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Disabled People on Benefits: EHRC Investigation

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 23 May 2024

10.35 am

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if he will make a statement on the Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation into the treatment of disabled people on benefits.

It is a pleasure to be called to the Dispatch Box to respond for the Department for Work and Pensions this morning. The Department is absolutely committed to providing services through which every customer, including disabled people and our most vulnerable claimants, can experience fair opportunity and access to our services to ensure they get the support they need.

The Department has been in negotiations with the EHRC since 2021 on this matter. It is disappointing that we have not been able to come to a mutually agreeable position. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions stated yesterday during his Select Committee appearance, our existing legal advice and understanding is that both the EHRC and the DWP are still bound by confidentiality. We are seeking further clarity on what we can share, so I will not discuss those negotiations further.

While I do not believe an investigation is necessary, we at the Department do of course take the EHRC’s concerns seriously. We welcome the focus now provided in the terms of reference. We will work constructively with the commission in its investigation to better understand its concerns. I hope the investigation will provide a deeper insight into some of the most complex cases that the Department deals with. Of course, if any improvements are identified by the commission we will, rightly, take steps to address them.

I thank the Minister for her answer. I have great respect for her, but if she is telling the House that the Government have been in negotiations with the EHRC for three years and this is where we are now, that is ridiculous and absolutely underlines what many in this House, including myself, have been saying to the Government for more than three years. The Scottish National party has been challenging the Government over their treatment of those with illness or disability, and therefore we welcome this overdue investigation by the EHRC.

Full transparency and accountability are imperative so that the mistakes of the past are never repeated; we know about that from all the other investigations that have been taking place recently. If it does transpire that either the DWP or the Secretary of State, or both, have breached equality law, the strongest possible action must be taken. It is the least those who have suffered at the hands of this Government deserve.

I have spoken over the years to many disability organisations and they are appalled at how disabled people are treated, as am I. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities rapporteur has concluded that the UK Government have

“failed to take all appropriate measures to address grave and systematic violations of the human rights of persons with disabilities”.

That is a further black mark against this Government. I have said it time and again: the UK Government must change course from their cruel and demonising approach to disabled people and start supporting them in the way being done in Scotland. The words dignity, fairness and respect mean something to disabled people in Scotland. The Scottish social security system is designed to treat people with dignity, fairness and respect. When on earth will this Government, or the likely following Labour Government, start doing that in the UK? It is an absolute and utter disgrace.

The proposed welfare reforms are dangerous and look to slash disabled people’s incomes during an ongoing cost of living crisis, when disabled people are already facing higher living costs. More people are being pushed into insecure and unsafe work and the Government are undermining the principle of an extra costs benefit for disabled people. Now we have this EHRC investigation. How can the Minister possibly defend her Government’s ongoing assault on disabled rights just to cut costs?

I agree with the hon. Lady. We have much we agree about and real mutual respect, and I know her concerns come from the heart. I reiterate that we are a compassionate Department, welcoming to all, and we are keen to get insights and learnings. I have given evidence on that, most recently to the Select Committee, making it clear that we are a learning Department focused on individuals. In fact, our trauma-informed approach is testament to that. I recently saw that in Hastings, and it is being rolled out in South Yorkshire, Plymouth and all our DWP innovation hubs to successfully drive a programme of understanding into our core business areas, including the child maintenance area and service areas. From a meeting with my DWP colleagues, I know what a big difference it makes.

We engage right across the UK with a multi-agency approach. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that I recently met the independent reviewer of the personal independence payment and benefits—there is that process in Scotland—for a mutual learning and understanding experience. Reforms that are being brought out are about disabled people’s voices being fully heard and understood, whether that is through our national disability strategy or our action plan this year. I also recently engaged with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, who covers England and Wales, and this gives me a chance to pay tribute to her. We have been trying hard to understand tragic and complex cases. Our sympathies are always with the families, and we will continue those internal process reviews.

