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Abrahams asks watchdog to investigate DWP benefit deaths cover-up

An MP has asked the equality and human rights watchdog to investigate why ministers hid documents from their own independent reviewer when they knew the information would link their “fitness for work” test to the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.

Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, a former shadow work and pensions secretary, has told the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) of her “grave concerns” about how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) investigates deaths linked to DWP activity.

In a letter sent this week to EHRC’s chief executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, she explains her concerns that DWP failed to send crucial evidence about deaths linked to the work capability assessment (WCA) to the independent expert ministers had commissioned to review the test.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last month that DWP had finally admitted that two letters written by coroners, and a series of secret “peer reviews” into the deaths of claimants who had gone through the WCA process, were hidden from Dr Paul Litchfield.

Since DNS revealed the existence of the documents in the years after Litchfield’s final report was published, concerns have grown that DWP deliberately covered-up evidence showing the fatal impact of the assessment on many disabled people.

In her letter, Abrahams also says she is “extremely concerned” about the lack of official scrutiny of the treatment of disabled people by DWP and its private sector contractors, Maximus, Capita and Atos, which carry out the assessments.

She says: “As you will be aware, there are a large number of social security claimants who have died after being found fit for work or having their PIP [personal independence payment] refused or reduced.”

Abrahams asks Hilsenrath to launch an investigation into deaths linked to the WCA and PIP assessment processes.

She also raises concerns about DWP’s failure to tell her how many secret internal reviews have been carried out into claimant deaths over the last four years, and provide statistics showing how many claimants died shortly after being found fit for work or having their PIP claims refused or their payments reduced.

She tells Hilsenrath: “I am particularly concerned that disabled people are being specifically discriminated against by the Government-commissioned assessments for Employment and Support Allowance, Personal Independence Payment and Universal Credit.”

Abrahams, the MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, has previously backed calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the government’s social security reforms, and for any evidence of criminal misconduct in public office by ministers and senior civil servants to be passed to the police, two of the key demands of the Justice for Jodey Whiting parliamentary petition*.

An EHRC spokesperson said: “We have received the letter from Debbie Abrahams and we are assessing it.”

DWP insists that it “co-operated fully with the Litchfield reviews, and shared all relevant information which was requested by Dr Litchfield and his team” and has told DNS that it “was not asked by Dr Litchfield or his review for information on the specific cases you refer to”.

But DWP has been unable to explain how Litchfield’s team could have requested information – the secret peer reviews and coroners’ letters – if they did not know they existed.

To sign the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, click on this link. If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee

6 June 2019. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

 

Call for help to design a social security system of dignity, respect and trust

Disabled people and others with personal experience of claiming benefits are leading a ground-breaking project to devise a new social security system, in which claimants would be treated with dignity, trust and respect.

The Commission on Social Security, led by Experts by Experience, will seek ideas from other claimants, organisations and academics, before drawing up their own white paper and putting it out for consultation.

They will then launch a campaign to seek public and political approval for their final ideas.

Every one of the commissioners who will produce the white paper has been or is on benefits, and all of them represent grassroots, user-led organisations that fight for the rights of benefit claimants and disabled people.

In a disturbing sign of the current system’s flaws, some of the commissioners have asked not to be publicly named through fear of Department for Work and Pensions reprisals.

They hope that other benefit claimants, thinktanks, academics and civil society organisations will now share their own ideas for how to reform the system after the commission launched a call for evidence, with a deadline of 31 July.

The commissioners have drawn up a list of five key principles on which they believe any new social security system should be based.

They say all claimants should have enough money to live on; should be treated with dignity, respect and trust; should have rights and entitlements; and should have access to free advice and support.

They also say that the system should be clear, simple, user-friendly and accessible, with people with lived experience involved in creating and running it.

Ellen Clifford, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), and one of the commission’s two co-chairs, told its launch event in London yesterday (Wednesday) that its grassroots, user-led approach could avoid the “mistakes, the harm and the waste that top-down policy-making has led to in recent history”.

She said there was no question that changes to the social security system since 2010 had failed benefit claimants and disproportionately impacted on disabled people.

She said: “The pace of changes to social security that have been brought in, each with their own specific calamitous consequences, has left claimants, disabled people, and the organisations that represent us, fighting a largely rear-guard action as we attempt to mitigate the worst impacts and try what we can to ward off further avoidable harm.

“As a consequence, we can easily come across as anti-everything and as having lost the forward vision that used to characterise the disabled people’s movement.”

She said the combination of complex policy changes and user-led groups losing funding and capacity had led the movement to focus on “what is, rather than what could be”.

She said this was why she and fellow campaigners from Inclusion London and London Unemployed Strategies – a group formed by unemployed people and allies in trade unions and the voluntary sector – were so pleased when the original idea for a grassroots, user-led project on the future of social security was first suggested by Dr Michael Orton, from the University of Warwick’s Warwick Institute for Employment Research.

