The equality regulator is investigating the Department for Work and Pensions over suspicions that its treatment of disabled benefits claimants broke equality laws.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride and some of his predecessors are suspected to have violated the Equality Act 2010 while in charge of the DWP, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said on Wednesday.

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.

Mel Stride
Mel Stride (Aaron Chown/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.

EHRC chairwoman Baroness Kishwer 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 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.

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

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 cooperate with the Commission.”

Mr Stride has been contacted for comment.