THE EQUALITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION is requiring the Department for Work and Pensions to improve its treatment of disabled benefit claimants. This is in response to serious concerns about failures to meet the needs of claimants with mental health impairments and learning disabilities.

Disability campaigners had raised concerns with the Commission about the deaths of DWP customers in vulnerable situations, and an all-party group of MPs asked the EHRC in February 2021 to “undertake an investigation into the deaths of vulnerable claimants by suicide and other causes between 2008 and 2020”. The Commission examined whether the DWP was making reasonable adjustments to its processes for people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties, as required under the Equality Act 2010.

Through 2021, the Commission questioned DWP officials about the concerns that its legal obligations to disabled customers were not being met. The DWP outlined the steps being taken to address the problems identified. However, the Commission has concluded that further action is necessary, given the seriousness of the issues. It is therefore drawing up a legally-binding agreement with the DWP to commit them to an action plan to meet the needs of customers with mental health impairments and learning disabilities.

This legally-binding action plan is focused on resolving issues for DWP customers, and offers a fast, effective means of redress, and helps to avoid lengthy investigations.

Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Marcial Boo, said: “The EHRC is committed to stamping out discrimination against all disabled people, including those with mental health conditions and learning disabilities whose needs can be overlooked.

“Government bodies often deliver essential services to vulnerable people. They must meet high standards and make reasonable adjustments for those who need them. The EHRC will hold them to account if they do not.

“This agreement with DWP will build on the improvements already taking place for disabled benefits claimants. We are pleased that officials are working cooperatively with us to address our concerns, and we expect the binding legal agreement to be in place shortly. We will monitor its delivery.”

The mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness has been supporting bereaved families to call for answers and urgent action to stop more lives from being lost. Alex Kennedy, Head of Campaigns, Rethink Mental Illness, said: “When someone isn’t able to work due to a disability, including those living with a severe mental illness, they deserve decency, respect and the right support, which the current benefits system too often fails to provide. This has led to unnecessary, premature deaths and immense loss. Families grieving their loved ones and those currently struggling to survive deserve urgent change.

“We welcome the news that the EHRC is taking action to tackle these serious problems with the way that disabled people, including people living with mental illness, are treated by the benefits system. This is yet more evidence that the deaths and serious harm suffered by people who should be supported by the DWP are part of a systemic problem. To restore public trust in the benefit system, we need a full public inquiry and a new, independent process to investigate future cases of death and serious harm.”

The details of the Section 23 agreement (a measure under the Equality Act 2006) will be agreed when it has been signed, which is likely to be by summer 2022.

* More information on Section 23 Agreements and how they are used here.

* Sources: Equality and Human Rights Commission and Rethink Mental Illness