Disabled activists have questioned why a charity is spearheading a new campaign to call for an inquiry into deaths linked to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), eight months after refusing to support a similar call by user-led groups.
Last year, Rethink was one of the large disability charities that refused to back the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, which itself called for an inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants.
The petition also called for evidence of criminal misconduct by civil servants and ministers to be passed to police, for DWP to be branded institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose, and for the department to take urgent steps to make the safety of benefit claimants a priority.
Rethink was among the major disability charities that refused to support the petition, and the charity also refused to back the call for an inquiry.
One of the reasons the petition failed to reach the necessary 100,000 signatures that would have secured a parliamentary debate was the lack of support from large charities such as Rethink.
Disabled activists and grassroots groups of disabled people have been calling for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP since at least early 2016.
Last year’s petition was backed by Joy Dove, the mother of Jodey Whiting (pictured), who died in February 2017, 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped for missing a work capability assessment.
Rethink has now persuaded 20 other organisations to sign a letter it has written to work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey that calls for an inquiry into deaths linked to the social security system. It has also launched its own petition.
The charity points to the death of Errol Graham, first reported by Disability News Service in January, who himself had a mental health condition and starved to death after his out-of-work benefits were wrongly removed by DWP.
Rick Burgess, the disabled activist who is believed to have been one of the first to call for an inquiry, alongside the late Debbie Jolly, in early 2016, said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
“It would be nice if they acknowledged that activists lead the way, but we are pretty used to this rewriting of history.
“Any independent inquiry should be judge-led and have powers to compel disclosure; we are after all talking about corporate manslaughter by the British state.
“This needs to be taken as seriously as the Hillsborough or Bloody Sunday investigations.”
Joy Dove also raised concerns yesterday, after Rethink announced its new campaign.
She said she was angry that Rethink was launching its campaign after refusing last year to back calls for an inquiry, and failing to back the petition in her daughter’s name.
She said: “I don’t think it’s right. It looks as though Rethink are only doing it for their own publicity.
“Why did they refuse to back me and my campaign for Jodey?
“It would have meant a lot to me and Jodey’s family if they had backed the petition, which ran for six months. It was like a kick in the teeth. We should have got their backing.”
Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of DPAC, which supported the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, said: “It’s an absolute hypocrisy that Rethink have now launched a petition calling for an independent benefit deaths inquiry re deaths linked to the DWP.”
She said Rethink had “totally refused” to back the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition.
She said: “Grassroots campaigners have been calling for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths for over four years.
“Their silence and lack of support was outrageous and totally wrong.
“We will continue to campaign for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths linked to the DWP and continue the fight for justice.”
Michelle Maher, from WOWcampaign, said she was “gobsmacked” by the Rethink announcement when it had failed, along with many other charities, to support the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition and had also failed to support disabled people facing the “hostile environment” created by the government.
She said: “They stood silently by. Deaths because of welfare reforms were ignored despite activists and families seeking justice.”
Rethink had refused to say by noon today (Thursday) why it had changed its mind on the petition; why it had ignored user-led efforts to secure change; why it failed to work with grassroots groups of disabled people who had already called for an inquiry; and what its message was to Joy Dove.
But a Rethink spokesperson said in a statement: “We welcome support from organisations and individuals who have long been campaigning for an independent inquiry and will have understood the significance of the report from the National Audit Office which was released last month.”
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