The equality watchdog is considering taking action to tackle discrimination in the way decisions are made in the social security system, it revealed this morning.
Although the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has not provided any further details, it released a statement this morning (Thursday) in response to continuing calls for action from Labour MP Debbie Abrahams.
She had told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday that evidence from disabled people about their appalling experiences of benefit assessments was helping to build a case to persuade EHRC to launch an inquiry into links between the government’s actions and the deaths of claimants.
Abrahams (pictured) has met with EHRC to discuss her concerns about the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), following a letter she wrote to the watchdog in June.
She asked EHRC in her letter to investigate why ministers hid documents from Dr Paul Litchfield, their own independent reviewer of the work capability assessment (WCA), when they knew the information would link the “fitness for work” test to the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
And she told EHRC of her “grave concerns” about how DWP investigates deaths linked to its activity, and the lack of official scrutiny of the treatment of disabled people by DWP and its private sector contractors, Maximus, Capita and Atos, which carry out assessments.
Abrahams is working with disability blogger Dr Chris Whitaker, who has so far collected 570 stories in less than two months from disabled people who have been through the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment system.
DNS spent months investigating allegations of dishonesty by PIP assessors in late 2016 and throughout 2017, hearing eventually from more than 250 disabled people in less than a year about how they had been unfairly deprived of their benefits.
And last month, DNS revealed that PIP claimants are now almost twice as likely to win their tribunal appeal than claimants of disability living allowance – which is being replaced by PIP for working-age claimants – were almost a decade ago.
Abrahams said she had been campaigning for urgent reform to the assessment processes for PIP and employment and support allowance (ESA) for several years.
She said: “The harm, and even the deaths of claimants following these assessments and PIP or ESA support being disallowed, is well documented.
“That these assessments are government policy and government commissioned beggars belief.
“Disability News Service’s lengthy investigation into the information shared with the independent experts reviewing the work capability assessment uncovered grave concerns about the department’s investigation into, and recording of, claimant deaths that may be associated with DWP activity.”
She said that the collation of assessment cases via Whitaker’s website, and elsewhere, was now “building the evidence” to try to persuade EHRC to carry out an inquiry.
An EHRC spokesperson said: “We are currently reviewing what potential work we might undertake to tackle discriminatory decision-making in the social security system.
“We will respond to Debbie Abrahams in due course.”
DWP has previously insisted that it “co-operated fully with the Litchfield reviews, and shared all relevant information which was requested by Dr Litchfield and his team” and told DNS that it “was not asked by Dr Litchfield or his review for information on the specific cases you refer to”.
It has repeatedly defended the PIP assessment system, and earlier this month said: “We want the assessment process to work well for everyone and have made significant improvements, including introducing ESA life-long awards and light-touch 10-year PIP reviews for those with the most serious, life-long conditions.
“The number of complaints about PIP assessments represents one per cent of the total number of individuals assessed.”
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