Disabled campaigners have expressed shock and anger after learning how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) secretly abandoned work on a £106 million plan that was supposed to help it prevent further deaths of benefit claimants.
The plan was draw up under the leadership of former work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, but work on the “DWP Excellence Plan” was abandoned months after she was replaced by Therese Coffey in September 2019.
Disability News Service (DNS) reported last week how a freedom of information response from the department showed that it had abandoned all work on the plan, blaming that decision on the pandemic.
This week, many of those who have campaigned for years for ministers and senior civil servants to be held accountable for countless deaths linked to DWP’s actions said they were appalled by the decision to abandon work on the plan.
Joy Dove – whose book about the life and tragic death of her daughter, Jodey Whiting, was published in October – said: “It’s disgusting that they had all these things to make a better system and they seem to have abandoned it.”
The independent case examiner (ICE) found in February 2019 that DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to Jodey Whiting’s suicide.
Her mother, who is also disabled and campaigns for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP, said: “The plan was there to prevent more suicides like Jodey’s.”
She said senior DWP civil servants had visited her family to apologise for the failings uncovered by ICE and promised changes to the system.
But she said: “Now, all these years later, they have had a chance and they do nothing.”
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots group Black Triangle, said: “We worked so hard over the past 12 years to highlight the failings in the system and to recommend that policies and systems be put in place that will protect people.
“It is hard not to feel despondent when we seemed to make such progress in convincing Amber Rudd and the department that systematic change was necessary.
“We seem to take one step forward and three steps back under this Conservative government.”
He said it was “despicable” that the pandemic was being used as an excuse for abandoning work on the plan.
He added: “The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse. Disabled people have suffered enough.
“The issue must not be allowed to be swept under the carpet, and ministers must now give their full attention to implementing the Excellence Plan initiated by Amber Rudd.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said it was “deeply disappointing for the DWP to abandon such a crucial area of work”.
She said: “Delays due to the pandemic are understandable. However, abandoning work altogether and claiming the pandemic is to blame is simply wrong.
“These are people’s lives; ministers must do everything in their power to make the benefits system work for disabled people and transform the culture of the DWP to better support people who interact with it.”
Although DWP claims to have made some improvements since early 2020, including how it learns from suicides and other deaths, supports claimants “in the most vulnerable situations”, and delivers mental health training to staff, many of the proposals outlined in the plan have been dumped.
DWP has admitted that it has not drawn up a single progress report on the plan since a document titled “Delivering our plan for DWP Excellence” was produced in February 2020.
It has also failed to adopt any “critical success factors” that would have been used to measure progress, and it has failed to report on how £66 million allocated to support “vulnerable people” was spent, a “specific caveat” applied by the Treasury to the use of the funding.
The subtitle of the delivery plan was “Allocating £106m to deliver reform for the most vulnerable in society”.
Kathy Bole, chair of Disability Labour, said DWP’s actions were “extremely worrying”.
She said: “While I was sceptical this programme would get off the ground, I had hoped there would be some steps in the right direction.
“The DWP as an institution has systematically traumatised those already needing to turn to the state for support.
“The process of applying for the meagre help available is humiliating and demeaning.
“The mental horror of being stripped of dignity and experiencing the financial hardship associated with the DWP is enraging.
“This planned programme signalled a possible change for the better, with ‘lessons being learned’.”
She said she feared that the government’s move to “austerity 2.0” would see others taking their own lives “while living in freezing cold conditions with nothing to eat”.
DWP said last week that, since the February 2020 delivery plan, it had increased the “range of circumstances” in which it carries out secret “internal process reviews” (IPRs) into deaths linked to its actions, and that it had expanded its IPR team.
Among those who have died after work on the plan was abandoned was Sophia Yuferev, a talented artist who had been living on a sandwich a day for the last few months of her life, and died in the autumn of 2021 after both her employment and support allowance and her personal independence payment were stopped by DWP.
Another was Philip Pakree, on Boxing Day 2020, whose partner had warned that he was too ill to undergo an upcoming benefit assessment that had left him “distraught” and “devastated”.
DNS has also reported how a disabled woman left traumatised by the daily demands of universal credit took her own life earlier this year, just four days after being told she would need to attend a face-to-face meeting with a work coach.
David Hayes, from DPAC Sheffield, said he and fellow members were “appalled” at the decision to abandon work on the DWP Excellence Plan.
He said: “We have major doubts as to how successful the plan would have been, given the track record of government and knowing that Coffey watered down key parts of the plan to prevent people from suiciding and ‘learn lessons’ from people’s deaths.”
But he said DWP’s decision to abandon work on the plan “shows that the government does not care and has never cared about disabled people”, but that DPAC Sheffield and national DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts) would continue to hold DWP to account for the deaths linked to its actions.
He said that every person who has died due to the “hostility shown towards them by the DWP” was “precious” and that their deaths “have left voids in the lives of their grieving family and friends”.
He said: “The government could have prevented their deaths yet now they can’t even be bothered learning from their deaths to prevent future deaths.”
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