The equality watchdog has rejected calls for it to investigate deaths linked to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), more than a year after an MP asked it to launch an inquiry.
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, first approached the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in April last year with her concerns about links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants, and the wider impact of DWP policies on disabled people.
Eight months ago, the commission said it was reviewing what “potential” work it could undertake to tackle “discriminatory decision-making in the social security system” and would respond to Abrahams “in due course”.
Now, 14 months after she first raised concerns with the commission, and following another “holding reply” in February, EHRC has finally decided that, “due to the pandemic”, it will not be able to carry out an inquiry into DWP this year.
It only produced this response after being approached again by Abrahams and Disability News Service (DNS).
Abrahams (pictured) had described its delay in deciding whether to hold an inquiry as “shocking”, and said she was surprised that more people were not calling for an investigation into DWP’s actions.
She said: “I find it hard to believe that a government department is behaving in such a way.
“There are not enough people who are clamouring for this to be investigated and dealt with.”
She said EHRC’s decision not to carry out an investigation “for the time being” was “very disappointing”.
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, had also backed the calls for EHRC action.
She said: “There is a clear link between this government’s inadequate policies and the suffering of disabled people.”
She said Abrahams had been right to call for the EHRC to carry out an inquiry.
Foxcroft said: “Under the Conservatives, the DWP has become a department that all too often penalises and punishes sick and disabled people, instead of focusing on support and help. This must change.”
An EHRC spokesperson said: “The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on our work, as it has on many other organisations.
“We have responded to Debbie Abrahams to say that we have given very careful consideration to the concerns she has rightly raised about the impact of DWP policies and practices on disabled people.
“It remains an important area of focus for us but due to the pandemic we will not be able to undertake an inquiry in relation to the DWP this year.”
Evidence continues to mount of links between the actions of DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants, particularly those forced through the work capability assessment (WCA) system.
In January, DNS revealed how Errol Graham starved to death after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work benefits, leaving him without any income.
DWP civil servants had failed to seek further medical evidence from his GP, just as in many other cases that have sparked repeated calls for an independent inquiry into links between such deaths and the actions and failings of DWP.
But there is also increasing evidence that DWP has tried to cover-up those links over the last decade.
Among the evidence revealed by DNS is how the department failed to share secret reviews into the deaths of claimants – and reports written by coroners aimed at preventing future deaths of claimants – with independent experts commissioned to review the WCA.
This year, DNS has revealed how the government is refusing to publish two coroners’ reports that linked DWP with the deaths of claimants, one written in 2015 and one in 2016.
It also revealed in February how DWP appeared to have misled both the National Audit Office and the Information Commissioner’s Office over its failure to track recommendations made by its own secret reviews into benefit-related deaths.
In December, DNS published an article based on a five-year-investigation which concluded that senior civil servants and ministers should face a criminal investigation for alleged misconduct in public office over their failure to act on repeated warnings about the notorious WCA process.
Meanwhile, Abrahams has asked DWP if it has assessed the number of disabled people receiving benefits who have died from COVID-19.
She was told last week by employment minister Mims Davies that Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, was “engaging extensively and holding conversations with charities and stakeholders on exactly these kinds of issues so that we can understand the impact on the most vulnerable”.
Abrahams said later: “It’s clear from the minister’s non-answer that the government hasn’t undertaken any analysis of their data to understand how many people in receipt of social security support have died from COVID-19.
“They must do this as a matter of urgency. I will be pushing the government to make a statement on this.”
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