The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has yet to agree to sign a legal agreement with the equality watchdog, after “serious concerns” were raised about its treatment of disabled people claiming benefits.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced in April that it was “requiring” DWP to improve the way it treated disabled benefit claimants, after campaigners raised concerns about the deaths of countless disabled people that have been linked to the department’s actions.
The commission only announced the plan after refusing to follow through on proposals for an inquiry into the deaths.
EHRC said in April that it hoped DWP would sign a legally-binding section 23 agreement by this summer and that it expected it “to be in place shortly”.
The agreement, EHRC said, would commit DWP “to an action plan to meet the needs of customers with mental health impairments and learning disabilities”.
But work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey told MPs on the work and pensions select committee yesterday (Wednesday) that an agreement had yet to be signed.
And she appeared to suggest that an agreement might not be reached.
She said: “The section 23 agreement has not yet been agreed with EHRC… and the approach… we are in discussion with EHRC about this, because I think we are awaiting further elements from the EHRC to some extent on why they have made the claims that they have.”
In response to questions from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, Coffey said discussions were ongoing between DWP and EHRC, and she added: “We hope to make progress sometime in the summer.”
Coffey stressed that DWP had to agree to any section 23 agreement.
She said: “It’s seen as a particular way to try and have a constructive approach. The EHRC has all sorts of levers it can do but that’s why we are still talking to them.”
Coffey was also asked about DWP’s continuing refusal to release redacted versions of secret internal process reviews (IPRs), which are carried out by the department into deaths and other serious incidents involving benefit claimants.
DWP is currently engaged in a battle with Disability News Service (DNS) about releasing two batches of IPRs.
It has even branded DNS “vexatious” for attempting to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain recommendations made by more than 90 IPRs carried out between 1 September 2020 and 28 April 2022.
DWP has claimed that to carry out the necessary reviews and redactions of each IPR would place an “undue burden and pressure” on the department, despite its £7 billion budget.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is currently investigating a complaint lodged by DNS against the refusal of DWP to release an earlier batch of redacted IPRs, which were completed between April 2019 and September 2020.
Coffey said yesterday: “There’s an ongoing back and forth with the ICO and I’m not sure what I can say right now.”
The committee also questioned Coffey about unpublished figures obtained by DNS earlier this year which showed that the backlog of disabled people waiting for a personal independence payment (PIP) assessment had more than trebled in the last five years.
The unpublished figures showed the size of the queue was 88,500 in October 2016 and had risen to nearly 312,000 by December 2021, and that the backlog had begun rising steeply far before the pandemic began in early 2020.
In response to questions from Labour’s Steve McCabe, Coffey said DWP had had an action plan to deal with the backlog and had been “starting to get on top of it”.
But she added: “We were starting to get to the point where we were processing more than the claims coming in. That’s now gone again, so it is a challenge, I’m not denying it.”
When DNS had asked the department about the figures in March, a spokesperson had declined to say why the minister for disabled people, Chloe Smith, thought the backlog had risen so steeply, whether she was concerned by the increase, and what steps she was taking to reduce it.
Peter Schofield, DWP’s permanent secretary, told the committee yesterday that the backlog was a “good challenge”, but he insisted that the time it takes for a new PIP claim had remained steady at about 20 weeks.
He said there was uncertainty about whether the number of new PIP claims – which was a key factor in the backlog – would continue to increase or would now fall again.
McCabe said: “Citizens Advice told this committee that there are people with disabilities who are getting into debt at the moment, people unable to heat their homes at the moment because they are waiting for these assessments, and that’s the concern.”
Schofield told him: “The new claims journey, the amount of time it takes for a new claim, is broadly steady, indeed it has come down in recent weeks because of the action we have taken. It’s currently about 20 weeks.”
He said health assessors working for DWP contractors Capita and Atos had “agreed a recovery plan” for the backlog, which they were “overshooting”, while the longer-term plan was to reduce the backlog by implementing DWP’s Health Transformation Programme.
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