Debates between Justin Tomlinson and Debbie Abrahams during the 2019 Parliament

Wed 23rd September 2020
4 interactions (251 words)
Mon 9th March 2020
2 interactions (110 words)
Mon 27th January 2020
4 interactions (217 words)

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Justin Tomlinson and Debbie Abrahams
Wednesday 23rd September 2020

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office
Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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What assessment she has made of the effect on disabled people of the covid-19 outbreak. [906534]

Justin Tomlinson Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Justin Tomlinson)
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The Government are committed to supporting disabled people affected by the covid-19 outbreak. We continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on disabled people using existing and new data sources.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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Between March and July, disabled people, including people with a health condition or impairment, accounted for almost 60% of all covid deaths, yet a survey of disabled people in Greater Manchester revealed that eight out of 10 were not included in the official Government shielded group, in spite of 57% having significant support needs. With the second wave upon us, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that all clinically vulnerable people are shielded and properly supported?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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That is a really important point. Through my work as the Minister for Disabled People and in conjunction with the Disability Unit, for which I am responsible, where stakeholders identify challenges around support for those who were shielding, we raise that with the relevant Minister. Obviously, shielding has come to an end, and that is kept under review. We must ensure that people feel safe, particularly those who are seeking to work. We expect employers to act in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Health and Safety Executive and ACAS, we are publishing helpful guidance to ensure that there is sufficient support for those who are coming out of shielding and returning to normality.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Justin Tomlinson and Debbie Abrahams
Monday 9th March 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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9 Mar 2020, 3:24 p.m.

In the last six years alone, there have been 1.4 million more disabled people in work; in the last two years alone, there have been 404,000 more disabled people in work, bringing the figure to 54.1%—a 9.9 percentage point increase in the last six years alone. The disability employment gap has fallen by 5.6 percentage points in the last six years. We are making progress and we continue to be ambitious about unlocking everybody’s potential.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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9 Mar 2020, 3:24 p.m.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that during the coronavirus epidemic, any social security claimant who fails to attend a work capability or work-related activity assessment will also not have their social security support stopped?

Social Security Benefits: Claimant Deaths

Debate between Justin Tomlinson and Debbie Abrahams
Monday 24th February 2020

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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24 Feb 2020, 11:16 p.m.

My right hon. Friend is spot on. There are so many learning points that we should have already picked up on, and I will go through them in a minute.

I will finish the list if I can. Shaun Pilkington died in January 2014, and Terry McGarvey died in February 2014. This is not an exhaustive list, but it shames us all. This inaction shames the Government. I have raised this so many times over the past five years, and there has been no change whatsoever.

For years now, there have been warnings that the Department’s safeguarding policies are not working. In 2014-15, as a member of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, I asked for an inquiry on sanctions policy. From this inquiry, the Committee recommended:

“DWP should seek to establish a body modelled on the Independent Police Complaints Commission, to conduct reviews, at the request of relatives, or automatically where no living relative remains, in all instances where an individual on an out-of-work working-age benefit dies whilst in receipt of that benefit. Such a model, operated within the purview of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, should ensure that the role of all publicly-funded agencies involved in the provision of services or benefits to the individual is scrutinised, so that a learning document can be produced setting out how policy, and the service delivery pathway, can be improved at every stage.”

In their formal response—[Interruption.] Would the Minister like to intervene? I believe there is something he finds amusing about this.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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24 Feb 2020, 11:16 p.m.

Okay. I just saw a bit of a smirk.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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24 Feb 2020, 11:16 p.m.

It was not.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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24 Feb 2020, 11:17 p.m.

I hope it was not.

In the Government’s formal response, there was no recognition or acknowledgment of the recommendation, which was completely rejected by the Government.

In 2014, the Disability News Service asked, via a freedom of information request, for the Department to publish 49 internal peer reviews into deaths. After nearly two years, and following an information rights tribunal, redacted versions were published. It was clear from the limited information available that Ministers were repeatedly —repeatedly—warned by their own civil servants that their policies to assess people for out-of-work disability benefits were putting the lives of vulnerable claimants at risk.

