MPs have raised concerns over the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), after it hid vital evidence from a statutory safeguarding review into a disabled man who starved to death after his benefits were wrongly stopped.
Nottingham City Safeguarding Adults Board confirmed last week that DWP failed to share key documents with the independent consultant who carried out the review into the death of Errol Graham.
The documents would have shown that DWP knew Errol had been experiencing significant mental distress just three years before his employment and support allowance (ESA) was suddenly withdrawn by the department when he failed to attend an assessment in the autumn of 2017.
Alison Burton, Errol’s daughter-in-law, who has fought for years for justice in the wake of his death, said last week that DWP’s behaviour was “absolutely disgraceful” and “a cover-up”.
Now the Commons work and pensions select committee has told Disability News Service (DNS) it is considering taking action.
But it also raised concerns about DWP’s continuing failure to sign a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that would force the department to improve its treatment of disabled claimants.
It is more than a year since the commission said it expected DWP to sign a section 23 legal agreement – under the Equality Act 2006 – by the summer of 2022.
Such an agreement would commit DWP to addressing the discrimination faced by disabled benefit claimants, particularly those with mental distress and ill-health, and learning difficulties.
It follows more than a decade of deaths that have been closely linked to DWP’s actions and policies.
Asked about the Errol Graham allegations, Labour’s Stephen Timms, chair of the work and pensions committee, told DNS: “The committee is concerned about this.
“It gives rise to clear questions the department should answer.”
He added: “We welcome the signs of greater openness from the new secretary of state [Mel Stride], which we hope will lead on to a sustained improvement.
“At the same time, we are very puzzled why the negotiation with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, originally expected to be completed last summer, has still not been concluded. No explanation has been provided for the delay.”
The committee met yesterday (Wednesday) to discuss its plans for future work, and Timms said ahead of the meeting that both these concerns would be raised.
An EHRC spokesperson told DNS the information about DWP hiding evidence from the safeguarding review had been “flagged” to its “enforcement team”.
But he said the commission had nothing further to add to a statement it issued about the section 23 agreement in March.
In March, an EHRC spokesperson had said: “We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions and have recently entered a phase of advanced discussions.
“We are meeting regularly to progress the matter and work through details that are being considered for the section 23 agreement and activities within it.
“The DWP has committed to working collaboratively with the EHRC and has restated that their intention is to do everything they can to make sure they support the most vulnerable people they are responsible for.”
This week, the commission declined to say if it was now time for action to be taken against a department that has repeatedly tried to cover up links between its actions and the deaths of claimants.
The Nottingham revelations add fuel to calls for an independent inquiry into the links between DWP and countless deaths of claimants.
Disabled people’s grassroots groups, bereaved relatives and charities, as well as Labour MPs such as Debbie Abrahams, Marsha de Cordova and John McDonnell, have been calling for an inquiry since 2019, following countless avoidable deaths linked to the department’s actions.
Last week, Abrahams, a member of the work and pensions committee, said it was “truly shocking that the government tries to evade being held to account, seemingly acting with impunity” and that DWP appeared to have a “blatant disregard for the safety and wellbeing” of disabled claimants.
DWP has refused to comment on the Errol Graham evidence.
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