Disabled advisors to the equality and human rights watchdog have secured a promise that its planned inquiry into the work capability assessment (WCA) and its links with the deaths of benefit claimants is still a priority.
The promise came after the commission decided earlier this year to delay and “deprioritise” the inquiry because of the extra workload caused by the pandemic.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been told that members of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability advisory committee (DAC) secured a promise from the commission that the delay was not a “reduction in priority” for the inquiry, despite it being taken out of this year’s business plan.
EHRC has also agreed that the advisory committee will have input into the commission’s work to design the scope of the inquiry.
DNS only discovered the promise after the publication of minutes of a meeting of the committee that took place on 16 July.
Senior commission executives had made the decision to delay and “deprioritise” the inquiry in June without consulting its own board, or the DAC, and before the 16 July meeting.
The minutes of the 16 July meeting appeared to show that none of the 14 members of the committee who attended the online meeting had expressed any concerns about the commission’s decision that the inquiry would be “deprioritised” because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But after DNS approached committee members to ask why they had not spoken out, they produced a joint statement which explained why they had not done so.
They said committee members had “talked with the Commission both in and outside meetings, as it took decisions on re-timetabling of work in an extraordinary year”.
They added: “When they decided to put back the start of the inquiry into DWP decision making in order to focus on immediate COVID work we gained agreement that we would have input into its scoping and that this was a delay not a reduction in priority within the Strategic Plan.”
They said the commission had “re-scheduled work in the face of multiple emergencies and challenges” and they had advised the commission on a series of crucial COVID-related issues during 2020 as a result of the “multiple emergencies” disabled people have faced.
This includes blanket application of “do not attempt resuscitation” (DNAR) notices on disabled people without their consent; use of restraint and coercion in health and care settings; the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on disabled children’s education; and the need to protect and develop human rights protections as the UK leaves the European Union.
The advisory committee said it was “somewhat encouraged” by recent commission action on disabled people’s rights, including supporting successful legal cases, “calling out the unequal impacts of COVID, including on disabled people finding it difficult to get food, support and equal treatment”, and challenging discriminatory use of DNAR notices.
The statement was co-ordinated by committee member Liz Sayce and signed by her and 10 other committee members: Marc Bush, Helen Chipchase, Miro Griffiths, Fazilet Hadi, Professor Anna Lawson, Lord [Colin] Low, Rachel Perkins, who chairs the committee, Michelle Scattergood, Professor Nick Watson and Colin Young.
The commission was first approached in April 2019 by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, with her concerns about the links between DWP and the deaths of claimants, and the wider impact of DWP policies on disabled people.
The watchdog eventually stated, in June this year, 14 months later, that “due to the pandemic we will not be able to undertake an inquiry in relation to the DWP this year”.
The EHRC decision not to carry out an inquiry this year was later presented to the DAC at its next meeting on 16 July, but the minutes of that meeting were only published last week.
According to the minutes, “members confirmed they had read the paper noting that… the Business Plan had been re-prioritised due to the pandemic, was being reviewed on a 90 day cycle and that a second re-prioritisation process was in train”.
Only last month, yet another death of a disabled benefit claimant linked to DWP failings emerged, with the family of Philippa Day describing how she left a note that “directly implicated” DWP in her death.
Philippa Day, who had agoraphobia, appears to have killed herself after hearing hours earlier that her repeated pleas for her personal independence payment assessment to be held in her own home had been rejected.
This week, DNS also reports on the death of Roy Curtis, in November 2018, after an inquest revealed close links between his suicide and decisions taken by DWP.
The last decade has seen a string of other preventable deaths linked to DWP’s failings – as with Philippa Day’s death, not only relating to the WCA – with the department repeatedly being told to correct serious, potentially-fatal flaws in its procedures and policies, and often failing to do so.
In addition to the death of Philippa Day, they include those of Errol Graham, Jodey Whiting, Faiza Ahmed, Michael O’Sullivan, Mark Wood, David Barr, Diane Hullah, James Oliver, Paul Donnachie, David Clapson, Stephen Carré, in January 2010, and countless others.
A five-year DNS investigation, published 12 months ago, provided strong and clear evidence that senior civil servants and ministers should face a criminal investigation for alleged misconduct in public office, as a result of decisions and actions taken from the early years of the 2010 coalition government.
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