More recently, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) mentioned, on 7 February 2020, following a request from the former Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, the NAO published a briefing report setting out the findings of its inquiries with the Department on the information it holds on benefit claimants who ended their life by suicide.

The NAO found:

“The Department has received nine contacts from coroners via its official coroner focal point relating to suicide since March 2016…received four Prevention of Future Death (PFD) reports from coroners since 2013, of which two were related to suicide…investigated 69 suicides of benefit claimants since 2014-15… It is highly unlikely that the 69 cases the Department has investigated represents the number of cases it could have investigated in the past six years”.

In other words, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not even know the actual number of people who have taken their own life as a result of what they went through.

The report continues:

“The Department does not have a robust record of all contact from coroners.”

How can that be? This is a Government Department, for heaven’s sake.

“The Department accepts that not all its staff are aware of the IPR guidance.”

What is the point of doing them if they are not aware?

“We also found that the Department’s guidance does not necessarily reflect the full scope of issues that could trigger an IPR.”

That just beggars belief. The report continues:

“the Department told us that there is no tracking or monitoring of the status of these recommendations. As a result, the Department does not know whether the suggested improvements are implemented.”

Do Ministers not feel ashamed? The report also said that

“the Department does not categorise IPR outputs to identify larger trends or themes from within the outputs, and so systemic issues which might be brought to light through these reviews could be missed.”

The NAO report found similar conclusions to those found by the Select Committee five years earlier: that lessons have not been learned. This is absolutely damning. I hope that the Ministers here take on board these results. Not only that, but because this is rarely covered in the media I hope that everyone in the Press Gallery is going to be reporting on this. It is a scandal: British citizens are dying as a result of policies implemented by this Government. Everybody should be taking note. I have asked for a full and independent inquiry, given the serious failures that are clear just from the speech I have given. I appreciate that the Minister needs to consult others, but I would like a response by the end of this week. This is too serious to be ignored.

The Department stated that there will be a new system of serious case reviews, so who will sit on the panel? Will there be independent panel members, not just DWP employees and contractors? Will they have medical expertise? Will there be a commitment to publishing the panel’s membership and terms of reference? How will the trends or themes to be investigated be identified? How will the recommendations made by the panel be tracked? Will the Department undertake to review its safeguarding policies in the round, including the training of staff? In the light of the NAO’s findings, how will the Department ensure that its guidance reflects the full scope of issues that could trigger an internal process serious case review and that all its staff are well aware of the relevant guidance?

The death of any person as a result of Government policy is nothing less than a scandal. It is clear that from the cases that I have talked about, and from the NAO report and others, that this is just the tip of the iceberg. We do not know what is going on. For too long, the Department has failed to address the effects of its policies. It must now act. Enough is enough.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Justin Tomlinson)
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24 Feb 2020, 11:22 p.m.

I am conscious that I have not got long to respond to this very important and serious subject. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), who has clearly demonstrated her genuine passion on this incredibly important subject. Not only that, but she has been a long-standing campaigner in this area, highlighting, through her work on the Work and Pensions Committee, in various debates in Parliament and in work within the media, the plight of some of the most vulnerable people in society. I pay tribute to and we take very seriously all the points that have been raised. As I said, I am conscious of time, and if we do not cover all the things now, there will be further opportunities to do so.

Day in, day out, the DWP interacts with many people; it interacts with about 20 million people each year, and a number of them are among the most vulnerable in our society. In the vast majority of interactions with these people, we get it right. The wellbeing of everyone who interacts with the DWP is of the utmost importance. That is why we improve support and guidance to staff on how best to support vulnerable people, and why we are constantly looking at our processes, striving for continuous improvement. However, we can see that there are cases where we have not got it right, for which we apologise. When that happens, we want to ensure that the Department learns, so that in the future we can deliver the right outcomes first time, respond effectively to the needs of the most vulnerable, and reform our service so that we can continually improve and are more responsive to feedback—that was a clear theme of the points presented in the hon. Member’s speech.

Through our work with some of the most vulnerable in society, there is an opportunity for us to make a difference. Both myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), who is responsible for welfare delivery, are passionate about that. We are passionate about identifying vulnerable claimants; making sure that there is personalised and tailored support; making sure that we are signposting or working in partnership with other organisations, to give the best possible support; and, crucially, where things are not right, learning lessons.