I hope that the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms), will reflect on the useful evidence that was given. We have a growing number of visiting officers for some of the most vulnerable—we currently have 500—and we have 200 dedicated prison work coaches. I want anybody watching, studying or reading this urgent question to approach us and talk to us. Many people become involved with the DWP at the most challenging times of their lives. We are here to help people, whether through our youth hubs or our disability work coaches. Please tell us what is going on. We can link people to the right agencies, and we are determined to understand what the commission is thinking and feeling and to work with it.

My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the work that my Select Committee has done around the national disability strategy, but I specifically draw her attention to the words of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) earlier this week: nothing about me without me. What reassurance can the Minister give me that disabled people will be fully included in the ongoing consultation on personal independence payments? What reassurance can she give me that she continues to work with Disability Confident to ensure that disabled people are enabled to move into work and supported when they are in work? What reassurance can she give me that the victims of contaminated blood, sodium valproate, Primodos, and mesh will not be subject to ongoing assessments year after year to make sure that they continue their entitlement to benefits? What reassurance can she give me that she agrees that inclusion is not wokery, and that including disabled people is crucial to ensuring that their rights are upheld?

I was looking forward to giving evidence to my right hon. Friend on many of these matters, alongside my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment. Indeed, there was work to come forward on Disability Confident, Access to Work, the disability employment goal and much more.

I point my right hon. Friend to action we have taken, including just this week. There is the Government-backed lilac review on disabled entrepreneurs, which is absolutely about listening to disabled people and having them at the heart of the conversation. Fantastic engagement on British Sign Language, fully in BSL, has been at the heart of that. There has also been the PIP consultation and the wider reform conversation. We have also brought forward the Buckland review.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about inclusion. It works because when it is embedded, it is right for the bottom line of the business, the organisation and the community. It is not a “nice to do” and it is not woke; it is what we should be doing.

This is the first time in history that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has decided to investigate whether a Secretary of State has “committed unlawful acts” by discriminating against disabled people as a result of the way that the Government have run the benefit system. According to a report by the all-party parliamentary group for health in all policies, it may have led to

“the deaths of vulnerable claimants, by suicide and other causes”.

Yesterday, appearing before the Work and Pensions Committee, the Secretary of State feigned surprise at the Equality and Human Rights Commission taking that unprecedented step, yet he previously claimed that he and his Department were close to securing a legally binding agreement to uphold disabled people’s rights. I wonder what has changed.

Will the Minister recognise the seriousness of her predicament and apologise to disabled people for her Department’s obvious reluctance to engage meaningfully with the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Why has her Department presided over a benefit system that the commission believes could be unlawfully discriminating against disabled people? Will she take the opportunity to apologise to all those disabled people who have had their life torn apart by her Department’s potentially illegal administration of the benefit system?

Let me first reflect on the Secretary of State’s appearance at the Select Committee. I reiterate that, as he said yesterday, the investigation of the Department is based on a suspicion that something has occurred; that is not in and of itself conclusive proof. The DWP rightly takes its obligations under the Equality Act 2010, including the public sector equality duty, incredibly seriously, and will continue to co-operate with the commission on its investigation. I hope that helps the hon. Lady. We want everyone in the DWP to be able to support customers in an appropriate manner, according to the individual’s needs. Our mental health training and reasonable adjustments guidance helps to empower our colleagues by giving them the skills to support every customer.

It has been the greatest privilege of my life to have been in the most amazing, life-changing Department for almost all of the last five years. We are fully committed to listening to our customers and their representatives about their needs, and to learning from them. Of course people will be concerned about the EHRC’s response, and the Department is genuinely disappointed, because we are constantly learning; work is ongoing to strengthen guidance and training through continuous improvement activity. Our colleagues are local people who live in their community. They know their community and what people need. Whether people are coming through the door are from a local special school, have been made redundant, or have a health condition, DWP staff know those people and want to reassure them. We will continue to give them the necessary tools, and have confidence that our Department will respond in the right way to our most vulnerable customers.

