The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been unable to explain why its secretary of state continues to insist that it has no legal “duty of care” to disabled benefit claimants, when one of its own secret reports states clearly that it does.
Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey has repeatedly told MPs that her department does not have a legal duty to “safeguard” its claimants, and that such tasks are instead the responsibility of local agencies such as social services and doctors’ surgeries.
Her repeated denials have come following a decade of distressing cases which have linked DWP’s policies and practices to the deaths of disabled people, particularly those being assessed for employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payment.
Now a secret report, probably completed in 2014, has shown a DWP civil servant discussing the department’s “ongoing Duty of Care” to claimants of incapacity benefit who were being reassessed for ESA.
It recommends a review of DWP’s “ongoing Duty of Care in relation to the identification and support of claimants required to participate in the IBR [incapacity benefit reassessment] Process, who as a result of a [redacted] may be vulnerable and have different or additional support needs.”
It continues: “When defined, the Duty of Care should be brought to the attention of all colleagues including those from Atos* who are involved in the IBR Process…”
The report also warns: “The risk associated with disregarding the possibility that some of these claimants need more support or a different form of engagement is that we fail to recognise more cases like [redacted], with consequent potential impact on the claimant.”
The references to the department’s duty of care are part of a heavily-redacted report written following an investigation by the department into a serious incident – probably a death – involving an IB claimant who was being reassessed for ESA.
The redacted report was one of 49 released to Disability News Service (DNS) by DWP following a protracted freedom of information battle that ended in 2016 with DNS winning an appeal to the information rights tribunal.
Despite the existence of the report, Coffey and her department continue to insist that there is no such legal duty of care.
Last September, Coffey told the Commons work and pensions committee: “I do not think it is the responsibility of DWP to have that statutory care duty.
“We are not the local councils, the social services, the doctors and other people who have that.”
Last week, she repeated the claim, telling the same committee: “We don’t have a statutory duty specifically relating to safeguarding.”
Her department has made the same claim in a freedom of information response to campaigner Amanda Hart, claiming that the “legal position is that there is no legal duty of care on the Secretary of State or her officials in the execution of their statutory duties”.
Last September, disabled campaigner Alison Turner accused Coffey of being “heartless” and “sticking her fingers up to all the families who have lost someone” because of DWP’s actions, after the secretary of state claimed the department had no duty of care.
Turner’s fiancé 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.
Turner said at the time that Coffey’s comments explained how Errol Graham and so many other 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.”
This week, Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a member of the work and pensions committee, and the MP who has done most to hold DWP to account for the deaths of benefit claimants, said: “If this peer review report from approximately 2014 says DWP does have a duty of care, when did this change and why?”
She added: “It is quite staggering, given the direct delivery of essential services and vital income to vulnerable social security claimants, that the work and pensions secretary doesn’t believe that her department has a duty of care to these claimants.
“It is unconscionable that this duty isn’t recognised, particularly given the horrific deaths of vulnerable claimants over the last decade, and must be incredibly painful for the families of those who have died.
“But it also makes a mockery of the government’s stated commitment to address the DWP’s failings and ensure vulnerable claimants are identified and protected.”
Asked if Coffey could explain the discrepancy and say whether the position over whether the department has a duty of care had changed since 2012-14, a DWP spokesperson refused to comment.
*At the time, Atos carried out work capability assessments on behalf of DWP
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