COMMENT: DWP press office and the art of facts avoidance

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This is a blog which I shouldn’t have to write, but which I think demonstrates just how desperate the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has become to avoid admitting uncomfortable truths about its policies and performance.

I believe this is an issue that raises important questions about the impartiality of the Civil Service under the current government, and the right of journalists to receive straight, clear, non-evasive answers to questions that are put to government press officers, particularly those within the DWP.

It’s something I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and while DWP is by no means the only government department that is guilty of this, it is by far the worst offender.

Yesterday, Disability News Service published a news story which showed that successive ministers for disabled people had signed up only about 40 mainstream private sector employers to their flagship Disability Confident employment scheme in the three years since it was launched.

The story was based on an analysis by Disability News Service (DNS) of a list that appears on the Office for Disability Issues website.

That analysis shows that – with the exception of 15 law firms, and recruitment, welfare-to-work and employment specialists, which often have a financial interest in disability issues – the government seems to have persuaded just 26 non-disability-related private sector organisations to sign up to its national scheme, and one of those is a small café in Cornwall.

Because I like to give DWP a chance to respond to potential stories whenever I can – it’s the responsible and professional thing to do as a journalist – I approached the press office by email in the early hours of Tuesday for a comment on my analysis.

What happened over the following three or so days does – in my opinion – raise serious questions about how the DWP press office has been allowed to operate over the last six years. They were evasive, refused to respond to the points I asked them to comment on, and over-ran the agreed deadline, all of which has become standard practice (on deadlines, if they don’t over-run, the comments will arrive minutes before they expire).

Personally, I don’t blame the individual press officers. My gut feeling is that they are following orders, and have been told that if they don’t follow those orders, they will be disciplined. Of course, that doesn’t completely excuse them.

Here is how my communications with DWP’s press office progressed over those three days. The email exchange is included in full, minus the names of the individual press officers (it is a matter of convention that journalists do not name government press officers).

I suspect not many people will want to wade through the entire email exchange but I thought it was important to publish it in full – if only for my own satisfaction – as I believe it highlights the problems myself and other journalists are facing in dealing with DWP. I would be grateful for any feedback. Perhaps I’m over-reacting, but I don’t think so…

 

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 31/5/2016, 00.13am

Hi *****/*****

Hope you both had a good bank holiday.

I’ve been amusing myself by analysing the organisations that have signed up as partners to Disability Confident. I’m afraid the numbers do not look good. I thought the best thing would be for me to email you the relevant bits of a rough draft of where the story is at the moment (see below), and then you can comment as you see fit, rather than me asking you particular questions.

Would be grateful for a comment from the minister if possible, please, or from DWP if he’s on a beach somewhere. My deadline is 2pm Wednesday. Please let me know if that will not be possible.

Also, could you please let me have the email address for the person I need to liaise with in the minister’s office re a possible interview at party conference? I know he won’t do one, but I have to ask anyway.

Best wishes,

John

The government has signed up only about 40 mainstream private sector employers to its flagship Disability Confident employment scheme in nearly three years since it was launched by the prime minister, new figures reveal.

An analysis by Disability News Service shows that – with the exception of 15 law firms, and recruitment, welfare-to-work and employment specialists, which would be expected to have an interest in the subject – the government appears to have persuaded just 25 non-disability-related companies to sign up to its national scheme, and one of those is a tiny café in Cornwall.

Fresh analysis of the partners signed up to Disability Confident shows that of the 126 organisations, nearly half – an estimated 55 – are focused on representing or working on behalf of or for disabled people, such as Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People, Mencap and Disability Rights UK.

Another 18 are public sector organisations, while there are also three quangos, a sports governing body and two social enterprises, but only about 40 mainstream private sector companies.

Those 40 include major employers such as Airbus, Asda, Honda, Balfour Beatty, Barclays, Fujitsu, National Grid, Taylor Wimpey and Sainsbury’s… and the Cornish Maid Café in Falmouth, Cornwall.

The analysis suggests that the efforts of successive ministers for disabled people – Esther McVey, Mike Penning, Mark Harper and Justin Tomlinson – have failed to persuade more than a tiny minority of businesses across the country to take the scheme seriously.

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 31/5/16, 10.29am

Hi John

Thanks for the enquiry, we’ll get back to you tomorrow.

Best

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 31/5/16, 11.35am

Thanks, *****

 

FROM DWP to DNS 1/6/16, 2.01pm

Hi John,

Apologies but our statement will be a little bit late, we will get it to you this afternoon.

