DWP carries out threat to ban questions from Disability News Service


The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out its threat to stop answering any questions from the country’s only disability news agency.

DWP’s chief press officer (disability) had previously warned that he and his staff would stop dealing with Disability News Service (DNS) if it refused to change its procedures.

DWP has repeatedly missed deadlines, but has begun insisting that if and when it finally produces a late comment – even if produced hours after stories have been sent out to subscribers and have been published – DNS should update its website to show the government’s response.

John Pring (pictured), the disabled editor of DNS, has pointed out that if he was to do so, he would also have to alert every one of the agency’s subscribers with updates every time a comment arrived after deadline, as well as offering the service demanded by DWP to every other organisation and individual that had been asked to comment on a story that week.

Pring has also told DWP that its habit of frequently missing deadlines and leaving it until the last possible moment to provide a comment has already had a negative impact on his mental health.

Pring said: “I have made it clear – repeatedly – to the DWP press office 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.”

He believes that the press office should consider this request to allow DNS to continue with its current way of operating to be a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, even if DWP is not acting as a service-provider under the act.

After DNS published a blog about DWP’s efforts to force Pring to change these procedures, he was flooded with messages of support from disabled activists and campaigners.

Among the many supportive responses on Twitter, the DWP threat was described as “utterly disgraceful”, a “clear abuse of power”, the “classic behaviour of a bully”, “shameful”, “appalling”, “dreadful”, “immoral”, “shocking and tribalistic” and “outrageous”.

The disabled journalist Frances Ryan tweeted: “Every journalist – disabled or not – should worry over the DWP’s threat to stop giving information to @johnpringdns.”

Emails were also supportive, with one disabled campaigner writing: “I can see why they want to silence you, but believe this would discriminate against many disabled people, myself included.”

Another disabled activist said: “It is clear to me the DWP is bent on reducing challenges to its authority, systems, errors, poor decision-making and ultimately providing information which can be used to challenge the secretary of state…

“As in the past, some of these challenges to the secretary of state have proved rather bruising and embarrassing to government.”

A third said: “I find the way you are being victimised by the DWP is just a symptom of the way they think about us as disabled people.

“DWP are obviously trying to pressure you into changing your views and way you work.”

Many messages of support also arrived via Facebook and the DNS website.

One leading disabled campaigner said: “I am appalled… We all have different views and attitudes, but without informed news we can’t make clear judgements. This is an unacceptable action.”

Another said: “I’m not at all surprised that you’re butting heads with the DWP. Your recent stories have put that department in the hot seat and they’re intent on retaliating.

“I’ve stated on numerous occasions that there’s a need for greater transparency from the DWP and less hypocrisy from its ministers.”

But one DNS-user suggested Pring should agree to DWP’s demands.

She said, in an email: “I think you should not publish a news report until you have heard from DWP… It is more important to respect DWP than to rush inaccurate stories out.

“DWP are already horrid to disabled people. There is no need to get their back up.

“DWP do not make exceptions in their benefit rules, so are highly unlikely to continue making exceptions [to]disability media. Do not push DWP, it will only turn the situation sour.”

Following the publication of Pring’s blog, DNS asked the press office to comment this week on the revelation that the information watchdog is investigating DWP over its refusal to release secret reviews into 49 benefit-related deaths.

But the chief press officer (disability) said: “Thanks for the opportunity to comment on your forthcoming peer review story but, as discussed previously, we won’t be offering any responses to DNS articles until we can agree on working practices.

“That basic principle is that, if we are to have a working relationship, it should be one which is fair; in which standard conventions are observed; and in which the time and effort that you put into writing your stories and the time and effort that my staff put into answering your questions are given equal respect.”

He added: “I don’t find it particularly surprising that a self-selecting group of your Twitter followers, close contacts and subscribers who have chosen to comment would take your side over ours in this, or indeed any, disagreement.

“I suppose it’s much the same as if I did a straw poll of my civil service colleagues and asked them what they thought – it would probably be a bit of a one-sided outcome.”

Pring said: “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 operate, often working more than 80 hours a week to ensure my stories are properly researched and factual.