One disabled activist, who was representing the Unite Community union, and is well-known on Twitter as @imajsaclaimant, told the launch event that he shared stories on social media every day showing “how wrong austerity and the welfare system is”.

He said: “It shows that every day there is something new that has been discovered that shows something wrong with the benefit system.

“The stories we read each week should shame this country… but the longer it goes on, the more it feels like this cruelty is intentional.”

He described how his own experience of the sanctions regime had led to a suicide attempt and left him with enduring mental and physical health problems.

He said: “The safety net we once had is quickly being taken away, and for much of the time I have felt impotent to change the direction this country is heading in.

“This is why I fully endorse this new project today to create a white paper, because it allows us to do more than just moan about what is wrong. It gives us the opportunity to provide solutions.”

He added: “When I go into a jobcentre I start to physically shake. People also tell me that they are scared to go into these places because of the treatment they have received before.

“More and more I am hearing from people who say they are unwilling to claim benefits because of this issue. That is simply wrong.

“Jobcentres ought to be like valued community hubs… people who lose their jobs need to be supported and treated with respect, not treated with disdain and contempt, as happens so often now.”

George Tahta, from Survivors’ Poetry, told the commission’s launch event that walking into a jobcentre turns him from an “articulate and intelligent” person to “a gibbering effing wreck, and that’s what they do to me and that’s what they do to a lot of people”.

He said staff in jobcentres treat claimants “like dirt”, unless they have a supporter or advocate with them, and even then they “go away and stab you in the back” afterwards with a DWP letter.

The commissioners will be supported by Orton and three other academics and researchers: Dr Rosa Morris, who has personal experience of the work capability assessment and last year completed a PhD examining the assessment process and disability benefits; Dr Kate Summers, from the London School of Economics; and Austin Taylor-Laybourn, from Trust for London.

The commission is funded by Trust for London, which provides about £8 million in grants every year for work that aims to reduce poverty and inequality.

The other co-chair of the commission is Nick Phillips, from LUS, who said: “The commission is a great breakthrough for claimants’ rights to have a say in the shaping of a benefits system that affects their lives profoundly.

“We would like as many of those affected as possible to contribute to our call for solutions. This is their opportunity to have a voice and make a difference.”

Bharat Mehta, Trust for London’s chief executive, said: “We’re incredibly excited to be supporting this pioneering project which puts people with experience of the benefits system at the heart of redesigning it.

“The system we currently have is not working for far too many people. This project aims to create a consensus around what a new system that works for our society and the individuals in it, would look like.”

30 May 2019. News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Six families back petition to MPs calling for inquiry into DWP benefit deaths

Relatives of six disabled people who died due to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failings have backed a new petition to MPs that calls for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to the department’s actions.

The petition – backed by four leading grassroots groups of disabled activists, and Disability News Service (DNS) – says such an inquiry should also investigate potential misconduct by ministers and civil servants.

And it says that any evidence of misconduct contributing to serious harm or deaths of benefit claimants should be passed to the police for a possible criminal investigation.

The petition* – Justice for Jodey Whiting. Independent inquiry into deaths linked to the DWP – brands DWP “institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose”.

And it calls on DWP to “urgently change its policies and administration of social security benefits to make the safety of all claimants a priority”.

The petition has been set up on parliament’s petitions website.

If it reaches 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate by MPs in the House of Commons.

The petition was launched following the death of Jodey Whiting and is set up in her name, with the backing of Black Triangle, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), WOWcampaign and DNS.

DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to Jodey Whiting’s suicide in February 2017, an independent investigation found last month.

She had had her out-of-work disability benefits stopped for missing a work capability assessment (WCA) and took her own life just 15 days later.

The Independent Case Examiner (ICE) concluded that DWP was guilty of “multiple” and “significant” failings in handling her case.

Her case was mentioned in this week’s prime minister’s questions, after a question from her mother’s MP, Dr Paul Williams.

Her mother, Joy Dove, is supporting the petition.

She said she hoped the ICE findings would “open the floodgates for everyone to stand up and get this issue sorted through parliament”.

Relatives of other families who have lost loved ones as a result of DWP failings are also backing the petition.

Peter Carré, whose son Stephen took his own life in January 2010 after being found fit for work following a WCA – with DWP failing to ask his GP or psychiatrist for further medical evidence that would have proved his eligibility – has backed the petition and the need for a criminal investigation and an independent inquiry.

His son’s death led to a coroner writing to DWP, just before the 2010 general election, warning that the “trigger” for Stephen’s decision to take his own life had been the decision to find him fit for work, and telling DWP to take action to prevent any further such deaths.

The coroner called for a review by DWP of “the decision not to seek medical advice from the claimant’s own GP or psychiatrist” if they have a mental health condition.