Sorry for letting you know late.

Best

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 1/6/16, 2.39pm

Thanks, *****, appreciate the update…

 

FROM DWP to DNS: 1/6/16, 5.03pm

Hi John

Apologies again for the late response.

A DWP spokesperson said:

Since December, 569 employers have registered with the Disability Confident scheme, and we’re continuing to receive around 100 registrations every month. The programme is supported by a range of major employers and small businesses across the UK – but we want to go even further to remove barriers, increase understanding and ensure disabled people have the opportunities to fulfil their potential in the workplace.”

Background:

In December 2015 we introduced a registration facility on Gov.UK for employers to register their interest to become more Disability Confident.

Best

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 1/6/16, 6.05pm

I’m sorry, *****, but I can’t use that. It doesn’t bear any relation to the points I raised, which were all about the partners you had signed up.

I stress that I’m more than happy to include this information in the story as long as you actually engage with the points made, and also explain the difference between registering interest (which doesn’t seem to impose any obligations) and becoming a partner (which I’m guessing does).

I’m afraid I’m not going to allow DWP to avoid answering the actual questions I asked.

Can I assume the minister is on holiday, as I did ask something from him?

I also asked for a contact in the minister’s private office to arrange an interview. If you could help with that I would be grateful.

Best wishes,

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 2/6/16, 10.22am

Hi John,

I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Copying in ***** who has joined the disability desk.

Best

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 2/6/16, 11.33am

Hi ***** (and *****)

Just half an hour left…

Bw

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 2/6/16, 11.39am

Hi John

***** is chasing up for you now. We weren’t aware you needed something by 12:03pm. As always, we will try to come back to you as soon as possible.

Kind regards,

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 2/6/16, 12.13pm

Thanks *****, but my deadline was actually yesterday. My final deadline ie when the stories are sent out, does not change. I always send my stories out between noon and 1pm on Thursday. ***** knows that (or should do).

Can I point out – yet again, to DWP press office – that I have a mental health condition, and this constant running over deadlines and causing extreme stress with last minute responses puts my continuing fragile health at risk. I shouldn’t have to keep telling this to DWP – the home of Disability Confident.

Best wishes,

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 2/6/16, 12.50pm

Hi John

Apologies for any distress caused we do try our best to get answers to your questions within your deadline. ***** did provide a response yesterday – which you were not satisfied with. He has been working all morning on your follow up email.

Please use the response provided yesterday. In your earlier email, you had asked us to comment on your draft how we saw fit – which we have done – rather than provide answers to specific questions.

You also asked for a contact for private office re an interview at party conference. Please email ***** she is actually on leave at the moment but am sure she will pick up with you when she’s back.

Kind regards,

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 2/6/16, 1.03pm

Thanks…

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 2/6/16, 1.04pm

By the way, I would still like to receive *****’s response for a follow-up, particularly as he has been working on it all morning.

Bw

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 2/6/16, 4.23pm

Hi John

Here’s a statement for your follow up:

“We are currently looking at whether any further improvements can be made to Disability Confident. All of our partners, as well as the 569 employers who have already registered interest through Gov.UK, will receive details of any potential changes in due course.”

We’ll be happy to keep you updated as and when we can.

Best wishes,

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 2/6/16, 5.03pm

*****

You haven’t explained the difference between registering interest (which doesn’t seem to impose any obligations) and becoming a partner (which I’m guessing does) which I asked yesterday evening.

And you still haven’t engaged at all with the information I sent across to you about the DC partners. Can you tell me please whether DWP is disappointed with the figures that I emailed across to you?

Clearly just asking you to respond to some clear information is not enough, and I have to treat you all like children and make it very, very clear exactly what the question is, otherwise you will find a way to avoid responding to it in a sensible way.

Just so disappointing. And causing all of us extra work, when I thought civil servants were supposed to be understaffed and overworked.

Is this really why you became a civil servant, *****?

I’ll wait to hear from you, again, *****.

Best wishes,

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 2/6/16, 5.30pm

Hi John

Just to point out that you asked us to respond how we saw fit, which is what we did.

To clarify:

Being a disability confident partner means that the employer supports the scheme and we provide them with support and advice to become more disability confident, such as:

  • Join our LinkedIn community and take part in the discussion. Share information, good practice and articles on disability employment matters
  • Actively encourage other businesses to support the campaign -particularly amongst their networks or supply chain
  • Offer a disabled person a work placement
  • Host Disability Confident events
  • Allow us to publicise their support of the campaign on Gov.uk.

