Therese Coffey has been accused of “sticking her fingers up” at every family whose relative has died because of the failings of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), after she claimed that her department has no “duty of care” to benefit claimants.
The work and pensions secretary told MPs yesterday (Wednesday) that it was not DWP’s responsibility to have a statutory duty of care to the people who rely on it for support through the benefits system.
Instead, she said, that duty should be left to “the local councils, the social services, the doctors and other people”.
She was responding to Labour MP Debbie Abrahams about written answers she had sent to the Commons work and pensions committee the previous day, following her appearance before the committee on 22 July.
In one of her written answers, Coffey (pictured) had told the committee that DWP did not have a statutory duty of care or a safeguarding duty.
Abrahams, who has led efforts in parliament to hold DWP to account for the countless deaths of benefit claimants caused by its failings, suggested the government had a “moral obligation” to have such a duty of care to benefit claimants in vulnerable situations and that it was “simply not good enough” to leave that to local authorities.
Coffey said she had tried to “accelerate the amount of support” provided to claimants, and that DWP was working with local safeguarding teams and safeguarding boards “in order to provide the outcome… which is about how can we help more”.
After being told of Coffey’s comments, disabled campaigner Alison Turner accused the work and pensions secretary of being “heartless” and “sticking her fingers up to all the families who have lost someone” because of DWP’s actions.
Turner’s partner is the son of 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 work capability assessment process.
She told Disability News Service: “It’s only right and caring that you make sure of a person’s safety before you do anything that could kill them. It’s common sense.”
She said Coffey’s message to families whose relatives have died because of DWP’s failings was: “I don’t have a duty of care and I don’t need one and that’s why your loved ones died.”
She added: “That’s her problem: she’s heartless.”
Turner said Coffey’s comments were “absolutely disgusting” but they did explain how Errol Graham and so many other disabled benefit claimants had died over the last decade, and why this “continues to happen to other people”.
She said: “People like Errol have died because of it, because of the department’s lack of care, its lack of concern for people’s safety.”
She said that disabled people’s financial support from DWP was often their “lifeline” and she did not understand how “a department as big as DWP, responsible for millions of disabled people” can argue that it does not have a duty of care.
Coffey also told the work and pensions committee yesterday that DWP was discussing how it could “safely reintroduce a limited number” of face-to-face assessments for disability benefit claims.
Face-to-face assessments have been suspended since March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
John Paul Marks, the department’s director general of work and health services, said the number of new claims for personal independence payment (PIP) had now returned to a level that was “close to what it was this time last year”, after falling sharply in the early months of the pandemic.
Coffey also said that Atos*, one of the two DWP contractors that carries out PIP assessments, had last week started to record telephone assessments, although the other contractor, Capita, had not yet begun to do so.
Marks said that another contractor, CHDA (a subsidiary of the US firm Maximus), had started to trial online video assessments of “fitness for work”, while DWP was carrying out a trial of about 500 online video PIP assessments.
*Atos delivers its PIP assessment contracts through Independent Assessment Services, a trading name of Atos IT Services UK
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