Disability News Service (DNS) will this week ask a tribunal to require the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to publish information about secret reviews it carried out into the deaths of 49 benefit claimants.
DNS has been trying since August 2014 to find out what actions ministers took in the wake of deaths linked to the employment and support allowance (ESA) claim process, and the refusal or removal of ESA and other benefits.
DWP originally insisted that it held no such information, a claim made both by civil servants and the former minister for disabled people, Mark Harper.
But after Steve Webb, a Liberal Democrat ministerial colleague of Harper, contradicted his claim in October 2014, their department was forced to admit that it did carry out what it called “peer reviews” into benefit-related deaths.
Following a request submitted by DNS under the Freedom of Information Act, DWP finally admitted that it had carried out 49 such reviews between February 2012 and autumn 2014.
But ministers refused to release these reviews, or their conclusions or recommendations, even if personal information was redacted.
They claimed that the civil servants who had compiled the reviews would be breaking the law if they were released to DNS, even though the relevant legislation – section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 – makes it clear that it would be entirely lawful to do so if that decision was authorised by the secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith.
When DNS appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last year, it agreed with DWP that it did not have to release the reviews, or details about them.
The DNS appeal against that decision by the ICO will take place in London in front of the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) on 3 March, although a decision is not expected until a later date.
DNS will be represented at the tribunal by barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, of Monckton Chambers, who has worked pro bono on the case.
John Pring, editor of DNS, said it was vital that the reviews were released by DWP.
In the last year, again following DWP’s refusal to release information within its possession, DNS has investigated two benefit-related deaths almost certain to have been subject to peer reviews, those of Stephen Carré in January 2010 and Michael O’Sullivan in September 2013.
In both cases, coroners linked the deaths to the ESA claim process – particularly to flaws within the work capability assessment (WCA) – and went as far as writing reports calling for DWP to take action to prevent future deaths.
DWP breached its legal duty to respond to the Stephen Carré report in 2010, and this month finally admitted that it had a draft version of a response in its records, which it failed to send to the coroner.
The failure to respond to the coroner’s report is important because ministers took key decisions that year that led to the WCA being rolled out without the improvements necessary to correct its flaws, putting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with mental health conditions at risk.
DNS believes that the secret peer reviews could reveal many other such cases, in which flaws in DWP policy and practice were responsible for the deaths of benefit claimants.
Pring said: “The work DNS has done is only a small part of much wider investigations by other journalists and activists into the impact of welfare reform by successive governments on sick and disabled people.
“We need to know why these people died, whether their deaths were linked to government action, or inaction, and what measures ministers took, or didn’t take, to prevent further deaths.
“It is not good enough for ministers to hide behind social security legislation; Iain Duncan Smith could easily order the publication of these reviews.
“The families of those who died deserve to know the truth, as do the millions of sick and disabled people who will go through the benefits system in the next few years, and who have already been through it.
“They need that system to be safe, and they also need to know that ministers have done and are doing everything they possibly can to avoid causing them unnecessary harm.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We take these matters extremely seriously, which is why we look into our processes over complex cases like these.
“However, having a review in no way means the department was at fault.”