IN 2020, SECRETARY OF STATE THERESE COFFEY told the Work and Pensions Committee that her department does not have a ‘duty of care’ towards vulnerable benefit claimants.
In response, Ken Butler of Disability Rights UK said: “The view of the Secretary of State on the DWP’s safeguarding responsibilities is shocking and shameful and shows a lack of concern over the wellbeing of disabled people. Worse, it is dangerous. It means that the safety of claimants is not at the forefront of DWP policy and procedures and that any damage caused to vulnerable people is the task of the NHS, social services and others to mop up.”
The damage of which Mr. Baker spoke has been so bad that it has prompted numerous calls from bereaved relatives, charities and Disabled People’s Organisations for an independent inquiry into benefit-related deaths. Rethink Mental Illness even launched a ‘Stop Benefit Deaths’ campaign. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) promised to conduct such an inquiry, but then backed down, prompting disabled campaigners to say it had become ‘an extension of government’ which will not hold Ministers to account.
Now, the EHRC has announced that it is “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.” As anti-poverty charity Z2K commented on Twitter, it is: “Really shocking that the Govt department responsible for the welfare of disabled + unwell people has to have a legally-binding action plan imposed to improve its service to them.”
Time will tell whether this action plan results in any improvements, but the latest news from the DWP suggests that the safety of vulnerable claimants may still not be at the forefront of its thinking.
The ‘managed migration’ of ‘legacy benefit’ claimants on to Universal Credit, paused during the pandemic, is to be resumed. This was only to be expected. But, during its scrutiny of the plans for this migration process, the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) discovered that the DWP’s intention is to remove a cap put in place by former Secretary of State Amber Rudd. This cap stipulated that initially, only 10,000 legacy benefit claimants could be issued with a migration notice, after which a full report should be presented to Parliament, before it went any further. It was a welcome and sensible measure, which suggested some understanding of the potential for harm.
On the removal of this cap, Dr Stephen Brien, Chair of the SSAC said the process “creates a significant risk for both those who are reliant on these benefits and also for the Department for Work and Pensions in delivering it.” Indeed, so the intention to abandon the cap seems reckless.
As Paul Farmer of mental health charity Mind has said: “Mind is hugely concerned about the current plans for ‘managed migration’ which would see people given just three months to move over from disability legacy benefits to Universal Credit, potentially losing their support altogether if they can’t do this within the deadline…We are calling on the DWP to make sure no-one’s benefits are cut off as a result of being too unwell to engage with a new process.”
Mind says that around 700,000 of the people set to be ‘migrated’ have mental health problems, dementia or a learning disability. As things stand, those people will at some stage receive a letter from the DWP asking them to apply for Universal Credit – a procedure which even people in the best of health can find daunting and stressful. Some of us will know people for whom such a letter would be a potential tipping point in their mental health, or who would be simply unable to respond in the required way.
The DWP says: “The department will work closely with our stakeholder groups throughout this work to monitor and understand what support is required and what works bests for claimants.” This might sound reassuring, but there has been a long history of the DWP making unfounded claims about consulting and working with disabled people. And only this month, Disability News Service discovered, via a Freedom of Information request, that fewer than one third of the websites and other digital services run by the DWP is compliant with its legal duties on accessibility.
The DWP goes on to say, quite breezily, “We expect that finalising our approach will take several months before we start scaling the managed migration process in earnest, to be completed by 2024.” Realistically, it would seem to be an impossible task to do all the work that is required to make the whole process properly accessible, determine what support is required for vulnerable claimants, make that support available, and then complete the migration of millions of claimants, all in eighteen months. It seems certain that something will have to suffer, be it the timetable, the claimants, or perhaps most likely – both.
To further understand the potential for harms of the migration process, read Benefits On Trial. The Victims: Adults With A Learning Disability by Neil Carpenter, who describes the experiences of people he supports when they are applying for benefits. Or consider Errol Graham, a disabled man who starved to death after his disability benefits were wrongly stopped, and whose fate should serve as a distressing and powerful warning.
The possibility of so many people, for whom life is already very difficult, having their meagre means of subsistence put at risk in order to meet a bureaucratic timetable, is very disturbing.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden