By John Pring, editor of Disability News Service
It is fair to say that the Department for Work and Pensions is not disabled people’s favourite government department, but it is the one that Disability News Service (DNS) deals with most often. So when the DWP press office threatens to stop responding to DNS enquiries “with immediate effect”, it is a threat I have to take seriously.
This blog will describe how this situation has come about. I hope that other disabled people will offer their opinions on whether I am behaving unreasonably, or whether the DWP is threatening DNS unfairly and potentially breaching the Equality Act.
As many people will know, DNS has a number of subscribers who pay an annual or monthly fee for the right to use DNS stories on their own websites or in their magazines or newsletters, or sometimes solely for briefing purposes. The stories are sent out every Friday by email, usually at around 1pm. Most of these subscribers are disabled people’s organisations, and operate – like DNS – on tight budgets.
I also place the stories on the DNS website, every Friday evening, at around 6pm.
These news stories often rely on comments from DWP. Unfortunately, my relationship with the DWP press office – like many other journalists – has grown increasingly fractious over the last few years. This has partly come about due to frustration at DWP’s occasional habit of responding in a way that seeks to ignore/avoid the question and simply produce an answer that offers a PR truth, rather than an actual truth.
Here’s an example: Several months ago, Mark Harper, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said in the Commons that he had talked to disability organisations and they agreed with the government that closing the Independent Living Fund and not ring-fencing the funding given to local authorities was the right thing to do. I asked DWP which organisations Harper was referring to. The answer I received was: “The Minister meets regularly with a broad range of disability groups.” Which, of course, does not answer the question at all. This, sadly, is not an isolated example.
Unfortunately, my relationship with DWP has now reached a new low, with the new chief press officer (disability), threatening to stop dealing completely with DNS.
The latest problems began several weeks ago, when I approached the DWP press office by email at 8.50pm on a Wednesday evening for a comment on an Access to Work story I was working on. As always, I made it clear when my deadline was: in this case, the end of the following day.
However, the press office did not respond to the email until 5.50pm on Friday, nearly two days after I emailed them with a request for a comment, more than four hours after I finished sending the stories to my subscribers, and nearly 24 hours after the deadline I had set.
Later that evening, I thanked the press officer for her efforts, but said that the comment had come through far too late to be included in the story. That, I thought, would be that.
However, I was contacted by another DWP press officer the next morning, asking if I intended to update the copy on my website to include the late response. I replied, explaining how DNS worked, and informing him that this would not be possible.
Two days later, I received an emailed letter from the chief press officer (disability), who warned that he was “not prepared to continue diverting precious time and resources to deal with detailed enquiries from DNS if you cannot guarantee that these answers will be acknowledged in your copy once they are received,” and that: “If DNS does not consider itself to be comparable to every other UK news organisation then it is not within the DWP Press Office’s remit to handle any of its enquiries and, in future, you will need to make your requests for information to the Department through the same methods as any other member of the public.”
If DNS stories appeared only on the DNS website, I would have no problem with the DWP request. It would be entirely reasonable. However, the stories also appear on the websites of my subscribers, and I do not feel comfortable updating my own website, but allowing theirs to continue with out-dated versions of my articles. Therefore, if I was to update my website, I would want to provide an updated story to my 20-odd subscribers. And if I did this with DWP, I would also need to do it with every other organisation that failed to produce a comment in time for my deadlines.
In the past, when DWP has sent me responses to stories far past the deadlines I have set, I have made it clear that this makes it more difficult for me to do my job, increases my anxiety levels, and ensures that my work hours increase. I currently work an average of 70-80 hours a week, and the DWP’s habit of continually missing deadlines and leaving it until the last possible moment to provide a comment has certainly had an impact on my mental health in the past. I have made it clear to the press office on many occasions that I would be grateful if they could try to meet my deadlines as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.
(I should, of course, point out that on the rare occasion that there is a significant factual mistake in a DNS story, I alert all of my subscribers to that error.)
Following this latest incident, I again made the DWP press office aware that to take on the extra workload of continually updating my subscribers throughout the week with developments on old stories, in addition to producing the next week’s stories, could have an adverse impact on my mental health and even make it impossible to continue with DNS. For that reason, I told the chief press officer (disability) that I believed it would be a reasonable adjustment for him to allow me to continue to operate DNS in the way that I have done for the last six years.
Although this is not the way a typical news agency would operate, I do work alone, I have a mental health condition, I am extremely careful with my research, and I believe I behave responsibly in the way I work.
Sadly, the chief press officer (disability) is again threatening that unless I agree to the changes he has suggested, “the DWP Press Office will no longer be able to respond to DNS’s enquiries”.
I have had some extremely supportive comments from my subscribers, but would like to ask other disabled people whether I am being unreasonable, or whether I should resist DWP’s attempts to force me to change the way I work, rather than agreeing to what I believe is a reasonable adjustment.
John Pring can be contacted at [email protected]