“I therefore think it is reasonable for me to ask DWP to allow DNS to continue to operate in the way it has done – with some success and no similar threats from any other organisation in more than six years – to avoid the risk of my mental health deteriorating further.”

DWP’s chief press officer (disability) has yet to confirm whose decision it was to stop answering DNS questions.

When DNS suggested that it might name him in a news story, as the person who made the decision should be held publicly accountable, he said: “As you know, I am a public servant and I act on behalf of the department rather than in any personal capacity.

“If you choose to name me in an article you will, again, be going against a convention which every other news provider respects.

“So if your wish is to conclude this discussion and rule out any possibility of the DWP Press Office dealing with DNS again at any point in the future, that is a sure fire way to achieve it.”

  • User Ratings (44 Votes)
  • britishroses

    I’d seek legal advice John! The DWP and people working for them are ignorant and you can’t argue with ignorance.

  • James O’Dell

    Hi. First of all, let me point out that I am disabled and share your views of the government’s austerity programme etc and would like to thank you for your hard work. I don’t think that it is reasonable to expect you to update subscribers and have to write separate email updates to them as there is an expectation that websites will be updated over time as and when new information is received and anyone wanting an update can save the article as a favourite. I am not aware that online newspapers specifically update subscribers when new information is available on an article already published by email. However, I do think that a request to update the website and possibly social media in a fairly timely manner is reasonable, albeit the updates will consist of the usual bland uninformative responses from DWP. If you are running a “news service” rather than an opinion blog and want to deal with the DWP press office, I think they have a right to expect their views to be represented in your articles – provided, that is, that the DWP are not treating you less favourably than other news organisations with whom they deal. If they are, that is a different matter. If this is not the case, then irrespective of the “service provider” issue, I don’t think it is a reasonable adjustment for you to fail to publish DWP responses due to your mental health condition if you are running a “news service”. Speaking personally, I often find that the power in your articles lies in the blandness and vagueness of the DWP response in comparison to the detailed factual information that you are able to provide and would rather have fewer articles on the website than having people who sstumble across the articles on social media who need to be educated about the real price of austerity dismissing them because they appear unbalanced or biased. An alternative to the above approach would be some sort of rebrand from a “news service” and a more overtly campaigning approach, but that also has its complications. Have you thought of asking for volunteer assistance with updating the website? Thanks for reading and for your hard work.

    • The subscribers in this case include people using DNS as a news wire – they syndicate the stories. It puts a burden on them as well as on John, because they would then have to update *their* websites.

    • Thanks, James. I appreciate your thoughts. The ultimate goal is for DNS to be successful enough to take on another member of staff, and then I hope I would have the resources for continual updates. However, at the moment, that’s not possible. I’m also not comfortable with using unpaid staff. I certainly don’t want to ‘rebrand’, either. I’m a reporter and that’s very important to me. I just happen to think that I’m not asking for much: for DWP to demonstrate that they are prepared to make a small, and reasonable, adjustment to their standard procedures to allow a disabled journalist to continue to do his job without putting his health at further risk.

      • James O’Dell

        Thanks for your reply John. I still can’t see the complete non-publication of DWP responses at all on older articles as a reasonable adjustment in a reporting organisation I am afraid, much as I would like to. If it were a temporary or one-off issue it might be different. I think the more interesting issue here is the timing of this – what has made them change their approach to DNS now? Has there been a change in the time it is taking to get responses up or has there been a particular article they are annoyed about that has triggered this? What are their specific requirements in terms of the speed or manner of updates and can this be achieved? When might you be able to take on more staff? Would it be any easier from a technical point of view in cases where DWP have missed your deadline to publish DWP responses as separate items in your feed – “cut and paste” saving manual editing time e.g. “DWP response received following article XXXX” ? Regarding updating subscribers, it may be possible to set your feed up so that it only contains a description and a link to the article rather than the full text. Whilst this would make it less convenient for people looking at your articles on other sites via syndication, it would mean that you would probably not have to do too much updating to your subscribers if you could update the web page or publish a DWP response as a separate new item in the event they have missed the deadline. Effectively the consequence of them missing the deadline would be no reference to the response in the main article rather than complete non-publication. You could possibly even set whatever CMS up so that they can self-publish their late responses (with your approval obviously). That may be more in reasonable adjustment territory – or possibly not as it’s the DWP we’re talking about!

