The equality watchdog has been accused of failing disabled people and becoming “an extension of government”, after dropping any attempt to hold the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to account for its links to countless deaths of benefit claimants.
In its new strategic plan, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has confirmed that it no longer plans to launch an inquiry into links between DWP’s work capability assessment and the deaths of claimants.
It had originally promised to carry out an inquiry after being approached in April 2019 by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary.
But the commission later decided to delay and “deprioritise” the inquiry – blaming the pandemic – and then backed away even further from the commitment by instead announcing plans to address the “systemic barriers” facing disabled claimants in the benefits system.
Now, at the end of EHRC’s 2019-2022 strategy period, it has been unable to point to a single action it has taken to address those barriers.
And while its previous three-year strategic plan promised to “focus on the issues affecting the most disadvantaged in society” and “tackle discriminatory decision-making in the social security system”, its new three-year strategic plan includes no such pledge.
The commission promises instead to “focus our resources where we can make a real, lasting, positive difference to the lives of individuals across Britain”.
In its business plan for 2022-23, several actions are aimed at promoting the rights of disabled people, but there is no reference to investigating deaths or other serious harm caused by the social security system.
Mark Harrison, a member of the steering group of Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (ROFA), said: “The EHRC is not a serious human rights defender and has certainly let down disabled benefit claimants over the last period.
“Despite having a commitment to tackling discrimination in the social security system in their last strategic plan they did nothing to hold the DWP to account for benefit-related deaths of disabled people, despite overwhelming evidence of discrimination and neglect of duties of care.
“Now it appears they have dropped even the commitment to focus on social security and DWP activities.
“The government has over the last 12 years emasculated the EHRC by slashing funding and imposing political appointments.
“They have now unilaterally decided to scrap their disability advisory committee.
“While the UN has declared ‘grave and systematic violations’ of disabled people’s rights and a ‘human catastrophe’ in the UK, the EHRC has done nothing serious to address this situation.
“The EHRC has lost its independence and has therefore become an extension of government.
“They have lost their ability to hold their political masters to account and the confidence of disabled people and our representative organisations.”
Abrahams, the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, said: “Given the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s role as human rights monitor in the UK, with responsibility for protecting equality across nine grounds including disability, I am most concerned that they appear to have dropped any work investigating the social security system issues affecting disabled people from their three-year strategic plan.
“I appreciate that there have been leadership changes at the EHRC and I look forward to meeting with the new team to clarify the EHRC’s position on this.
“In particular, as I have repeatedly raised my concerns with the EHRC about the DWP’s investigation into and recording of claimant deaths that may be associated with DWP activity, and having called on the commission to independently investigate this, I will once more be seeking clarity on their position regarding an inquiry.”
The publication of the commission’s new strategy came only days after DNS published a 10,000-word investigation describing how evidence stretching back more than a decade showed how DWP repeatedly ignored recommendations to improve the safety of its disability benefits assessment system, leading to countless avoidable deaths of disabled claimants, and how DWP ensured that key evidence linking its actions with those deaths was not considered by independent reviews.
It also shows how the cultural problems within DWP extend far beyond the assessment system, touching all aspects of its dealings with disabled people in the social security system, and how the roots of its toxic culture stretch back at least 30 years.
In February, ROFA and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) wrote to EHRC, pointing to a series of deaths and other evidence that has emerged in the last two years as the commission has repeatedly failed to act.
They said in the letter that the situation “continues to deteriorate and claimants continue to die as a result of the hostile climate created by the DWP for Disabled people”.
A spokesperson for the commission refused this week to say why EHRC had dropped its commitment to “the most disadvantaged in society”; failed to point to a single action it had taken over the last three years to tackle discriminatory decision-making by DWP; and would not explain why it dropped plans to hold a DWP inquiry.
She also refused to say if the government had exerted any pressure on EHRC to drop the plans for a DWP inquiry, drop the “focus on the issues affecting the most disadvantaged in society”, and scrap its plans to “tackle discriminatory decision-making in the social security system” in the current strategic plan.
But she said in a statement: “We are an independent body. Given our broad remit and limited resources, we need to make difficult decisions on what to prioritise, but remain committed to protecting everyone in Britain.
“We consulted publicly on our strategic plan for 2022-25 and received over 800 responses.
“We have set out how we responded to the feedback we received as part of the consultation on our website.
“The commission will continue to look at the intersection between socio-economic disadvantage and protected characteristics, across the strategic priorities in our plan as we assess where we can most effectively use our powers to tackle discrimination and uphold equality and human rights.
“As part of our new strategy we want to retain capacity to respond to issues as they arise, and will regularly review our priorities and the impact we are having.”
Picture: Campaigners outside DWP’s Whitehall headquarters in 2019, drawing attention to deaths linked to DWP’s actions
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