The human rights watchdog may finally be ready to announce an inquiry into the deaths of benefit claimants that have been linked to the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), according to a campaigning MP.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had previously delayed a decision on whether to launch such an inquiry into benefit-related deaths, and the wider impact of DWP’s policies on disabled people, blaming the COVID-19 crisis.
But Labour MP Debbie Abrahams (pictured), who has been lobbying the commission over the need for an inquiry for nearly 18 months, told an online parliamentary meeting that an announcement of an EHRC inquiry in 2021 could be imminent.
She told Tuesday’s meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, which was attended by at least 50 parliamentarians, disabled campaigners and human rights experts: “I hope that they will be confirming very soon that they will be undertaking this inquiry for 2021.”
If the commission fails to do so, she said, “we need to look at other avenues”.
An EHRC spokesperson told Disability News Service later that its position had not changed, which was that it would not be able to carry out the inquiry in 2020 because of the “significant impact” of the COVID-19 crisis on its work.
Abrahams said she first began investigating the “alarming” rate of deaths of disabled claimants and pushing for change in 2013, after hearing of the death of David Clapson, who died from an acute lack of insulin, three weeks after having his benefits sanctioned.
Because he had no money, he couldn’t afford to pay for electricity that would have kept the fridge where he kept his insulin working, in the height of summer, and he had also run out of food.
Abrahams said evidence of links between the actions of DWP and the deaths of claimants that has since emerged, including documents secured by Disability News Service and this year’s report by the National Audit Office, was just “the tip of a scandalous iceberg”.
She also told the meeting that Conservative members of the work and pensions select committee had successfully resisted her appeals to hold an inquiry into benefit-related deaths because of their majority on the committee.
Abrahams said she had “pushed the select committee” to carry out an inquiry but had been unable to secure its agreement because of its Tory majority, although she had persuaded it to ask work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey to give evidence to the committee on the subject, which she did in July.
And she supported the suggestion from the disabled Tory peer Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin that they should put together a cross-party delegation of MPs and peers to visit Coffey and “see what can be done of practical use, particularly regards to the safeguarding process and the shocking attitudes of the DWP”.
The meeting also heard from Alison Turner, whose partner 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 she “just wanted straight answers” about DWP’s failure to meet its duty of care and check on Graham’s welfare before removing his employment and support allowance (ESA).
She said: “How can there be no communication whatsoever and no duty of care to make sure he’s OK before you take something that could potentially be his own lifeline?
“Since that day, that question has never been answered.”
Turner has secured a judicial review of DWP’s failure – dating back more than a decade – that will seek to ensure the safety of disabled people claiming ESA.
The family’s solicitor, Tessa Gregory, of Leigh Day, told the meeting that Turner had chosen to “stick her head above the parapet” and bring a case against DWP to ensure that “no other families have to live through what her family has lived through”.
She said: “What we are asking the court to do is to declare the current safeguarding policy unlawful.
“We are also asking the court to find that the department has acted unlawfully in promising at Errol’s inquest that it was going to review and overhaul those safeguarding procedures but then failing to do so.”
Gregory also said that the attitude of DWP to Turner and her family had been “profoundly troubling”.
She said: “Since Errol’s death, there has been no effort to understand their position, there’s been no effort to listen, and there’s been no effort to explain.
“I know that the department’s conduct in that regard has had a profound impact on the family and exacerbated their grief.
“I just do not understand why the department has not consulted directly with Alison and all her family.”
Abrahams told the meeting that, without action from DWP, she did not see Errol Graham’s death being the last, and she said: “Surely the government has a responsibility to keep all its citizens safe, including disabled people.”
One campaigner who spoke at the event, Tom Griffiths, said that evidence linking deaths with DWP had been given to select committees over “many, many years” in relation to both ESA and personal independence payment, and yet “more people are dying and possibly in increasing numbers because of the pandemic”.
He welcomed the Errol Graham judicial review, but he said: “That just isn’t good enough. It needs action at a parliamentary level.
“This evidence has been given to you over many, many years. The [work and pensions] committee must have a library full of evidence and resources highlighting [the deaths].”
He added: “I would hope in a democratic society parliament can do more and the select committee process can do more. Surely much more needs to be done.”
Abrahams said she had pushed the committee to carry out an inquiry, but she added: “The reality is if you do not have a majority [on a select committee], you’re seriously limited.”
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