  • Michael Preston

    So basically the DWP has repeatedly missed deadlines, but insists that if and when it finally deigns to produce a late comment – even if this is hours after stories have been filed and sent out to subscribers, DNS should leap into action to immediately update its website.

    This is, of course, exactly what all media outlets do, right? I don’t think so. I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I’ve seen stories that say, “no-one was available for comment”. Put in more simple terms, if DWP press officers drag their feet, then they shouldn’t expect red carpet treatment from journalists. This isn’t being rude, it’s being proportionate.

    The DWP press office’s actions are, in effect, a government agency behaving in a bullying and, frankly, reprehensible way towards a journalist who’s only ‘error’ is to be rather good at his job of asking rather difficult questions and of holding power to account. Power that apparently doesn’t seem to feel that it has to respect clearly stated, and reasonable deadlines.

    The comment from the press officer towards the end of the article, “I don’t find it particularly surprising that a self-selecting group … would take your side over ours in this, or indeed any, disagreement…” is frankly pretty childish and just a little pitiful.

    The vast majority of DNS’s subscribers and readers are, in all probability, a fairly intelligent and critical audience and hardly a bunch of sheep. The reason they support John is because he’s a bloody good investigative and campaigning journalist, it’s as simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Aside of all of this, I happen to know John personally as well. In addition to the fact that I have a lot of respect for him as a journalist I also know that he’s a rather nice bloke – I can’t think of anyone who’s less deserving of this kind of idiotic behaviour than him.

    (also posted to FB)

  • Just make sure that every story that might otherwise have a “the DWP had not commented at time of going to press” says “the DWP have declined to respond to any further requests for comment from DNS”. Make sure anyone reading the stories knows that at least.

  • Leon Carter

    The DWP is one of the biggest Govt departments and no doubt have a big team to deal with and answer Journalists questions and thus have no reason to provide responses late, indeed it is just more of the DWPChaos instigated and caused by there ministers and senior management.

    Have you made a complaint to the ICO John as I think you should.

  • HomerJS

    Based on experience I would suggest that all comments from the DWP have zero value anyway. So nothing to gain for you. You could run a ‘guess the DWP response’ competition instead.

    • Didn’t see this comment before. Excellent idea, although probably this would be too easy, because they just cut and paste the previous week’s response…

  • Ajax Smith

    For the DWP each and every disabled person who dies because of one of their mistakes is money saved from the budget. They are assessed by money saved from previous years, not lives lost.

  • It may be of course that the decision was taken before the purdah period. And DWP know very well why I need responses by a certain time and day because I have made it repeatedly clear how DNS operates and that continually pushing up to and past my deadlines will inevitably have an impact on my mental health. This has been building up over months/years. I am very willing to be flexible, but I am not willing to put my health at risk to placate a bully. DWP have yet to suggest any flexibility at all. They merely state: ‘Do this or we won’t answer your questions.’
    Finally, your suggestion that I should ask subscribers to keep checking back with my website for updates: No, absolutely not. I refuse to do anything that would mean my subscribers would receive a lesser service than I provide to my own website. That would not be fair, or right.

  • anonywolf

    You said you’re not comfortable with taking on unpaid staff (which is fine, your prerogative) and that things are therefore difficult for you as a one-man operation in this area but I was wondering if you’d considered asking other reporters (like those for the Guardian etc) both how their experience with the DWP has been in relation to deadlines etc and what their feelings are on this?

    • I do know that other reporters I have spoken to have similar feelings about the DWP press office. No-one speaks well of them. But I have to be careful not to let this issue put the rest of my work at risk. Besides, other news organisations almost always have enough resources for something like this not to be an issue…

      • anonywolf

        So the DWP have a record of not meeting the industry standard? Not to mention they’re still liable for reasonable accommodation in relation to your disabilities.