We deserve to know what the DWP is hiding about benefits

Therese Coffey has refused to publish reports into how the department handles helping the vulnerable, or how many people have died as a result of being denied disability benefits

Rachel Charlton-Dailey
Tuesday 16 August 2022 15:23 BST
Thérèse Coffey calls Good Morning Britain host's cost of living questioning 'insulting'

As a disabled activist who has fought to hold the government accountable, I’m used to being brushed off, but the latest announcement from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) feels like its cruellest trick yet.

The work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey, has said she will not publish five official reports into how the department handles helping the vulnerable, or how many people have died as a result of being denied disability benefits.

The publication of these reports was promised by Coffey’s predecessors, following claims that thousands of disabled people had died since the Conservatives came into power in 2010. The true number still isn’t known, but it was found that over 17,000 people died between 2013 and 2019 whilst waiting for decisions to be made over their benefit claims. In 2020, we learned that 5,000 disabled people died still waiting to be reimbursed by the government to the tune of £16m in underpaid benefits.

But the underpayments scandal isn’t even one of the five reports that the secretary is hushing up, which makes me wonder exactly how damning this research might be.

In an open letter to Sir Stephen Timms, chair of the work and pensions committee, Coffey set out why she wouldn’t be publishing the five reports promised, and a subsequent further two. One of the main areas of research was an evaluation into the lowered benefit cap, which was supposed to be published in 2019. The cap hasn’t changed since 2016, despite the rise in inflation, and now means that more 12,000 families will miss out on help during the cost of living crisis.

Instead of plans to raise the cap in line with inflation to help those affected by the pandemic, Coffey suggests the review “would be best done when the significant social and economic impacts of the global pandemic are not affecting volatility”.

Another report the department won’t be publishing is into the impact of benefit sanctions on those who claim universal credit. Coffey confirmed that she would not be publishing the report, and opined that sanctions “act as a deterrent” to those who don’t seek work. This is despite research presented to the commons work and pensions committee inquiry that found sanctions to be “routinely ineffective in facilitating people’s entry into, or progression within, the paid labour market over time”.

The next was the internal report into the deaths of benefits claimants. Following calls from families of the deceased, disabled activists, other MPs and the press, the department has started over 140 internal process reviews into the deaths of claimants who died whilst waiting for a decision or after being denied benefits, just a drop in the ocean of the actual figure which we may never know.

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As someone who has campaigned for the lives of disabled people through the pandemic and under Tory austerity, it is absolutely galling that they can so callously dismiss our calls to know the scale of the loss to our community.

Coffey also said she was not committed to publishing reports on online accessibility, unpaid carers or the effectiveness of work capability assessments for those on universal credit. It feels as if these crucial areas of research are being brushed under the carpet by the Tories, because the reality of the benefits system is not part of their lives.

In response to a question on what the department is doing to ensure the safety of vulnerable claimants came perhaps the most chilling reply I have ever read: “We do not have a statutory duty of safeguarding, though of course we do care about our claimants.”

Just how many disabled people have lost their lives while waiting for benefits decisions or after being sanctioned or underpaid? How many more will die because this government simply doesn’t care? We deserve to know the full scale of the DWP’s cruelty towards disabled people. Only when there is accountability can there be change.

Rachel Charlton-Dailey is a journalist and activist

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