The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has ignored a deadline imposed by the information watchdog, as part of its investigation into DWP’s refusal to publish secret reviews into 49 benefit-related deaths.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) launched the investigation in March, following DWP’s failure to provide information about the 49 reviews requested by Disability News Service (DNS).
But the ICO has now contacted DNS to say that it has made no progress with its investigation because DWP missed its deadline for submitting evidence.
The watchdog warned that DWP could eventually face a charge of contempt of court if it refused to co-operate with the investigation.
In “extreme” cases, ICO can issue a decision notice on a case without waiting for a public body – such as DWP – to respond.
A series of DNS freedom of information requests has revealed how DWP has carried out 49 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
Of the 49 “peer reviews”, 33 contained recommendations for improvements in procedures at either national or local level within DWP, while 40 were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant.
But despite freedom of information requests from DNS, and others, DWP has refused to publish the reviews, or their summaries, recommendations or conclusions, even with personal details of benefit claimants removed.
DWP claims that releasing the reviews – even with these details removed – could breach the Freedom of Information Act, because section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 makes it an offence for anyone employed in social security administration to “disclose without lawful authority any information which he acquired in the course of that employment and which relates to a particular person”.
ICO is investigating a complaint lodged by DNS into DWP’s failure to release the information.
DWP refused to comment on its failure to meet ICO’s deadline.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to publish hugely controversial figures that will update the number of people who died after having their out-of-work disability benefits stopped.
Activists have been calling on DWP to publish the statistics since November 2012.
The ICO ordered DWP to release the figures – after an appeal by Mike Sivier, a freelance journalist and carer who runs the Vox Political blog – but the department is appealing that decision.
The petition calls on the Courts and Tribunal Service to dismiss DWP’s appeal and so prevent any further delay in publishing the figures.
Jonathan Bartley, the Green party’s work and pensions spokesman, called on work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to “end this cover up”.
He said: “The public need to know exactly how many have died after being certified ‘fit for work’ as part of his reforms.
“The government’s reluctance to tell the truth suggests it has something serious to hide.
“With austerity now in overdrive and a race to the bottom on welfare underway, the full picture is more important than ever.”