Work and pensions secretary Mel Stride appears to have made a significant blunder after insisting that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has a duty of care to disabled people who claim benefits, following years of DWP denials.
DWP has repeatedly denied that it has a legal duty of care, almost certainly because it fears such an admission would lead to a flood of legal cases taken by the families of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to its failings.
Former work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey has previously been particularly insistent in her denials that the department had a legal duty to “safeguard” its claimants, insisting that such tasks were the responsibility of local agencies such as social services departments and doctors’ surgeries.
But now comments by the current work and pensions secretary have thrown that position into confusion.
Stride (pictured, standing) was speaking at a fringe event hosted by the Resolution Foundation at this week’s Conservative party conference in Manchester.
Disability News Service (DNS) asked him how he could be sure that his latest reforms to tighten the work capability assessment (WCA) would not have a similar impact to reforms introduced by the coalition government a decade ago.
Research published in 2015 by public health experts from Liverpool and Oxford Universities found that the coalition’s programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit through the WCA was linked to 590 suicides in just three years.
Stride is now spearheading plans – which would not be introduced until after the next general election – that would make it significantly harder for many disabled people to secure the highest rate of support and avoid being forced to carry out work-related activity.
Among the proposals is to remove a vital safety net that protects those at risk of suicide.
He told DNS: “We have a duty as a department to act with real care and to make sure that we interact in the right way with often very vulnerable people, and we have processes and training and appeal procedures and so on in place to make sure that we do exactly that.
“I’m not saying that DWP gets everything right all the time, but we are very, very aware of our duties in that regard.”
He said the department was consulting on the reforms to the WCA, a process that will end on 30 October, “to make sure that we do take those decisions in a proportionate, careful and caring way”.
Stride also highlighted guidelines on media reporting of suicide (PDF) from the Samaritans charity. Those guidelines suggest that “most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life”.
Asked to clarify if Stride was now accepting that DWP does have a legal duty of care to its claimants, a Conservative party spokesperson refused to comment, referring DNS to DWP.
DWP suggested that its position had not changed and that it did not have a statutory safeguarding duty.
But a DWP spokesperson declined to comment on Stride’s remarks.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…