Once more the DWP has blood on its hands

The inquest into the death of Philippa Day concluded last week, and the verdict was announced on January 17th 2021. Philippa was a young mother who had type one diabetes. At the time of her her death she was experiencing mental health distress, including agoraphobia. Philippa had previous psychiatric admissions. Her Community Psychiatric Nurse had tried on numerous occasions to tell the DWP and Capita how unwell Philippa was and that she couldn’t leave her house to attend a face-to-face appointment at an assessment centre. But that advice was disregarded. 

Philippa was being moved from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment. Her move should have been automatic, as her DLA award was an indefinite one. But the DWP lost one of the forms that Philippa returned and then blamed her for its loss. 

Philippa, who was only 27, was found unconscious with the letter from Capita beside her demanding she attend her interview. She died in hospital after two months in a coma. 

In his verdict, the Nottingham Assistant Coroner, Gordon Clow, listed 28 ‘problems’ with the administration of PIP which contributed to Philippa’s death. The inquest uncovered multiple failings by both the DWP and its contractor Capita. 

One particular document, an IPR, Internal Process Review, which was released to investigative journalist John Pring of DNS, Disability News Service, was crucial in forming the conclusions drawn by the Coroner. The DWP had fought against its release. When DNS reported its contents, the reasons for the DWP wanting to cover-up its errors was clear. The IPR showed that the DWP were aware of at least six serious mistakes made by their own staff and a further three by Capita staff. 

Philippa’s file did not have a marker showing that she needed extra support. The information given by her CPN was not recorded. DWP staff made two catastrophic errors.

The first was the failure of a DWP Decision Maker to consider all the available evidence the DWP had when they closed Philippa’s claim for PIP. The staff member who took Philippa’s last call to the DWP made the second serious error. During the call Philippa explains she’s starving, she has debts, because her DLA was not transferred to PIP and she has lost other premiums as a consequence. She says that she cannot survive without money. She was receiving just £61 per week to live on. 

I have listened to the recording of the call. Philippa was clearly distressed and crying. Her words still haunt me. But the DWP employee didn’t give Philippa any help. She had no concern for her welfare and obvious desperation. 

This case and that of Errol Graham, who starved to death in 2018 because he too had his benefits stopped, are clear evidence the DWP has blood on its hands. 

In October 2020, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey, told a committee of MPs that the DWP had; ‘no duty of care or statutory safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable claimants’. If her statement is actually correct, it is scandalous that DWP legislation is so recklessly drafted. 

Surely these two deaths and countless others are the consequence not only of gross neglect, but criminal negligence?

In January 2019 the DWP revealed that over 21,000 claimants had died over a five-year period that ended in April 2018, whilst waiting for their PIP claim to be assessed. There is no reason to suppose that those deaths have lessened. So from April 2018 till now, January 2021, there will have been another 11,550 deaths, making the almost eight-year total to be over 32,000.

How can it be that the lives of disabled people matter so little? Clearly this doesn’t trouble the conscience of the current government. 

If these were deaths in industry, or on the railways, the Crown Prosecution Service would consider charges of corporate manslaughter. Why is the DWP still free to operate its practices of systemic disbelief without challenge? 

Why are the officials that failed to recognise the distress of claimants not being the subject of disciplinary action? Why has there been no overhaul of how claims are assessed? 

If the government asked disabled people to design a better, more humane system, we could easily do so. There is currently a [commission] of disabled people who are experts by experience doing just that. 

This rotten system needs a drastic overhaul. It’s demeaning and causes immense, preventable distress to disabled people at every stage of the application process. Forms don’t ask the right questions, medical evidence either ignored or not taken into account. Reports by assessors are frequently full of inaccuracies and often downright lies. 

The deaths of Philippa Day and Errol Graham must mark a watershed in the way disabled people are treated by the DWP.  On-going contracts with Capita, Atos and Maximus must end. The majority of claims should be decided on the paperwork supplied by claimants. There should be regular quality checks on how staff handle claims.

There needs to be a total re-write of staff guidance beginning with the premise that disabled people rarely lie about their impairments.Safeguarding and a duty of care must be part of every interaction with claimants.  

To ensure this happens, disabled people must be involved as Experts by Experience. We should train DWP staff so they not only understand our conditions, but treat us with dignity and respect. Staff should support us to claim the monies we are entitled to. 

Only when these changes are made will disabled people be safe from the harm done to us by the DWP. 

A Human Rights Approach to Disability Campaigning

Ten years ago the Equality Act 2010 came into being. It received Royal Assent on 8th April and came into law on the 1st October 2010. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, set up under the Equality Act 2006, has responsibility for the promotion and enforcement of equality and non-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales. However, its powers are few. For instance, it cannot bring enforcement action, something the equivalent bodies in the US, Australia, Belgium, Canada and New Zealand can do.


We still don’t have equality in Hate Crime Law and we all know how inaccessible planes and trains can be. There are still too many buildings which are not fully accessible to us. 

We have moved on, in the majority of situations, from the outdated Medical Model of Disability. Most statutory bodies and organisations accept the Social Model of Disability, which sees that our difficulties are caused by the disabling world we live in. 


So how do we change that disabling world? Demonstrations and petitions can make some difference, but change is slow and cumbersome. So we need to think more imaginatively. 

Why not base our demands on our Human Rights? 


When the UN Special Rapporteur visited the UK in November 2018 he made it Abundantly clear the UK was in violation of its Human Rights obligations. 


I believe the only way we can assert our rights to disability equality and reasonable adjustments, as well as living our lives independently, is by ensuring all our campaigning is linked to our Human Rights.


There are six areas we need to focus on, all of which are depicted in the graphic below. It has disabled people in the centre – where we belong. 

Picture of a group of disabled people with text of 6 different types of Human Rights law for disabled people
The 6 tenets of Disability Rights are Human Rights

The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities – UNCRPD – is the foundation of the legislation we require and by making it part of UK law we would have the protections and freedoms we need. 


By strengthening the Equality Act 2010 and beefing up the powers of the EHRC, UK law would ensure enforcement of our rights, with the ability to challenge any type discrimination.


We need a rights based legal system, which is easy to access and will give support throughout the entirety of any reasonable case. Disability hate crime law needs strengthening to ensure parity with race and religious hate crime.


The rights enshrined in the EU Accessibility Act need to become part of UK law. The inclusion of all forms of transport is vital to ensure we can travel with ease and safety when we wish to travel.


We need a government department that looks after our rights and needs. The department must be run on different rules from other ministries. It should be overseen by a commission of disabled people, who will decide both policy and strategy.


But all of the rights above will only fully benefit us if we have the foundation of an equitable and secure benefits system. The system must use a holistic assessment of our needs. Of course, it will need to be properly funded with the same type of triple-lock guarantee given to pensioners. All of that will give us security and dignity. It would replace the current system, which demonises and denigrates us. 


The last Labour Manifesto contained a pledge to enshrine the UNCRPD in UK law. We could make that the starting point for our demands.


Why not set up our own disabled peoples commission, with representatives from every DPO in the UK? Then we can begin to focus on our aims and look at how we can begin and sustain our campaign. 


Will you make your new year resolution to campaign for human rights for ALL disabled people? 

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