though an independent review, this must, as part of a standard procedure, be passed to the police for investigation.
“We would also expect an independent investigator to consider allegations of institutional disabilism and draw conclusions on this from the evidence they have gathered.”
Epilepsy Action also gave some support to the petition’s demands, without backing the petition itself, saying: “We would support an inquiry into any links between DWP failings and the deaths of benefit claimants.
“We are not aware of any evidence of criminal misconduct by senior civil servants or ministers in relation to this issue, but would of course be in favour of any such evidence being passed to police.
“Any conclusion as to whether the DWP is institutionally disablist – or not – should be a function of any inquiry.
“While we are aware of many problems experienced by disabled people in their dealings with the DWP, we believe that whether this extends to institutional disablism needs to be evidenced by a thorough inquiry.
“As such, while we support the aims of an inquiry, including the conclusive statement makes it difficult for us to actively support the petition.”
*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
**RNIB claims that relevant clauses in its Work and Health Programme contracts have now been changed or deleted “so there was no ambiguity whatsoever that RNIB still maintains the right to campaign on issues that matter to blind and partially sighted people”, but it had refused to show these new clauses to DNS by 1pm today (Thursday)
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