As I depart this House as a Conservative MP, I thank you, Sir Roger, for your service and mentoring over my years here. Will the Minister make sure that in the response to the investigation, those working in jobcentres and DWP offices across the country are given the support that they need to do their job? In West Suffolk, they do that job excellently, brilliantly led by Julia Nix, who frankly deserves an honour. It has been a pleasure to work with those people. When the Minister considers the investigation, will she look not only at physical disabilities, including engagement with those who support wheelchair use, but hidden disabilities such as neurodivergent conditions, to the extent that they are disabilities, and ensure that they are at the heart of the response?

I welcome back my right hon. Friend, from whom I learned so much as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. It is pleasing to know that his work on neurodiversity and understanding others continues to be at the heart of what he brings to this House, even in his last few moments here. I was recently at Neurobox in Cambridge, where dyslexia needs were discussed, as well as the wider need in the labour market to learn about understanding, and helping people through, the Access to Work scheme. My right hon. Friend’s interest was mentioned there. Whether we are talking about the Buckland review, the lilac review on entrepreneurship, which I mentioned, or partnerships in communities, such as with Julia Nix, who is stellar leader, those messages are important for those who only hear about the experience of the DWP through the mouths of those in this House. I urge people to go and see their local jobcentre. This week there is a “recruit Britain” campaign, backed by employers, to enable people to understand our jobcentres’ power to bring about change.

Last week, I highlighted to the Minister a report from the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that concluded that the UK had failed to take all appropriate measures to address grave and systematic violations of the rights of people with disabilities. She said that the UK Government were

“committed to ensuring that the UK is one of the best places to live and work as a disabled person.”—[Official Report, 15 May 2024; Vol. 750, c. 244.]

Does she really stand by that assertion, given the serious concerns raised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Does she understand why its chair said that they are extremely worried? The EHRC also said that it believes that the DWP may have broken equality law. What does she have to say to the disabled people watching? She must understand that it is a clear demonstration that this Tory Government are content simply to disregard disabled people, their rights and their needs. If she disagrees, let her tell us specifically why.

I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. Just this week, I met people with disabilities in the media industry who were thriving while working in ITV, which tries to help people when it comes to wider—

I am just trying to. I met a company that is working to ensure that NHS buildings are more accessible, so the DWP understands that. The hon. Lady asked whether I really believed that the UK could be the best place in which to be a disabled person, in terms of accessibility and opportunity. We are engaging and learning in the context of a changing labour market and changing needs. As for her earlier point, we in the DWP want every customer to be supported, and we are committed to providing a compassionate service for all. We take our obligations under the Equality Act 2010 extremely seriously, and that includes the public sector equality duty.

We will, of course, continue to co-operate with the commission’s investigation. I stand by my comment that we are disappointed to be in this position. We often deal with tragic and complex cases, and our sympathies are always with the families concerned. We will continue to review and learn about processes in order to understand better why the commission is taking this action.

Navigating the benefits system is difficult enough for able-bodied people, but for those who become disabled because of illness or accidents, it becomes a virtual nightmare, just at the point when they need the system the most. Also, many employers concentrate on what people cannot do, rather than what they can do. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the work being done to ensure that people, particularly those who suffer disability owing to illness or accidents, receive the benefits that they need at their time of greatest crisis?

We are rolling out our WorkWell service, and we have universal support as well. Fifteen integrated care systems will pilot WorkWell; the pilots will be locally designed to fit local needs, and will be linked to our existing work and health systems. Work will be done throughout London. I am not sure whether that will include my hon. Friend’s part of London; I am sure that we will be able to let him know.

As I mentioned, my dad became disabled and was not used to navigating the benefits system. That happens to many people. Many think that people are born with disablement, but it can be acquired as a result of accidents or incidents. The website gives information about the benefits calculator and the Citizens Advice help to claim service, and encourages people to see a disability employment adviser.

