Disabled activists are calling on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release secret reports which could prove whether it has been engaging in a propaganda campaign to demonise disabled people in the media.
DWP has told Disability News Service (DNS) that it will not release documents compiled by its own communications department that describe the impact of its briefings to the media on disability benefit reform.
DWP initially denied that any such documents existed, but DNS has discovered that a monthly report is compiled describing the impact of its press releases and other media briefings.
These reports could reveal how DWP has briefed mainstream newspapers – including the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Express – on its social security reforms, and how it judged their subsequent coverage.
Disabled activists and opposition politicians have repeatedly raised concerns that ministers or civil servants have briefed newspapers in a way that encourages them to report inaccurate and misleading articles with headlines such as “75 per cent of incapacity claimants are fit to work” and “Disabled benefit? Just fill in a form”.
After DNS lodged a freedom of information request in August, asking “whether the department keeps a record of which actions by DWP communications have led to the publication of welfare stories that appear in the media”, DWP initially insisted that no such reports existed.
It also denied keeping any record of complaints the department made about social security-based news stories that have appeared in national newspapers over the last five years.
Following a fresh request by DNS on 19 September – after discovering a reference to monthly impact reports on a former press officer’s social media profile – DWP has now admitted that it does hold “some of the information” DNS is seeking.
But it is now claiming an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act because, it says, releasing the information would “prejudice the commercial interests” of both DWP and “third parties”.
DNS has asked DWP to review this decision, and plans to appeal to the Information Commissioner if it does not release the reports.
A spokesman for Disabled People Against Cuts said: “It is very much in the public interest to know the extent to which the DWP have been engaging in a propaganda campaign to demonise disabled people in the media.
“We already have evidence that this has and is taking place, and we require full disclosure – nothing less is acceptable.”
A DWP spokeswoman appeared to suggest that the two FoI requests had asked for different information – which was why DNS was originally told such documents did not exist – and insisted that it did not hold a record of “DWP communications” work*.
Asked what the commercial interests were that would be damaged by releasing the reports, she said: “You’ve already asked for a review into this [freedom of information]response.
“You will receive the appropriate response once the correct processes have been followed.”
And asked if the reports would show that the department had been engaging in a campaign to stir up hostility towards disabled people in the media in order to justify government cuts and reforms to disability benefits, she said: “We disagree with the premise of this question.
“DWP press office and communications directorate is proud of the work we do to promote the interests of disabled people.
“We promote schemes such as Access to Work, and through our Disability Confident campaign we have helped to dispel myths about employing disabled people and have highlighted the valuable contribution they make to the workplace.
“We are particularly proud of our recent work with campaigning groups to persuade the Premier League to make all their stadia accessible by August 2017.”
DWP has been the subject of a string of complaints from disabled activists and politicians over its communications with the media over the last five years.
In 2011, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was criticised by the work and pensions select committee for “pandering to the Daily Mail” and sending out misleading press releases about incapacity benefit reform.
Duncan Smith protested then that he was unable to control how the media covered welfare reform stories, but promised DWP would improve the way it dealt with statistics on disability benefits.
Just 24 hours later, he provided quotes to selected news organisations – including the Mail – suggesting that thousands of disabled people were receiving disability living allowance they were not entitled to.
In 2013, Esther McVey, at the time the Conservative minister for disabled people, claimed in the Mail on Sunday that coalition plans to abolish working-age DLA had led to a huge increase in applications by people desperate to claim the benefit before it was replaced by the new personal independence payment.
The article talked of an “extraordinary ‘closing-down sale’ effect, with rocketing claims as people rush to get their hands on unchecked ‘welfare for life’ before McVey’s axe falls on April 8”.
But the interview was based on government figures which actually showed the number of working-age claimants fell by more than 1,600 in the relevant three-month period.
The following week, Duncan Smith repeated the claims, even though his department had been alerted to McVey’s use of the misleading figures.
And last year, the disabled Tory peer Lord [Chris] Holmes, who heads the equality watchdog’s disability committee, was asked by members of the all-party parliamentary disability group if the hostile rhetoric of his party’s ministers had helped fuel hate crime.
Ministers have repeatedly blamed the tabloid press for whipping up hostility towards disabled benefit claimants, and insist that they have done everything they can to “stop the rumour mill”.
*By 9pm this evening (19 November), DWP had not been able to clarify how these two requests were different