Labour and the Green party have backed a petition that calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the failings of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), and an investigation into potential criminal misconduct by ministers and civil servants.
The Green party co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, himself the father of a disabled son, said this week that DWP had “blood on its hands”.
Less than a week after the launch of the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition* last Friday (15 March), more than 6,000 people have already signed it.
It needs to reach 100,000 signatures by 15 September to be eligible for debate by MPs in the House of Commons.
Among those who have supported it are the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson and the disabled comedian and writer Francesca Martinez.
The petition now has the support of the relatives of seven disabled people whose deaths are linked to DWP failings.
Since last week, the daughter of Susan Roberts has backed the petition (see separate story), telling Disability News Service (DNS) that she would feel a sense of “justice” if she saw former DWP ministers facing charges in a criminal court.
The petition was launched following the death of Jodey Whiting and is set up in her name, with the backing of Black Triangle, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN) and WOWcampaign, as well as DNS.
DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to her suicide in February 2017, an independent investigation found last month.
Whiting (pictured), who had a long history of mental distress, had had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a work capability assessment when she was seriously ill and took her own life just 15 days later.
As well as an inquiry, the petition says that evidence of misconduct by civil servants and ministers should be handed to police for a possible criminal investigation into misconduct in public office.
It also says that DWP should be branded “institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose” and calls for urgent steps to ensure that the safety of all benefit claimants is a priority for the department.
Two years ago, the Green party issued its own call for an inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s actions.
A letter sent in February 2017 to the then work and pensions secretary Damian Green, co-signed by Bartley, said: “The more time passes without an inquiry, the longer concerns will remain and questions will hang over the procedures used by your department to handle benefits.”
The party compiled a dossier of 50 deaths of benefit claimants where the party said it had “good reason to believe” their treatment at the hands of DWP had been a factor in their deaths.
This week, Bartley told DNS: “The DWP clearly has blood on its hands.
“The evidence of the department’s failings is now overwhelming and there must be an independent inquiry with those responsible held to account.
“This should include turning over the findings to the police for criminal charges to be brought, where appropriate.”
Marsha de Cordova, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, also said this week that the campaign and petition had her “full support”.
Asked to comment on the petition, a DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to safeguarding vulnerable claimants and, in the tragic case where someone dies, ensuring that we respond swiftly and sensitively.
“We have changed guidance so that our staff update a claim where someone has died within 48 hours, making sure we stop all unnecessary contact as quickly as possible.
“And we have robust safeguarding in place to protect and support vulnerable people, including the resource to carry out safeguarding visits.”
*If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee