DWP refuses to release two reports by coroners into deaths of benefit claimants

Ministers are refusing to release details of two reports into the deaths of benefit claimants in which coroners warned that more disabled people could die if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) failed to take urgent action.

DWP has admitted that the two prevention of future deaths (PFD) reports exist, but it is refusing to provide any further details, including what action it took after receiving them.

Both reports were written by coroners in the last seven years – and before November 2019 – and were each sent to DWP following inquests into the deaths of benefit claimants, one of which was a suicide.

There is so far no other information on when they were written, the circumstances of the deaths, or the recommendations made by the two coroners.

Without that information, it is impossible to check if DWP made the changes the coroners recommended.

The chief coroner of England and Wales, Judge Mark Lucraft, who receives all PFD reports from coroners and publishes them on the official website of the judiciary, was this week unable to explain why he had not published the two missing documents.

PFD reports are written by coroners who believe – at the end of an inquest – that an individual or organisation should take urgent action to prevent similar deaths happening in the future.

It was previously thought that – since 2013 – only one PFD report had been sent to DWP by a coroner raising concerns about links between its actions and the death of a benefit claimant.

That report was written in January 2014, following the death of Michael O’Sullivan, and was first reported by Disability News Service (DNS) in September 2015.

But a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) last month into information held by DWP on “deaths by suicide of benefit claimants” revealed that the department told the spending watchdog that it had received four PFD reports on claimant deaths since 2013.

DNS submitted a freedom of information request, asking DWP for copies of those four reports.

DWP has now replied, providing links to the Michael O’Sullivan document and one other PFD report (see separate story), which followed the death of Alexander Boamah in north-west London in January 2019.

DWP said the other two reports “have not been published by the coroner”* and so it would not release them because it “treats personal information about deceased persons with a strict duty of confidentiality”.

The freedom of information response adds: “We will only disclose personal information about a deceased person with the signed written consent of the administrator or executor of the deceased person’s will or where ordered to disclose by a court.”

A spokesperson for the chief coroner said that he “simply publishes the reports that he is sent by coroners” and “doesn’t keep a separate log of all the details that are in the report so that is why it is difficult for his office to track where these reports are”.

NAO told DNS this week that its team had seen only the summaries of the four PFD reports, and discussed them in November and December last year.

*This was probably a DWP error, as PFDs are published by the chief coroner of England and Wales and not the individual coroner who has written the report

12 March 2020

 

DWP’s silence over drug misuse death of PIP claimant, despite coroner’s letter

A coroner told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to take urgent steps to prevent further deaths after a disabled man with a history of drug misuse died two months after receiving a huge back-payment in disability benefits.

It is only the second prevention of future deaths (PFD) report relating to benefit claimants that has been sent to DWP and has also been published by the chief coroner since 2013.

DWP is refusing to release two other unpublished PFD reports, whose existence has only emerged in the last month (see separate story).

The PFD report was written by a coroner following an inquest last July into the death of 54-year-old Alexander Boamah.

The report appears to show that DWP misled the coroner about an ongoing safeguarding review, something it had also done the previous month at another inquest.

A senior DWP civil servant told the coroner, Dr Richard Brittain, in response to his PFD report that a review of safeguarding policy and guidance was “currently underway” and was “scheduled to provide a revised policy and guidance in September 2019”.

DWP had made a similar claim the previous month to the coroner who heard the inquest into the death of Errol Graham, who had starved to death after DWP wrongly stopped his out-of-work disability benefits.

But Disability News Service (DNS) discovered last month that this safeguarding review was actually “ongoing” and “will continue as a key part of continuous improvement and learning” and will not even produce a final report.

Boamah, from north-west London, had been wrongly found ineligible for personal independence payment (PIP) in late 2016.

But after he was helped by a legal centre to appeal against the decision, he was eventually found to be entitled to the enhanced rate of the PIP daily living component and the standard rate of the mobility component.

Boamah, who had a history of heroin and crack cocaine misuse, was eventually given a payment of more than £11,000 – covering more than two years of benefits that he should have been receiving – in early November 2018.

An inquest last year heard that he died in his own home two months later, on 26 January 2019.

Although a post-mortem was not able to establish how many drugs he had taken, a liver sample showed traces of both cocaine and morphine.

The coroner recorded an open verdict.

The inquest had heard from a psychiatrist from Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, who had been treating Boamah and said he had had no way to express his concerns with DWP or “intervene to address the risks that receipt of this money posed”.

The team at the trust that had been treating Boamah for his addiction had also raised concerns that such a large sum of money could place him at risk, because of the potential for “unrestrained access to illicit drugs”, Dr Brittain said in his PFD report.

Although attempts were made to assess his capacity to manage his finances, Boamah did not attend these planned meetings.

DWP would later say in its response to the PFD report that it understood that – following the arrears payment – Boamah had begun to “disengage from his addiction treatment and increased his reported use of illicit substances”.

The coroner concluded in his PFD report: “There is a real risk that future deaths will occur where large sums of money are received by individuals who are then placed at risk through unrestrained access to illicit substances.

“Whilst it is recognised that individuals should not be deprived of funds owed to them, it does not seem that there is a process whereby concerns about such risks can be raised by treating clinicians to the Department of Work and Pensions.

“A specific concern relates to the potential that individuals, without capacity to manage their finances, may come into receipt of funds which place them at particular risk.”

DWP told Dr Brittain in its response: “The payment to Mr Boamah was made in accordance with the law and DWP’s policy to pay benefit without delay and as soon as reasonably practicable.

“However, the Department recognises that this may not be the most appropriate form of action in some circumstances.

“The review of safeguards for vulnerable claimants when making payments will ensure that the needs of vulnerable claimants such as Mr Boamah are reflected in updated policy and guidance to ensure necessary safeguards are in place.”

It promised to share the updated safeguarding guidance with the coroner “when available”.

But DWP has refused to answer a series of questions about the case, including whether it was aware of Boamah’s drug use before it made the arrears payment; what action it took to safeguard Boamah; and what action it had taken to improve safeguarding since receiving the PFD report.

DWP also refused to say how it justified misleading a second coroner about its safeguarding review.

But the department insisted that it took such cases “extremely seriously and [ensures] they are investigated and any lessons learned”.

A DWP spokesperson said: “This is a tragic and complex case and our sympathies are with those closest to Mr Boamah.”

Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust refused to say what communication it had had with DWP since the inquest; what the psychiatrist’s concerns had been; whether it had received any updates from DWP on its safeguarding concerns since last summer; and whether it had any ongoing concerns about the safeguarding issue.

But a spokesperson said: “As clinicians, we would welcome the opportunity to work with the DWP to see what could be done differently to prevent any recurrence of this tragedy.”

She said the trust had not alerted DWP in Boamah’s case because “large back-payments are quite common and often amount to hundreds, sometimes a few thousand pounds”.

She said: “In patients who are actively using drugs we have seen a number of people who have spent these back-payments primarily on drugs.

“However, this was the first death that we have seen in association with this behaviour, underlining the urgent need to work together to review how these payments are made in future to such vulnerable groups.”

She added: “The concern in this and other cases, is that people who are addicted to drugs, but cash-strapped and sometimes with poor budgeting skills, suddenly have access to large sums of money which may then be spent on drugs to the detriment of their health and wellbeing.”

The legal centre that helped Boamah with his appeal, the Mary Ward Legal Centre, declined to comment on the case.

PFD reports are written by coroners who believe – at the end of an inquest – that an individual or organisation should take action to prevent similar deaths happening in the future.

Since 2013, only one other PFD report has been sent to DWP by a coroner – and subsequently published – over concerns about links between the department’s actions and the death of a benefit claimant.

That report was written in January 2014, following the death of Michael O’Sullivan, and was first reported by DNS in September 2015.

But a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) last month into the information held by DWP on “deaths by suicide of benefit claimants” revealed that the department had told the spending watchdog that it had received four PFD reports since 2013.

DNS subsequently submitted a freedom of information request, asking DWP for copies of those four reports.

DWP has now replied, providing links to the Michael O’Sullivan document and the report that was written following Alexander Boamah’s death.

DWP said the other two reports “have not been published by the coroner”* and so it would not release them because it “treats personal information about deceased persons with a strict duty of confidentiality” (see separate story).

*This was probably a DWP error, as PFDs are published by the chief coroner of England and Wales and not the individual coroner who has written the report

12 March 2020

 

Further delays from ministers in answering coronavirus social care questions

Ministers have been unable to answer key questions on how they plan to cope with the impact of coronavirus on social care, despite announcing £5 billion in emergency funding for public services.

The failure to answer questions about the impact of the virus on the social care workforce came days after Disability Rights UK warned that disabled people must not be seen as “inevitable cannon fodder in the face of COVID-19” when those with underlying health conditions appeared to be “bearing the brunt of the worst effects of this illness”.

By noon today (Thursday), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had still not published promised guidance for the care sector.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak did use yesterday’s budget to announce an initial £5 billion in funding that he said would be used to support the NHS; to prepare and protect other public services; and to fund “local authority actions to support social care services and vulnerable people”.

He promised that “whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with coronavirus, it will get”, but made no such pledge in relation to social care.

It came as the World Health Organization declared yesterday (Wednesday) that COVID-19 was now “a pandemic”, with 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries.

Concerns at DHSC’s failure to publish the guidance are likely to mount after Labour’s shadow social care minister, Barbara Keeley, failed to secure answers from ministers on their plans to support the social care sector.

Keeley had asked what steps the government was taking to support social care providers in managing the effects of COVID-19 on service-users.

But care minister Helen Whately told Keeley that it would “not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period” and that an answer “will be provided as soon as it is available”.

She gave the same answer to a question from Keeley on the impact of COVID-19 on the social care workforce.

When Keeley asked health and social care secretary Matt Hancock about the impact on the care workforce when large numbers of staff were likely to have to “self-isolate” because of the virus, she was told it was something the department was “considering and working on”.

Hancock published DHSC’s action plan on dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak last week, but it focuses on the NHS and says almost nothing about social care.

Hancock did announce this week that volunteers in the health and care system would be given “additional employment safeguards so they can leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a widespread pandemic” and not risk losing their jobs.

Under these proposed measures – to be included in an upcoming COVID-19 emergency bill – the government will ensure the jobs of skilled, experienced or qualified volunteers are protected for up to four weeks to allow it to “shore up resilience across the health and social care systems”.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said this week that councils had “plans in place for every possible scenario” but expressed concern about the government’s response on social care.

Before yesterday’s budget, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, chair of LGA’s community wellbeing board, warned that public heath services had seen funding reduced by £700 million in real terms over the past five years and were “still in the dark about the amount of funding they will have from April”.

Following the budget, he welcomed the £5 billion emergency fund announced by the chancellor, but he said that a widespread coronavirus epidemic across the country “would inevitably have a huge impact on an already-stretched adult social care system”.

He said: “It is clear that local government needs the same commitment the NHS has received from the chancellor today, that it will get any immediate financial support it needs to help adult social care services keep vulnerable residents safe and reduce pressure on the NHS.”

Meanwhile, work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said that claimants of out-of-work benefits would not be sanctioned if they failed to attend jobcentres because they had had to self-isolate – as long as they informed their work coach in advance – because “work coaches can exercise discretion”.

But Buckinghamshire Disability Service (BuDS) said Coffey’s assurance was “far too weak”.

BuDS said: “DWP should be giving clear commitments that no-one who is self-isolating (or who is ill) should be expected to break isolation to meet any DWP requirements.

“This weak, equivocal, statement does not reassure people claiming benefits and doesn’t give them the confidence they need to decide what to do.”

Coffey also told Labour’s Debbie Abrahams that disabled claimants who failed to attend a work capability assessment because of COVID-19 “will not be penalised for doing so” if they “do the right thing”.

12 March 2020

 

Coronavirus overshadows budget, while social care is ignored… again

The chancellor has announced few long-term measures focused on disabled people in his first budget, but he has provided significant emergency funding to cope with the impact of coronavirus on public services, as well as temporary measures on sick pay.

Rishi Sunak used his first budget yesterday (Wednesday) to announce an initial £5 billion in funding that will be used to support the NHS; to prepare and protect other public services; and to fund “local authority actions to support social care services and vulnerable people” in dealing with COVID-19.

It came as the World Health Organization declared yesterday that COVID-19 was now “a pandemic”, with 118,000 cases reported globally across 114 countries.

There was no mention of disabled people in Sunak’s budget speech, and most of the disability-related measures detailed in the budget documents had previously been announced.

But he did announce temporary measures to make it quicker and easier to claim statutory sick pay and the contributory form of employment and support allowance.

There was also no major announcement on long-term social care funding, only confirmation of an extra £1 billion for the system in 2020-21 and the following three years.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock had earlier launched the government’s attempt to secure cross-party consensus from MPs and peers on the issue (see separate story).

Although Sunak did not mention disabled people in his budget speech, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted both social care and the impact of austerity on disabled people, in his response to the budget speech.

Corbyn said social care was in crisis and “instead of the government presenting a social care plan which the part-time prime minister told us was ready long ago, they are asking the rest of us for ideas”.

And he mentioned the case of Errol Graham, who starved to death after the Department for Work and Pensions wrongly removed his out-of-work disability benefits when he failed to attend a “fitness for work” test, a scandal first revealed by Disability News Service in January.

Corbyn said: “When the chancellor talks about the ‘difficult decisions’ that the government took in imposing austerity, is he thinking of the decision to deprive Errol, and people like him who are going through such trauma in their lives, of their income?

“The worst thing is that austerity, and all that suffering, has been a political choice, not an economic necessity.”

Sunak did announce new funding of £50 million to improve accessibility at 12 rail stations, an expansion of the programme of station upgrades being carried out through the Department for Transport’s Access for All programme.

This funding is on top of the £300 million announced in 2018 in the government’s Inclusive Transport Strategy for improvements between 2019-20 and the end of March 2024.

Sunak also confirmed a new £30 million fund that will help ensure wider provision of accessible Changing Places toilet facilities.

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, said: “These are absolutely critical facilities to enable disabled people to live independent lives.

“We very much welcome these funds, which should facilitate the building of well over a 1,000 new Changing Places, and the move to ensure that all future public buildings have to have a Changing Places facility as standard.

“We hope that this is the first step in the government recognising that we need far-reaching changes in the whole of the social and built environments – including housing, the public built environment, and transport.”

Among measures previously announced and confirmed in yesterday’s budget were a guarantee that personal independence payment awards will now last at least 18 months; three years of funding to provide more homes in the community for autistic people and people with learning difficulties who are currently in long-term hospital settings, although there was no mention of how much funding would be provided (the Conservative general election manifesto promised £74 million over three years); and funding to pay for the scrapping of hospital car parking fees in England “for those in greatest need”, including disabled patients.

12 March 2020

 

Discredited firms poised to rake in more than £1 billion from new PIP contracts

Ministers are poised to hand more than a billion pounds to discredited private sector outsourcing giants so they can continue to provide disability benefit assessments for another three years.

The plans will apparently see a huge rise in spending on the discredited personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process.

The existing contracts with Atos and Capita to carry out PIP assessments are due to run out at the end of July 2021.

Although it is not certain that the two companies will bid for, and secure, the new contracts, they are in a strong position to do so, despite their poor track record since they began delivering PIP assessments for DWP in 2013.

Ministers made it clear last week that the new contracts would last just three years, with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) planning to develop a new system for delivering all disability-related assessments through a single digital platform.

New providers could be unwilling to bid to take on such high-profile and troubled contracts for just three years before a major shake-up which will lead to all assessments being carried out by a single organisation, with the possibility of DWP even taking the contracts in-house.

Disability News Service (DNS) has seen Prior Information Notices (PIN) issued by DWP last week, which provide detail on the imminent tendering process for contracts to provide both the PIP assessment and work capability assessments (WCAs) for three years from August 2021.

The WCA is currently provided by another discredited outsourcing giant, the US-based Maximus.

Although the documents show that the cost of the WCA contract has also increased, the PIN for the PIP assessments contract suggests ministers are budgeting for a much steeper rise in costs.

In 2016-17, DWP handed £255 million to Atos and Capita to carry out PIP assessments across England, Scotland and Wales.

But the Scottish government is set to take on responsibility for all PIP assessments in Scotland from next month.

The PIN says that the new contract is worth an estimated £1.06 billion over three years, to provide PIP assessments only in England and Wales.

This suggests payments of about £353 million a year* to provide PIP assessments in England and Wales only in 2021-22, 2022-23 and 2023-24, compared with £255 million in 2016-17 to provide assessments across England, Wales and Scotland.

DNS spent months investigating allegations of dishonesty by PIP assessors in late 2016 and throughout 2017, hearing eventually from more than 250 disabled people in less than a year about how they had been unfairly deprived of their benefits, with such cases still continuing to come in more than three years after that investigation began.

Last September, DNS revealed that PIP claimants were now almost twice as likely to win their tribunal appeal than DLA claimants were a decade ago.

And figures released by DWP this year show that both Atos and Capita are still failing to meet key targets for the quality of their assessment reports.

The other PIN says the contract to provide WCAs for three years from August 2021 will be worth an estimated £500 million* over three years.

This is likely to be offered in just one contract, and will cover England, Scotland and Wales.

Maximus, which is in prime position to win the new contract, is already set to receive an estimated £227 million for the 18 months from February this year to July next year, at about £12.5 million a month, compared with about £14 million a month for the three years from August 2021 that will be offered through the new contract.

Maximus has itself been at the centre of repeated claims of poor performance, allegations of falsifying the results of WCAs and unsafe practices during assessments, and even links to the deaths of claimants, since it took over the WCA contract from Atos in 2015.

DWP refused to explain how it justified such a significant increase in the value of the new PIP assessment contracts, after being asked to comment by DNS.

*These figures are estimates because some of the payments depend on how many assessments the contractor is asked to carry out

12 March 2020

 

Rethink sparks anger over deaths inquiry petition, after snubbing Justice for Jodey

Disabled activists have questioned why a charity is spearheading a new campaign to call for an inquiry into deaths linked to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), eight months after refusing to support a similar call by user-led groups.

Last year, Rethink was one of the large disability charities that refused to back the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, which itself called for an inquiry into links between DWP and the deaths of benefit claimants.

The petition also called for evidence of criminal misconduct by civil servants and ministers to be passed to police, for DWP to be branded institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose, and for the department to take urgent steps to make the safety of benefit claimants a priority.

Rethink was among the major disability charities that refused to support the petition, and the charity also refused to back the call for an inquiry.

One of the reasons the petition failed to reach the necessary 100,000 signatures that would have secured a parliamentary debate was the lack of support from large charities such as Rethink.

Disabled activists and grassroots groups of disabled people have been calling for an independent inquiry into deaths linked to DWP since at least early 2016.

Last year’s petition was backed by Joy Dove, the mother of Jodey Whiting, who died in February 2017, 15 days after she had her out-of-work disability benefits mistakenly stopped for missing a work capability assessment.

It was also backed by Disability News Service, Mental Health Resistance Network, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), WOWcampaign, Black Triangle and WinVisible.

Rethink has now persuaded 20 other organisations to sign a letter it has written to work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey that calls for an inquiry into deaths linked to the social security system. It has also launched its own petition.

The charity points to the death of Errol Graham, first reported by Disability News Service in January, who himself had a mental health condition and starved to death after his out-of-work benefits were wrongly removed by DWP.

Rick Burgess, the disabled activist who is believed to have been one of the first to call for an inquiry, alongside the late Debbie Jolly, in early 2016, said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

“It would be nice if they acknowledged that activists lead the way, but we are pretty used to this rewriting of history.

“Any independent inquiry should be judge-led and have powers to compel disclosure; we are after all talking about corporate manslaughter by the British state.

“This needs to be taken as seriously as the Hillsborough or Bloody Sunday investigations.”

Joy Dove also raised concerns yesterday, after Rethink announced its new campaign.

She said she was angry that Rethink was launching its campaign after refusing last year to back calls for an inquiry, and failing to back the petition in her daughter’s name.

She said: “I don’t think it’s right. It looks as though Rethink are only doing it for their own publicity.

“Why did they refuse to back me and my campaign for Jodey?

“It would have meant a lot to me and Jodey’s family if they had backed the petition, which ran for six months. It was like a kick in the teeth. We should have got their backing.”

Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of DPAC, which supported the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, said: “It’s an absolute hypocrisy that Rethink have now launched a petition calling for an independent benefit deaths inquiry re deaths linked to the DWP.”

She said Rethink had “totally refused” to back the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition.

She said: “Grassroots campaigners have been calling for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths for over four years.

“Their silence and lack of support was outrageous and totally wrong.

“We will continue to campaign for an independent inquiry into benefit deaths linked to the DWP and continue the fight for justice.”

Michelle Maher, from WOWcampaign, said she was “gobsmacked” by the Rethink announcement when it had failed, along with many other charities, to support the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition and had also failed to support disabled people facing the “hostile environment” created by the government.

She said: “They stood silently by. Deaths because of welfare reforms were ignored despite activists and families seeking justice.”

Rethink had refused to say by noon today (Thursday) why it had changed its mind on the petition; why it had ignored user-led efforts to secure change; why it failed to work with grassroots groups of disabled people who had already called for an inquiry; and what its message was to Joy Dove.

But a Rethink spokesperson said in a statement: “We welcome support from organisations and individuals who have long been campaigning for an independent inquiry and will have understood the significance of the report from the National Audit Office which was released last month.”

12 March 2020

 

DWP silence over Coffey’s absence from list of Disability Confident backers

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to say why its secretary of state does not appear to have signed up to her own flagship disability employment scheme.

Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last week that a DWP database suggested that Therese Coffey had not joined her department’s Disability Confident programme.

The discredited scheme aims to encourage employers to “think differently about disability and take action to improve how they recruit, retain and develop disabled people”.

But Coffey’s name does not appear on DWP’s list of employers who have joined Disability Confident, even though – like all MPs – she employs staff to assist with her parliamentary duties.

Other notable absentees from the list include Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who launched the scheme himself in 2013 when he was work and pensions secretary, as well as former secretaries of state Esther McVey – who claims she devised the Disability Confident scheme – David Gauke and Amber Rudd, and the current minister for welfare delivery, Will Quince.

Gauke and Rudd are no longer MPs, but Coffey, McVey and Duncan Smith have so far failed to answer questions about their apparent refusal to sign up to Disability Confident.

A spokesperson for Quince said: “Thank you for contacting Will Quince MP and phoning our office with regards to the below enquiry.

“I would like to politely suggest you contact the Department for Work and Pensions press office about your aforementioned query.

“Thank you again for taking the time to contact us.”

DNS asked DWP last Friday (6 March) why Coffey, Duncan Smith, Quince, Gauke, Rudd and McVey did not appear on the list, when nearly 70 other MPs were members of the scheme.

A DWP spokesperson waited until 6.13pm last night (Wednesday) before producing a one-sentence statement that did not answer that question*.

Disability Confident has been heavily-criticised since its introduction in 2013.

Figures secured last year by DNS through a freedom of information request showed that the 13,600 employers that had signed up to the scheme by 13 September 2019 had pledged to provide just 8,763 paid jobs for disabled people between them, an average of just 0.64 jobs per employer.

Members of the scheme include many large employers such as local authorities, government departments, manufacturers, national charities, banks and retailers, including the big four supermarkets, more than 100 NHS trusts, and high street banks.

Three years ago, DWP declared itself a gold-standard employer of disabled people under the scheme – securing the status of “Disability Confident Leader” – just days before being found guilty of “grave and systematic violations” of the UN disability convention.

