A leading disabled person’s organisation has lashed out at comments made by the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions, after she casually claimed that the department does not have a legal duty or statutory requirement to safegaurd vulnerable benefit claimants.
DWP boss Thérèse Coffey MP was giving evidence to the Work and Pension Select Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, on Wednesday about the DWP’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak.
She was asked by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, a former Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, on her views regarding safeguarding vulnerable claimants during the ongoing pandemic.
Highlighting a letter Dr Coffey had sent the Committee the previous day, following her appearance before the committee on 22 July, Ms Abrahams asked: “I notice in the second page of this letter a backtracking on [your position in the evidence session on 22 July 2020] when you say the DWP does not have a duty of care or a statutory safeguarding duty.
“Given that you provide services to vulnerable people then if there isn’t something in statute, should there be?
“And shouldn’t there also be a moral obligation under the government in recognition of the services they provide to vulnerable people?”
Coffey responded: “The line of questions submitted by the Committee … implied that we had a statutory duty.
“That’s why I was being quite careful in trying to point out that we do not. I do not actually think it is the responsibility of DWP to have that statutory duty. We are not the local council, social services, the doctors and other people…
“I want to be clear … I don’t want it to be construed by the Committee or by Parliament that … we have a legal duty in that regard.”
Commenting on Coffey’s response, Ken Butler, Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser at 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 February 2020 National Audit Office report concluded that it is highly unlikely that the 69 suicide cases the DWP has investigated represents the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years.
“Following the death of Errol Graham, the DWP will now have to answer questions in court about the legality of its safeguarding policies and why it has not reviewed and revised those policies as it promised to do at his inquest.
“It is ironic that it may be legal action that will force the DWP to agree its statutory responsibilities.
“In July, the family of Errol Graham who starved to death after his disability benefits were wrongly removed, won the right to have the safeguarding policies of the DWP examined by the high court.”