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DWP ‘victimised’ disabled staff member who claimed discrimination, tribunal finds

Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) managers “victimised” a disabled member of staff after she claimed that she had faced workplace discrimination, an employment tribunal has ruled.

It is just the latest case to raise concerns that DWP is institutionally disablist, both in its treatment of disabled benefit claimants and of its own staff.

Last November, DWP admitted failing to keep track of how many complaints of disability discrimination were made by its own staff, while in February Civil Service figures revealed that the proportion of DWP staff who said they had been victims of disability discrimination at work in the previous 12 months had risen by about 50 per cent in just four years.

The new tribunal decision adds further weight to the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition, which calls on MPs to recognise that DWP is “institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose”. 

The victimisation happened after the woman, referred to as JL, had submitted a claim internally that DWP had breached the Equality Act by failing to make a reasonable adjustment by providing her with access to a psychologist at work, following job-related anxiety and stress.

She subsequently used freedom of information laws to obtain a statement that had been prepared by two of her managers – and was not intended to be shared with her – who had discussed her case.

In the statement, the managers said they believed her actions were “vexations [vexatious]”, because of an earlier successful claim she had made under the Civil Service “injury benefit” system two years earlier, which again had been linked to DWP’s failure to meet its duties to her under the Equality Act.

Her managers also claimed that they appeared to be victims of “a widening [trade union] strategy” that saw “absence recorded as work-related stress” and eventually leading to the member of staff “seeking gardening leave” until the process was resolved.

But one of the managers told the tribunal that he accepted JL “had done nothing wrong and there was no basis for labelling her behaviour as vexatious”.

Employment judge Alexander Green said the managers’ statement was “inaccurate and disparaging” and the claim of vexatious behaviour was “a very serious allegation without any evidential basis”.

Judge Green said JL was instead “exercising her right to submit an injury benefit claim and it should also not be forgotten that she had succeeded with a previous claim in 2015 where she proved loss based on a work-related stress claim” and so was not “simply acting to annoy” DWP.

The judge also pointed out that JL had been “justifiably upset” because DWP had lost some of the sensitive medical documents she had submitted as part of her claim.

And he said there was “absolutely no basis” for the suggestion that her claim was part of a wider trade union strategy to encourage “un-meritorious claims”.

Judge Green said the management statement “misrepresents” JL, who was “being targeted for asserting her rights”, and he concluded that DWP had victimised JL under the Equality Act.

JL, who has long-standing depression and anxiety, has been working at a DWP pensions centre for 16 years, and had been a representative of the PCS union for more than 13 years, until she stood down in 2017.

The tribunal heard JL had not taken any further sick leave since returning to work in January 2018 and was now branch secretary of the PCS union.

The tribunal rejected her claims of disability discrimination and a failure to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act because she was not able to prove that she was a disabled person under the act by showing her mental health condition had had a substantial impact on her day-to-day activities.

But Judge Green said JL was clearly “very upset by the way she was treated”, and he added: “The management statement caused her great offence and she felt victimised and violated by [DWP’s] behaviour.

“When she gave her evidence about how she felt, she frequently broke down in tears… Her upset was genuine, heartfelt and palpable.”

JL was awarded £3,000 in damages for injury to feelings, and a further £212.60 in interest.

A DWP spokesperson said this week: “We are absolutely committed to ensuring all colleagues, including those with disabilities or health conditions, get the support they need to thrive.

“As a Disability Confident employer we demonstrate best practice in recruiting, retaining and developing disabled staff – including making workplace adjustments and providing a dedicated team to deliver this.

“We have in place robust processes for colleagues to follow in relation to diversity and inclusion and, while the number of staff reporting discrimination is very small, we treat any case extremely seriously.”

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