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Secretary of State: DWP has no legal duty to safeguard the wellbeing of vulnerable claimants

01 October 2020

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Dr Therese Coffey has said that the statutory safeguarding responsibility to vulnerable claimants falls to councils, social services, doctors and others, but not the DWP.

The Secretary of State gave evidence to the Work and Pension Committee of MPs on Wednesday about the DWP’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

She was asked by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams as to her position on the DWP’s responsibility in respect of safeguarding vulnerable claimants.

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 stance 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?”

Dr Coffey answered: 

“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.”

Ken Butler DR UK’s Welfare Rights and Policy Adviser 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.”

Note: Errol Graham weighed just four-and-a-half stone when his body was found by bailiffs who had knocked down his front door to evict him. He had just a couple of out-of-date tins of tuna left in his flat.

His Employment and Support Allowance and Housing Benefit had been stopped eight months previously after he had failed to attend a work capability assessment.

He was known to suffer from serious mental health issues but in line with DWP safeguarding policies his benefits were terminated after he missed an appointment, and the DWP was unable to contact him.

Before cutting off his income, no attempt was made to ascertain the state of Mr Graham’s health and no attempt was made to contact his GP or his family.

The evidence session before the Work and Pensions Committee is available from parliamentlive.tv

See also: available from disabilityrightsuk.org:

Family of Errol Graham win judicial review challenge of DWP safeguarding policies

Highly unlikely that 69 suicide cases DWP has investigated in the past six years represents the number of cases it could have investigated