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DWP under investigation for treatment of claimants for PIP and other benefits

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is being investigated over suspicions that its treatment of disabled benefits claimants may have broken equality laws.

The UKโ€™s equalities regulator has launched a probe into the departmentโ€™s handling of the process to claim Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it was โ€œextremely worriedโ€ about the DWPโ€™s behaviour towards some disabled claimants.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride and some of his predecessors are suspected to have violated the Equality Act 2010 while in charge of the department, said the EHRC.

It comes after i spoke to several former PIP benefit assessors, who described a โ€œhorrificโ€, target-driven process for deciding on eligibility for support.

The whistleblowers, who worked for companies contracted by the DWP to assess claims, said intense pressure to hit daily targets for a certain number of reports affected the quality of the assessments.

One ex-PIP assessor said they were told to ask disabled people questions so they could โ€œcould disprove something laterโ€. Another said the process โ€œsets people up to failโ€.

The equality regulator started looking into the DWP after an all-party parliamentary group recommended in 2021 that it investigate the deaths of vulnerable claimants by suicide and other causes between 2008 and 2020.

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

It is now seeking information and evidence from disability charities, and from whistleblowers who have worked for the DWP or private contractors.

The watchdog is investigating specifically whether the DWP failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people with learning disabilities or long-term mental health conditions during health assessment determinations โ€“ part of the application process.

Health assessment determinations decide whether a consultation or medical examination is required as part of a personโ€™s health assessment, and what format it should take.

Disability charities say many vulnerable people have found face-to-face assessments difficult and stressful, repeatedly calling for claimants to have more choice. The DWP has said it has increased the use of telephone interviews and paper-based assessments in recent years.

The EHRC is also investigating whether the DWP failed to consider equality and prevent discrimination in its day-to-day operations, as required as part of its Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED).

EHRC chairwoman Baroness Kishwer Falkner said: โ€œWe are extremely worried about the treatment of some disabled benefits claimants by the DWP. We suspect the Secretary of Stateโ€™s department may have broken equality law.

โ€œWe have decided we need to take the strongest possible action and thatโ€™s why weโ€™ve launched this investigation.โ€

Baroness Kishwer Falkner said access to vital benefits such as PIP, ESA and Universal Credit โ€œmust be fairโ€ and meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.

She added: โ€œOur investigation, alongside the PSED assessment we are also undertaking, will find out whether the DWP and the Secretary of State have breached equality law. If they have, we will use our unique legal powers to hold them to account.โ€

If the DWP are found have broken the law, the ECHR can request that the department creates an action plan setting out how they are going to fix the issues.

This regulator can monitor progress on complying with the law. Its action plans are also legally enforceable in court, with criminal sanctions โ€“ potentially including an unlimited fine โ€“ if a department or any other body fails to comply.

A DWP spokesperson said: โ€œThe DWP is committed to providing a compassionate service to all our customers. Benefits assessments are carried out by qualified health professionals with reasonable adjustments available to protect vulnerable claimants.

โ€œWe take our obligations under the Equality Act incredibly seriously, including the Public Sector Equality Duty, and will continue to cooperate with the [EHRC] Commission.โ€

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