A watchdog’s investigation over suspicions a Government department’s treatment of disabled benefits claimants broke equality laws has been described by the work and pensions secretary as a “significant moment”.

Mel Stride said he takes suggested criticisms of his department over the treatment of vulnerable people “very seriously”.

The Government minister and some of his predecessors are suspected to have violated the Equality Act 2010 while in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has said.

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.

Mr Stride was asked about the newly-announced investigation when he appeared before the work and pensions committee on Wednesday.

He confirmed he had not met EHRC chairwoman Baroness Kishwer Falkner since taking up his role in October 2022.

Asked if he envisaged engaging with the watchdog’s investigation as it goes forward, he said: “Clearly, it’s a significant moment and it is something that I take very seriously, as I do any suggested criticisms of the department, particularly in this kind of area, (of) more vulnerable people.”

The regulator is looking at whether during health assessment determinations, which form part of the application process for some benefits, the DWP failed to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people with learning disabilities or long-term mental health conditions.

Cabinet meeting
Mel Stride described the investigation as a ‘significant moment’ (Yui Mok/PA)

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

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).

The investigation will assess whether the department complied with this obligation when developing, implementing and monitoring policy guidance related to health assessment determinations.

Asked if he would now meet Lady Falkner, Mr Stride told the committee: “I have no reasons, prima facie reasons, why I would not meet with the chair.

“Clearly we would need to understand what it was we were due to discuss. I would need to be taking into account all the factors that may be pertaining at that particular moment in time.

“But I have no hard and fast reason why I would not meet with the chair of the commission, absolutely not.”

EHRC chairwoman Lady Falkner said: “We are extremely worried about the treatment of some disabled benefits claimants by the DWP. We suspect the Secretary of State’s department may have broken equality law.

“We have decided we need to take the strongest possible action and that’s why we’ve launched this investigation.

“The DWP is responsible for vital support which many disabled people rely on, including personal independence payments, employment and support allowance and universal credit. Access to that support must be fair and must meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.

“Our 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.”

The EHRC is seeking information and evidence from disability charities and whistleblowers who have worked for the DWP.

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness described it as a “national scandal that our social security system lets so many people fall through the gaps” and said bereaved families and campaigners have been calling for the DWP to be held to account “for years”.

He added: “People severely affected by mental illness rely on the DWP for essential support, but time and time again we hear how people find it to be a punitive system which is extremely challenging to navigate at the best of times, but particularly when you’re unwell.

“We hope this investigation by the EHRC is the catalyst that finally leads to real change in how people severely affected by mental illness are supported by the state.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to improving the lives of disabled people and our recent Disability Action Plan sets out 32 actions we are taking to make the UK the most accessible country in the world for disabled people to live, work and thrive.

“The 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.

“We take our obligations under the Equality Act incredibly seriously, including the Public Sector Equality Duty, and will continue to co-operate with the Commission.”