Tory ministers failed to act on the coroner’s letter – or to produce a proper reply, despite their legal duty to do so – and instead pushed ahead with plans to reassess hundreds of thousands of people on old-style incapacity benefit through the WCA.

Research would later show that this use of the WCA to reassess claimants of incapacity benefit was “associated with” hundreds of suicides.

Carré said he believed the law had “consistently been ignored”, and he added: “Failure to take note of and act on the coroner’s recommendations has undoubtedly resulted in many deaths since that time.”

Eleanor Donnachie, who herself has experienced suicidal thoughts and tried to take her own life as a result of the WCA process, lost her brother Paul to suicide after his employment and support allowance was removed because he failed to turn up for a WCA.

It is believed that DWP failed to contact Paul’s GP to ask for detailed information about his mental health, and – as in Jodey Whiting’s case – ignored its own safeguarding guidance by failing to talk to him face-to-face about his support needs.

She said she wanted to see a criminal investigation and an inquiry.

She said: “It’s as if they can do what they like and nothing applies to them.

“If I go anywhere to do with DWP that brings it all back and I can feel myself getting angry, really angry, and I want to shout at them, ‘Look, you have killed my brother and now you’re trying to kill me.’”

Jill Gant, whose son Mark Wood starved to death after he was found “fit for work” and lost his out-of-work disability benefits, said she felt she had to support the petition.

Her key concern is DWP’s refusal to ensure that its decision-makers have access to the necessary medical evidence when someone applying for ESA (or universal credit) has not provided evidence of their own.

She told DNS: “I’m glad you’re doing it on behalf of people like Mark.

“It’s very important that something is done. I support the cause and I certainly put my name to it.”

Another relative, David Barr, said he wanted to see former work and pensions ministers Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling held accountable for the death of his son, also called David, who had a long-standing mental health condition.

He took his own life in August 2013 after a physiotherapist took just 35 minutes to carry out a face-to-face assessment that led to him being found fit for work.

It is believed that neither the assessor, nor the DWP decision-maker who rubber-stamped that decision, made any attempt to secure further medical evidence from his GP, his psychiatric nurse or his psychiatrist.

His father said: “It’s got to come to an end. They have got to start looking after people. In this day and age we should be doing more.”

A sixth relative supporting the petition is Gill Thompson.

Her brother, David Clapson, died in July 2013 as a result of an acute lack of insulin, three weeks after having his jobseeker’s allowance 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.

She said: “They have to stop this. I would like to see a legal case whether David’s name was mentioned or not.

“They have to be held accountable. I can’t change what has happened to me, but this should not be happening.

“These are avoidable deaths. I still feel that now as strongly as ever.”

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said he and fellow campaigners “did our utmost” to persuade the criminal justice system in Scotland to open an investigation into work and pensions ministers but had been given no reason for its refusal to do so.

He said: “It’s clear that the dereliction of duty on the part of ministers is still leading to the deaths of claimants, as we said at the time.

“Until this matter is addressed, people will continue to suffer catastrophic avoidable harm.

“We call upon the police service to take our allegations seriously and to make a thorough investigation into the facts of the case.”

Bob Ellard, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “DPAC fully supports this petition. We believe that these are vital issues that must be debated in parliament.

“The reign of terror brought about by this government’s hostile environment towards claimants is causing distress and severe hardship to millions of innocent people, and has resulted in the deaths of too many claimants.”

He added: “The DWP itself is a failing organisation which is chaotic and error-prone in its operation. It is currently not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul.”

Denise McKenna, co-founder of MHRN, said: “Survivors of the DWP are acutely aware that some lives do not matter and some institutions are deemed to be above accountability.

“Ministers and civil servants responsible for the DWP have known for years that their practices are implicated in numerous deaths yet they continue with the same practices, seemingly safe in the knowledge that they can get away with any level of cruelty and incompetence.

“The deaths will only stop if there is rigorous implementation of safeguarding practices which the DWP has shown time and again that it cannot be trusted to put in place or to observe.

“MHRN supports this petition; it is surely right that safeguarding is enshrined in DWP practices and that ministers and civil servants are brought to book for the lives they have destroyed, just as anyone else implicated in numerous deaths would be held to account.”

A WOWcampaign spokesperson said: “WOWcampaign has been fighting for seven years to get this government to show a duty of care to disabled children and adults in the UK by assessing the impact of all disability cuts, as called for by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the UN.

“We are keen to support this petition demanding justice for Jodey Whiting as her treatment and the many voices giving testimony to the despair, poverty and humiliation caused by government welfare reforms, published on WOWvoices.uk, reinforce the devastating impact of these policies, and the urgent need for something to change.

“We would like to see an independent enquiry into the effect of government welfare policy and a police enquiry into alleged misconduct in public office.

“There has to be Justice for Jodey and the countless others whose lives have been devastated by government policy.”

Samaritans can be contacted free, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org

*If you sign the petition, please note that you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the committee

15 March 2019

 

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com