My hon. Friend asked what more could be done. Notwithstanding the great support provided by programmes such as Access to Work, there is more that can be done, but that safety net is there to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable, whatever the reason.

Disabled people’s confidence in the Department is at a terribly low ebb. We were originally told that these negotiations would be concluded within a few months, but in fact, as the Minister has told us, they dragged on for three years, and they failed. The commission has told me that now that negotiations have ended, there are no restrictions on what the Department can say about what was happening during those negotiations. At the very least, we need some explanation from the Department of why it has not been possible to reach an agreement. Can the Minister give us that explanation now?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. As I have said, we will work constructively with the commission during its investigation in order to understand its concerns better. We are seeking further clarity on what information we can share, but until those conversations have ended, I will not be in a position to share any further information.

The Secretary of State, of course, made his comments to the Department, but the permanent secretary told the Committee that the terms of reference had been published, and we welcome that, because it will give us a clearer sense of what the commission wants to investigate. We hope that a deeper insight into that very complex machine will allay some of the concerns that the right hon. Gentleman has rightly identified, and if there have been breaches or improvements can be made, we will of course address that. The Department is constantly learning, and work is being done to strengthen guidance and training through continuous improvement activity.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned confidence. It is important that colleagues and those with disablement feel confident that we have the necessary tools to help our most vulnerable claimants, and of course we will take account of everything that the commission says.

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for obtaining today’s urgent question, and she is correct to say that policy should be based on fairness, dignity and respect. In dealing with cases, I find that those with mental health conditions, including sporadic mental health conditions, are often unfairly sanctioned, go through much deeper stress and sometimes end up in desperate poverty as a result. In advance of the inquiry, could the Minister tell us what the Department is doing to ensure that the sanctions regime against people with disabilities, particularly those with mental health conditions, operates in a much more respectful and inclusive manner that helps them to deal with the horrible problems they are trying to cope with?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about fluctuating conditions and needs, which he is absolutely correct to identify. We have a growing number of visiting officers—500—and a growing number of colleagues with a trauma-informed approach, and there is close engagement with wider safeguarding. Having a trusted relationship with one’s work coach, job coach and disability employment adviser is so important, and this is at the heart of our safeguarding protocols, which are in place for healthcare professionals who undertake assessments. If they identify a new condition or concern, they will ensure that the individual’s healthcare team are aware and communicating directly with them. Again, that is why we have the trauma-informed approach. I recently saw it being used at the Hastings service centre, where decisions are made on child maintenance, and at jobcentres. The approach is being rolled out in order to be at the heart of what we do.

In all the time I have been in this House—it is quite a long time—I have never picked on civil servants or the people who deliver policies on the ground, because I am always reminded that President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said, “The buck stops here”. The buck stops here with the Government, but let me reinforce a point that was made earlier. My constituents tell me—as chairman of the Westminster Commission on Autism, I am sympathetic towards this—that the staff they meet are good about physical disability, but are not good when it comes to neurodiversity, people on the autism spectrum and people with little-known mental health challenges. Can we give more training to the people who carry out assessments to make them more effective and efficient?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the nature of disability and need has changed, which is what I was trying to draw out earlier. Different types of needs are coming our way. We all know from our own constituency casework about the support that disabled people need in any realm, and it is about understanding the different needs and appreciating that needs change. I can assure him that the Department works closely with healthcare assessors, and has put in a new process to allow personal independence payments to be paused when an appointment has already been scheduled—for example, if we need to have additional information. We are very aware that claimants’ needs are different—hence the Buckland review of autism. We know that a huge number of autistic people are very keen to work, but not enough of them do, and this is at the heart of our understanding. I think the hon. Gentleman and I share the same view on this issue. The Department will need to make changes and develop its understanding, and I want to reassure the House that we come in the spirit of learning.