This week, a BBC Panorama investigation revealed that DWP lost more disability discrimination cases at employment tribunal than other employer in Britain in the three years since 2016 (see separate story).

*The DWP spokesperson said: “Levelling up the playing field for disabled people in all spheres of life is a priority for this Government, and we’ll be driving forward this agenda through a national strategy which we’ll publish later this year.”

12 March 2020

 

Minister makes second U-turn over elected office support

The government has performed a second U-turn in two months as it finally agreed to extend support to disabled politicians who need help with the extra costs of standing in May’s local elections.

The temporary EnAble fund, which provides support to disabled people seeking election as police and crime commissioners (PCCs) and local councillors in England, had been due to run out at the end of this month.

This meant it would not have been available to those standing for PCC and local council elections in May.

Following concerns raised by disabled politicians and campaigners, the Cabinet Office had told Disability News Service (DNS) in January that it was considering extending the fund for PCC candidates, although not to disabled people seeking election to local councils.

But Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, announced yesterday in a three-sentence response to an oral question from a Tory MP in the Commons, that she had now decided to extend the EnAble fund so that it would support disabled candidates through both PCC and local elections in May. The fund will now end on 31 July.

Truss told MPs: “We want to encourage more people with disabilities to come forward.

“They often face extra challenges and costs.

“That is why we have extended the EnAble fund, to support disabled candidates in local elections and police and crime commissioner elections.”

Her department’s previous position on the EnAble fund had been greeted with anger and concern by disabled politicians and campaigners.

The government had already been accused of breaching the Equality Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities after refusing to allow disabled candidates in December’s general election to seek support from the fund.

It insisted instead that it was the responsibility of political parties to meet the disability-related costs of their candidates.

Because of this insistence, many general election candidates were forced to pay for these extra costs themselves, even if they had high support needs.

In yet another U-turn, the government later suggested that it could offer retrospective payments to disabled candidates who stood in the general election.

DNS also revealed last month that successive chairs of the Conservative party had snubbed a request from their own equalities minister, who had asked them 12 months ago to explain how they intended to support more disabled people to become MPs and councillors.

Penny Mordaunt had told her party – as well as Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – that she believed “the provision of support for disabled candidates should ultimately be the responsibility of political parties”.

But she never received a detailed reply from any of the parties and her successors in the post – including Truss – failed to follow up her letter.

Mordaunt’s letter was written because the government has refused to set up a new permanent, long-term fund to meet the extra disability-related costs that many disabled candidates face when seeking elected office as councillors and MPs.

It had scrapped the short-lived Access to Elected Office Fund (AEOF) in 2015 and eventually replaced it three years later with the temporary EnAble fund in response to a legal action taken by a trio of disabled politicians, who warned that the failure to reopen AEOF breached the Equality Act.

AEOF had only been set up in 2012 following Liberal Democrat pressure on their Tory coalition partners; it funded disability-related costs for candidates in parliamentary and other elections, before it was closed by the Conservatives after the 2015 general election.

12 March 2020

 

RoFA urges watchdog to act over DWP benefit deaths links

Disabled campaigners are pushing the human rights watchdog to take legal action against the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over its links to the avoidable deaths of disabled people claiming benefits.

The Reclaiming Our Futures Alliance (RoFA) and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have told the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s chair, David Isaac, that the watchdog needs to act urgently to prevent further deaths.

The letter, sent yesterday (Wednesday), points to years of evidence of “discriminatory” DWP policies that have led to disabled people’s deaths, including a report by the National Audit Office that found DWP had carried out secret investigations into 69 suicides of benefit claimants since April 2014.

It also points to two reports written by coroners, in March 2010 and January 2014, which linked flaws in the work capability assessment process with the deaths of claimants.

They say this evidence shows that disabled people have continued to die as a result of ministers’ failure to ensure that the necessary medical information was secured when an employment and support allowance claimant had a mental health condition.

They say the commission needs to take legal action against DWP based on the “catalogue of deaths caused by changes to benefit rules instigated by the DWP in the last 10 years”.

