Tory conference: Newton admits DWP needs to improve

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The minister for disabled people has admitted that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) needs to “make improvements” in order to increase disabled people’s “confidence” in the social security system.

Sarah Newton told a fringe event at her party’s annual conference in Birmingham that “for lots of reasons” too many people were worried about applying for disability benefits such as personal independence payment (PIP) and employment and support allowance (ESA).

Her admission comes after years of anger directed at her department over Tory-led government cuts and reforms to disability support, including the introduction of PIP and the new universal credit, and research linking DWP policies – including those affecting the work capability assessment – with the deaths of disabled claimants.

Only two weeks ago, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how a secret DWP review into the death of a claimant of universal credit had criticised the “overtly threatening” nature of the conditions that claimants must accept when signing up to the new benefit system.

The conclusion by a panel of civil servants related to just one of 33 deaths, all linked to DWP activity, that have been subject to what are called “internal process reviews” since April 2016.

The number of these secret reviews carried out by DWP appears to have doubled in the last two years.

Meanwhile, DNS continues to receive reports every week of disabled people who have been the subject of dishonest or otherwise poor quality benefit assessments, particularly for PIP.

Opposition politicians including Labour’s Marsha de Cordova and Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd have warned that the impact of the “migration” of hundreds of thousands of disabled people onto universal credit from next year, and over the following four years, could prove disastrous.

And last year, the chair of the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told the UK government that its cuts to social security and other support for disabled people had caused “a human catastrophe” which was “totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in”.

Newton told this week’s fringe meeting, hosted by the disability charity Leonard Cheshire and the technology giant Microsoft: “It’s really important that people have confidence in the DWP, that they want to go and visit the jobcentre, and when they go and interact with us that they will meet people who they have confidence will treat them respectfully, with dignity and are basically on their side and want to enable them to live a full and independent life…”

Newton claimed that the benefits system worked well for the “majority of people”, but she said that “one person’s bad experience is one too many”.

She added: “I know that we need to make improvements.”

Newton said she believed that DWP was “making progress” in improving the system for disabled people.

She added: “Everything is not perfect as yet, we have set out a lot of reform, we have had very constructive dialogue, and I am confident we will make those changes.

“Then, once people are in that position, I think it is much easier to have a dialogue about everything else to do with health conditions and disabilities and all the really positive work that we are doing, and investing, especially in enabling people to get into work and stay in work and make progress in work.”

She mentioned programmes such as Access to Work and Disability Confident, both of which have faced repeated criticism this year.

Newton said: “I hope that when we do our customer satisfaction surveys… we will see that they have shifted significantly and I will see that my postbag is much reduced in terms of people bringing me cases of when things don’t work well… and people having a much more confident relationship with DWP.”

 

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