The Minister is always compassionate and understands the issues, as we can tell from the way she responds. As I often say, however, the benefits system leads to incredible frustration. When those who are disabled have their applications refused, they go to appeal. The biggest issue in my office is benefits, including appeals; we have one staff member who does nothing else during the five-and-a-half-day week that she works. Although we recognise that DWP staff do a good job, there needs to be a better understanding of how the system works. When someone fills in their application, there needs to be a better understanding of what it means to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis, diabetes, blood pressure problems, back pain, chronic pain. Those are the issues. When we win 85% of appeals, it indicates that perhaps the first decision was not right.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way he approaches this matter. It also gives a chance for all of us to thank our casework teams who do so much, and indeed all the staff across DWP. They know that our customers vary. They know that, at times in their lives, they need additional support. That is why we have those specialist services, roles and procedures in place, from the DWP visiting service to the advanced customer support senior leaders. We have the serious case panel review, and we have the customer experience survey. We are always listening and learning, and there is a continuous need to do that. On fluctuating conditions, which other Members have mentioned, we have put a better understanding of needs and diagnoses at the heart of our engagement on reforms, and that is what disabled people have told me as well.

Ministers have had three years to reach a basic agreement to ensure that the services that the Department provides are accessible and do not discriminate against disabled people. Is it laziness, incompetence or the chaos endemic across Government that has resulted in the absolute failure to reach a negotiation? Can the Minister acknowledge that this failure has never been seen in any other Department before, and represents, under the Equality Act, a further demonstration of discrimination against disabled people? The failure of the negotiations itself represents the problem.

I reiterate to the House, and to the hon. Gentleman, that we take our obligations under the Equality Act incredibly seriously. I have spoken about the changing nature of conditions, understanding and learning, and the public sector equality duty, and we will continue to co-operate and engage with the commission on its investigation. As I said, we do not believe that an investigation is necessary, but we do take its concerns seriously. I undertake to the House that the Department will be focused on those new terms of reference so that we can work constructively with the commission, in its investigation, to better understand its concerns. [Interruption.] I understand the concerns of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who is chuntering again, but I reiterate to the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) that we are very much determined to work with the commission as a way forward. I agree that it is very disappointing that we have not been able to come to a mutually agreeable position. I assure him that, over the past five years, this very large Department, which deals with many different areas and complex case, has put at the heart of what we do—of which I am extremely proud—a dedicated understanding of the individual and their needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this urgent question and continuing her fantastic work in this Parliament on the rights of disabled people. I also congratulate the Equality and Human Rights Commission on opening this important investigation and on retaining its A-grade status as a national human rights institution in the face of malicious attempts to undermine the work that it does for equality and human rights for all.

I work with many fantastic disability charities in my Edinburgh South West constituency, including Health All Round, Tiphereth and Garvald, but charities should not have to fill the huge gaps left by the Government’s dereliction of their duties. Discrimination against disabled people is a human rights issue, and that is something about which I care passionately as the elected Chair of Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.

As we are about to go into a general election period, will the Minister take the opportunity to give a cast-iron guarantee on behalf of her party that she will end discrimination against disabled people in the benefits system and end her Government’s continuing breaches of disabled people’s human rights?

I appreciate that there is a general election coming but, when it come to the most vulnerable people, this is not a morning for politicking. It is about being compassionate, it is about understanding disabled people’s rights and it is about listening and learning. We are focusing on individuals by working with the domestic abuse commissioner and through WorkWell’s universal support, the national disability strategy, the action plan and the trauma-informed approach.

Vitally, as the hon. and learned Lady says, it is about hearing not just from disabled charities but from disabled people across the country to understand their needs. It is incredibly important that we take this seriously, and we are determined that, if the investigation under the terms of reference gives us a deeper insight into the concerns— I have spoken to the Select Committee about how the Department deals with the most complex cases—we will take every step to address any improvements identified by the commission. I hope that gives the hon. and learned Lady, disabled people and those with health conditions comfort that we take their needs and wants extremely seriously at the heart of Government.