The most senior civil servant in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been told that the continuing failure to sign a legal agreement that would force his department to improve its treatment of disabled claimants is “totally unacceptable”.
It is now nine months since the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it expected DWP to sign a section 23 legal agreement – under the Equality Act 2006 – by the summer of 2022.
Such an agreement would commit DWP to addressing the discrimination faced by disabled benefit claimants, particularly those with mental distress and ill-health, and learning difficulties.
It follows more than a decade of deaths that have been closely linked to DWP’s actions and policies.
Peter Schofield, DWP’s permanent secretary, was questioned yesterday (Wednesday, watch from 10.32) when giving evidence to the Commons work and pensions committee about his department’s continuing failure to sign the agreement.
He said: “The conversations are going well. We are now talking about the specifics about what an agreement would look like, and the activities around it.
“The discussions are well advanced, so further discussions this month.”
But Debbie Abrahams, a Labour member of the committee, said: “I can’t tell you how disappointed I am, and the committee will be, at that response.
“It’s exactly the response that we had at the end of November… it looks as if the government is ignoring our equality legislation.
“This is a notice under the 2006 Equality Act. To come here and say the same thing is just totally unacceptable.
“This is about a notice to your department that there are grounds around discrimination of disabled people… what does that say to the millions of disabled people who rely on your department, what does it say to them?”
Schofield claimed DWP was “working really collaboratively and constructively” with EHRC, although he said the legislation stated that he could not discuss the conversations the two bodies were having.
He said senior EHRC figures were “happy with the conversations that we are having and the progress we are making”.
But Abrahams told him: “What is unacceptable is you say you’re working hard and it’s nine months on.”
She then highlighted figures reported last week by Disability News Service which showed that complaints about DWP that have been lodged with the Independent Case Examiner (ICE) shot up by nearly 70 per cent last year.
Schofield said cases taken up by ICE have “often been a while through the system as they’ve exhausted our own complaints process”.
He said that although complaints to ICE had risen, complaints to DWP had fallen.
He said: “This is all part of trying to make sure… we are a large organisation, Ms Abrahams, but we need to make sure that those feedback loops work, that we are understanding and learning where things… and things sadly have gone wrong, and I want to put them right, and we’re doing everything we can to put them right.
“The work of the Independent Case Examiner is part of helping us put things right.”
But Abrahams told him: “I seriously don’t think I’m the only one on this committee who has concerns.
“I would like to think that I won’t be asking questions on this in the future, but I fear I will.”
EHRC had not commented on Schofield’s claims by noon today.
Picture: Debbie Abrahams (left) and Peter Schofield
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