I am conscious that reference has been made in interventions and speeches to the very important work of the NAO. It has produced a note relating to the DWP and the information held on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants. The Department rightly fully co-operated with the NAO during the creation of this new note, also providing a summary of how we were already working to improve processes in a number of areas. For instance, in 2016 the Department set up the coroners focal point, and is now working to improve it by developing better communication between DWP and the coroner’s office. That includes informing the coroner of the circumstances in which they should report a death to the Department.

The Department is also carrying out a review focusing on strengthening the internal process review processes and the Department’s response to serious cases and suicides. We are clarifying the circumstances in which the DWP should carry out an IPR and improving our internal guidance and communication to ensure that all colleagues are aware of and understand the processes for reporting a suicide. It is important to note that the IPRs look in detail at specific claimant cases that often contain information that is very sensitive and should thus be treated with care. Via the coroner, the families of deceased claimants are able to access information from IPRs; if they then choose to release that information, that is their choice, but as a Department it would be inappropriate to comment on the findings of individual case reviews as it is their private information. We are strengthening the analysis of IPR reports and recommendations to ensure that the Department is aware of any systematic themes and issues and is able to act and put in place effective corresponding improvements.

We are also developing a centralised customer experienced team to co-ordinate all improvement activity, including monitoring the occurrence of issues and delivery of improvements to reduce the risk of issues occurring again. The team will provide a centralised point to support local and regional customer case reviews to identify and act on systematic issues.

We have developed the serious case panel, which will consider the most serious systematic issues that have been identified. That will enable the Department to learn from the issues experienced by ensuring that there is a forum to make recommendations for improvements across the Department as necessary. I know that the Secretary of State personally takes that very seriously. Going forward, the serious case panel will meet quarterly and any recommendations from it will be taken forward by senior members of the Department to ensure that when an issue has been identified, we will learn and take appropriate action.

We recognise that throughout the country we have fantastic, hard-working and compassionate staff. They are always looking at how they can improve, whether that is through training, increased knowledge or awareness. We will work with other organisations. For example, on mental health, to improve our awareness and our ability to support claimants we have worked with Mental Health Matters, which has helped to deliver our improved training, and we have mental health champions in assessment centres. Last year, we did very detailed work on helping to identify and support domestic abuse victims. We did that work with Women’s Aid and Refuge, utilising their expertise. We worked with Autism Alliance to develop the Disability Confident autism and neurodiversity toolkit for work coaches and the disability passport to encourage disabled claimants to disclose their disability or health condition early in the process so that we can improve communication support and ensure that reasonable adjustments are in place.

There is still much more to do on identifying all vulnerable claimants, but through things such as universal credit we have an opportunity to provide personalised and tailored support and also to look at where we can identify suitable advocates so that where the system is not working, there are other people, independent of us, who can help us to make sure that the claimant continues to engage and gets the support that they need.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Justin Tomlinson and Debbie Abrahams
Monday 27th January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Work and Pensions
Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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4. What recent assessment she has made of the effect on claimant health of the work capability assessment process. [900396]

Justin Tomlinson Portrait The Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work (Justin Tomlinson)
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We recognise that attending a work capability assessment can be a stressful experience and have put measures in place to address that. Where possible, we will determine benefit entitlement based on written evidence alone.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams
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Jodey Whiting took her own life in 2017 when her social security support stopped after she missed a work capability assessment that she did not know about. Last week, a psychiatrist said that Jodey’s mental state was likely to have been “substantially affected” by the DWP’s decision.

Last week, Errol Graham’s death was reported in the news. He died in 2018, of starvation. He weighed four and a half stone—again, under similar circumstances. Will the Secretary of State consider, as a matter of urgency, an independent inquiry into the deaths of claimants in these circumstances?

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson
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I thank the hon. Lady for that question; she has been a long-standing campaigner against Labour’s work capability assessment, introduced in 2008. We agree: that is why we commissioned five independent reviews and implemented more than 100 recommendations. Working with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, we are making sure that our frontline staff are fully trained to be in the best place to identify people at risk of suicide.