Ministers urged to apologise to disabled people as DWP face probe it broke equality laws

Ministers have been urged to apologise to disabled people after an investigation was launched into whether a Government department’s treatment of benefits claimants broke equality laws.

Labour pressed for the Commons apology during an urgent question on the decision by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The EHRC said it launched the probe due to suspicions that successive secretaries of state “may have broken equality law” in their roles as minister responsible for the department.

It added the focus of the investigation will be whether the DWP has failed to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people with learning disabilities or long-term mental health conditions during health assessment determinations.

Work and pensions minister Mims Davies said the department will “work constructively” with the EHRC to “better understand their concerns”, adding in the Commons: “If any improvements are of course identified by the commission we will of course take steps rightly to address them.”

But Labour frontbencher Dame Angela Eagle told Ms Davies: “This is the first time in history that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has decided to investigate whether a Secretary of State has – and I quote – committed unlawful acts by discriminating against disabled people in the way they’ve run the benefits system.

“According to an all-party parliamentary report this may have led to the deaths of vulnerable claimants by suicide and other causes.”

The regulator initially planned to address its concerns by signing a legally binding agreement with the DWP but instead decided instead to pursue a formal investigation.

Dame Angela (pictured) added: “Will the minister now recognise the seriousness of her predicament and apologise to disabled people for her department’s obvious reluctance to engage meaningfully with the the Equalities and Human Rights Commission?

“And could the minister tell us why her department has presided over a benefits system which the Equalities and Human Rights Commission believes could be unlawfully discriminating against disabled people?

“And will she now take this opportunity to apologise to all of those disabled people who have had their lives torn apart by her department’s potentially illegal administration of the benefits system?”

Ms Davies replied: “The investigation into the department begins on the basis of – let me reiterate to the House – a suspicion that something has occurred.

“It is not in and of itself conclusive proof and that is what (Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride) said yesterday.

“DWP take our obligations under the Equality Act, rightly, incredibly seriously – including the public sector equality duty – and we’ll continue to co-operate with the commission on their investigation.”

She added: “We want everyone in DWP to be able to support customers in an individual, appropriate manner, according to their needs.

“Our mental health training and reasonable adjustments guidance helps empower our colleagues with the skills to support every customer.”

Ms Davies went on: “We’re fully committed to listening and learning from our customers, their representatives and listening to their needs.

“Of course people will be concerned about this response from the EHRC, but I think we are genuinely disappointed because this is a department constantly learning, work is ongoing to strengthen guidance and training as part of a continuous improvement activity.”

Labour MP Sir Stephen Timms, who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee, said: “The confidence of disabled people in the department is at a terribly, terribly low ebb.”

SNP MP Marion Fellows, who secured the urgent question, earlier said: “We welcome this overdue investigation by the EHRC. Full transparency and accountability are imperative so the mistakes of the past can never be repeated.”

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