Registering interest means that once we have made improvements to the scheme we will provide the employer with details and they will be able to engage should they choose to.

Have a good weekend.

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 2/6/16, 6.14pm

*****

I’m still waiting for you to respond to the information I sent across to you about the DC partners. Can you tell me please what DWP’s reaction is to the information I emailed across to you, and whether you are disappointed with them and why. Please respond to each of the criticisms included in the information ie please produce a comment in response to every paragraph I emailed you. Because of your previous failure to respond sensibly, I have pasted the paragraphs below, helpfully numbering each paragraph. Please respond to each paragraph ie paragraphs numbered 1 through 6.

1 The government has signed up only about 40 mainstream private sector employers to its flagship Disability Confident employment scheme in nearly three years since it was launched by the prime minister, new figures reveal.

2 An analysis by Disability News Service shows that – with the exception of 15 law firms, and recruitment, welfare-to-work and employment specialists, which would be expected to have an interest in the subject – the government appears to have persuaded just 25 non-disability-related companies to sign up to its national scheme, and one of those is a tiny café in Cornwall.

3 Fresh analysis of the partners signed up to Disability Confident shows that of the 126 organisations, nearly half – an estimated 55 – are focused on representing or working on behalf of or for disabled people, such as Suffolk Coalition of Disabled People, Mencap and Disability Rights UK.

4 Another 18 are public sector organisations, while there are also three quangos, a sports governing body and two social enterprises, but only about 40 mainstream private sector companies.

5 Those 40 include major employers such as Airbus, Asda, Honda, Balfour Beatty, Barclays, Fujitsu, National Grid, Taylor Wimpey and Sainsbury’s… and the Cornish Maid Café in Falmouth, Cornwall.

6 The analysis suggests that the efforts of successive ministers for disabled people – Esther McVey, Mike Penning, Mark Harper and Justin Tomlinson – have failed to persuade more than a tiny minority of businesses across the country to take the scheme seriously.

Yes, I asked you to respond to the information, assuming that you would do so in a way befitting of a very well-paid civil servant ie that you would take a reasoned and sensible view of what I was looking for. Obviously I won’t do that again. Hence the above.

I’ll wait to hear from you (again).

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 3/6/16, 9.07am

John,

It is completely unacceptable and inappropriate for you to converse with ***** in this way. Frankly I’m surprised that a journalist of your standing would resort to making personal insults to a junior member of staff who is simply doing a job on behalf of the Department. If you had wanted answers to specific questions, you should have emailed them across when you first contacted us. As I recall, you asked the Department to respond in a way that we saw fit, which we did. Please provide a new deadline for the questions you have asked below.

Regards,

*****

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 3/6/16, 9.22am

Further to my email below, I’ve just reread your email and believe the information ***** has provided to date already covers your points. Therefore, our original statement stands.

Best wishes,

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 3/6/16, 10.08am

What is unacceptable, *****, is your office using every ploy you possibly can to avoid responding to a perfectly valid request for a comment on the very low numbers of partners signed up to Disability Confident. I sent you details of my analysis of the organisation signed up as partners, and ***** responded, way over deadline, with a two-line statement that did not mention any of the information I sent to him. How is that professional?

If ***** is too ‘junior’ to deal with reasoned and reasonable criticism, then I suggest he is in the wrong job. How you can attempt to justify the response you your office has given me is beyond me. Are you seriously suggesting to me that when I am treated the way I have been this week by your press office, I should just suck it up and not respond? This is really, really disappointing, but I’m not going to allow the DWP press office to yet again get under my skin and cause this to escalate.

I will ask you both, yet again, to respond to the points I made yesterday by 2pm today.

I suspect I will have to say in my follow-up that DWP, despite repeated attempts, has refused/avoided commenting and explaining why the numbers are so ridiculously low, but I will at least give you a chance to do your job properly and respond to the figures I emailed you about Disability Confident partners.

I’ll wait to hear from you.

John

 

FROM DWP TO DNS: 3/6/16, 10.32am

John,

I’m afraid we’re going to have to draw a line under this one. We won’t be providing you a further statement on this issue.

Regards,

*****

 

FROM DNS TO DWP: 3/6/16, 11.06am

  1. I think I’m probably going to have to blog on this later, because I don’t think this has been dealt with acceptably by your office. I will not be using the names of any press officers, though.

bw

John

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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