The letter also highlights evidence from scores of secret DWP reviews into benefit-related deaths, as well as an investigation by the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities, which found that the government’s social security reforms had led to “grave and systematic” violations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

RoFA and DPAC have also asked EHRC to join a legal action being taken by the family of Errol Graham, who are hoping to force DWP into making sweeping improvements to its safeguarding system.

Graham starved to death after his out-of-work disability benefits were wrongly removed by DWP.

His family believe that the decisions DWP took, as well as its systems, procedures and actions, and subsequent investigations and reviews, were unlawful.

RoFA and DPAC believe that safeguarding measures under the government’s new universal credit benefit system have been further weakened, which “means that disabled claimants are even more at risk now than before, making legal proceedings even more urgent”.

EHRC is already considering a request from Labour’s Debbie Abrahams for it to launch an inquiry into deaths linked to DWP’s failings.

An EHRC spokesperson said: “Everyone has a right to an adequate standard of living and it is vital that lessons are learned from Mr Graham’s case.

“We are still reviewing what potential work we might undertake to tackle discriminatory decision making in the social security system and we will consider and respond to this letter in due course.”

12 March 2020

 

News round-up: Panorama, Hancock seeks consensus… and Hunt’s inquiry

A BBC documentary has revealed that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has lost more disability discrimination cases at employment tribunal than any other employer in Britain since 2016.

Monday’s Panorama programme* reported on DWP’s “shocking track record” of discriminating against its own disabled employees.

It found that DWP lost 17 of 134 claims of discrimination against its own disabled staff in tribunals between 2016 and 2019, which Panorama heard was a far higher failure rate than usual for such cases. It also settled many disability discrimination cases out-of-court.

In that time, it paid out more than £950,000 to disabled employees who had brought claims against the department, including more than £700,000 in out-of-court settlements.

In October 2018, Disability News Service (DNS) reported how the employment tribunal had dealt with almost 60 claims of disability discrimination taken against DWP by its own staff over a 20-month period.

Last year, DNS revealed that the proportion of DWP staff who said they have been victims of disability discrimination at work in the previous 12 months had risen by about 50 per cent in just four years.

DWP claimed this week that it did “not tolerate discrimination in any form” and was “shocked that, when presented in this way, the data shows us in this light”.

It claimed it had “made significant progress over the last few years to support employees with disabilities” and had “instigated a review of our processes and actions following tribunal cases, to ensure all our employees are treated fairly and with respect”.

Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock has finally launched the government’s attempt to secure cross-party consensus on how to fund adult social care.

Hancock has written to MPs and peers asking for views, proposed solutions, and any concerns about “how to secure a long term, sustainable solution to ensure the reforms will last long into the future”.

The next stage of the process will begin in May with “structured talks on reform options”.

Boris Johnson announced outside 10 Downing Street on 24 July last year, after becoming prime minister, that his government would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared”.

Three months later, his pledge in the Queen’s speech to bring forward proposals to solve the adult social care crisis was dismissed as “waffle” and “a smokescreen” by leading disabled campaigners, with one saying it was “designed to confuse and give the appearance of action when the reality is the opposite”.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) originally promised that a green paper on adult social care would be published by the end of 2017, and then July 2018, before delaying it to the autumn and then the end of 2018.

After missing the December 2018 deadline, it was delayed until “the earliest opportunity” in 2019, before Hancock told MPs it would be published by April last year.

Neither the green paper nor Johnson’s “plan” have yet been published.

The Commons health and social care committee has launched an inquiry to establish how much extra money needs to be spent on social care by the government in each of the next five years.

The committee is now chaired by Jeremy Hunt, who has been blamed by many for failing to address the social care funding crisis when he was health secretary and then health and social care secretary between 2012 and 2018.

He said: “This longstanding crisis comes with a huge cost to families and individuals who can’t get the social care they need.

“But it affects us all when a lack of availability prevents people leaving hospital, contributing to increased pressure on the NHS.

“We’ll be establishing an agreed figure that represents the extra funding that’s needed in each of the next five years in order to fix this.”

*DNS editor John Pring was a consultant on the programme

12 March 2020

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com