The equality and human rights watchdog failed to consult its board, or its disabled advisers, before deciding to delay an inquiry into the government’s work capability assessment and its links with the deaths of benefit claimants, new documents have revealed.
The decision by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was taken only by the senior staff members on its executive group, with no attempt to consult the watchdog’s chair, its other commissioners or its disability advisory committee (DAC).
The only member of the EHRC board involved in the decision was its chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, papers released to Disability News Service (DNS) under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.
The EHRC papers confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) inquiry has now been “deprioritised” and that the commission accepts that this decision could have a “detrimental impact on stakeholder relationships”.
One of the EHRC papers released to DNS reveals that among the principles the commission used to prioritise its work through the pandemic was whether it was “critical to our international standing or reputation”.
The papers also reveal that the postponed inquiry was to look specifically at “DWP work capability assessments decision making”, a focus of attention for disabled activists over the last decade and right at the centre of links between DWP’s actions and the avoidable deaths of benefit claimants.
DNS had asked to see the minutes of relevant meetings where the issue was discussed, and the names of individuals and organisations the commission consulted in reaching its decision, including advisers and board members.
But the commission only provided minutes from meetings of its executive group, and a letter sent on 24 June to Labour’s Debbie Abrahams which told the MP that it was “not possible for us to undertake an inquiry in relation to the DWP during this business year”.
Abrahams first approached EHRC in April 2019 with her concerns about links between the actions of DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants.
EHRC also released a paper to DNS that was to be presented to the EHRC board, but that was for a meeting that took place on 2 July, after the WCA inquiry decision had already been taken.
An EHRC spokesperson confirmed this week that the decision not to go ahead with the inquiry this year had been taken before the 2 July board meeting took place, when the “outcomes of the reprioritisation process” were rubber-stamped.
DNS had understood that the issue of why the inquiry was delayed was to be raised at the DAC’s meeting last month, but so far none of the committee members contacted by DNS has been willing to comment or say whether it was discussed.
The EHRC spokesperson refused to say what action the committee took at the meeting on 16 July and whether the inquiry was discussed.
As part of its freedom of information request, DNS also asked for the “intelligence and data mapping” that EHRC previously said it had used as a basis for the changes to its business plan, but nothing matching that description has been released.
There was anger and concern at EHRC’s actions this week from some of the grassroots groups of disabled activists that have spent years calling for an inquiry and highlighting links between DWP and the deaths of claimants.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “The lack of any effective action from EHRC to try to protect disabled people’s rights is totally unacceptable.
“They remain as useless as ever.”
DPAC’s Paula Peters added: “It’s absolutely outrageous that EHRC has failed to act to protect disabled people’s human rights and has delayed calling for an independent benefit deaths inquiry.
“Every human being who has died from the distress and worry of the WCA and its outcome is etched in our hearts and minds.”
She said the fight must continue to hold the government to account for the impact of the “horrendous assessments” on disabled people’s lives.
Claire Glasman, from WinVisible, which supports and campaigns for disabled women, said EHRC’s actions showed that it was “clearly not independent of government”.
And Carole Ford, from WOWcampaign, said the EHRC decision could mean more deaths like those of Jodey Whiting – who took her own life 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped by DWP for missing a WCA – and Errol Graham, who starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed by DWP, as a result of flaws in the WCA process.
Ford said there had been anecdotal reports that some of the WCA struggles faced by disabled people in recent months had been the “last straw” before they died from COVID-19 and may even have contributed to their deaths.
She said that any EHRC work examining the inequalities exacerbated by COVID-19 would be “an incomplete undertaking” if the commission failed to hold an inquiry into deaths linked to the WCA.
And she added: “Is the EHRC really saying that it prioritises its work according to whether it affects its international reputation, so that domestic benefit injustices can be swept under the carpet?”
Ian Jones, also from WOWcampaign, said: “So the EHRC refuses to investigate DWP deaths because it doesn’t want to upset the government.
“Who can disabled people turn to to stop governmental failure to safeguard disabled people?”
The EHRC spokesperson said: “The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare serious equality and human rights issues across the country.
“We have had to make very difficult decisions at pace to respond to the crisis and unfortunately this did not allow for comprehensive consultation with all of the stakeholder groups affected by our decision to pause our efforts to scope an inquiry into discrimination in DWP decision making this year.
“Both board and members of the DAC were updated on our plans to refocus our business plan so that we could respond to the emerging pandemic.
“It is essential we respond to the serious issues which coronavirus and the resulting response have caused for people with protected characteristics, including disabled people.
“We will revisit [the DWP inquiry] when we update our business plan for next financial year in March 2021.”
She said that minutes from disability advisory committee meetings were published on the commission’s website, but that the minutes from the 16 July meeting needed to be formally agreed at the 11 November meeting before they could be published.
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