Disabled people have expressed outrage after learning that benefits claim forms containing confidential and highly personal information are being opened by Royal Mail staff in a south London sorting office.
Following a series of Freedom of Information Act (FIA) requests by disabled activists, they say the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted that “ESA 50” claim forms for employment and support allowance (ESA) are diverted to Royal Mail.
Royal Mail staff open the envelopes and bundle up the “limited capability for work questionnaires” before forwarding them to the company that assesses the eligibility of claimants, Atos Healthcare.
Most people have to fill in an ESA 50 form if claiming ESA, the new replacement for incapacity benefit.
Disabled people had assumed that the forms were opened by employees of Atos, which is paid by the DWP to assess the eligibility of claimants using the controversial work capability assessment.
Campaigners say the use of Royal Mail staff raises serious questions over the confidentiality of their claim forms, which can include highly personal details about their health condition.
They have also questioned whether the use of Royal Mail by the government could be breaching the Data Protection Act.
Disabled activist Sue Marsh, who wrote about the FIA requests on her blog this week, said she believed that “no-one should see these forms but the person who wrote them and the decision maker who will consider them”.
She said: “I don’t care if it’s legal, it certainly isn’t moral. It’s shocking.
“People like me and the people I write for have spent our whole lives being told we can’t see our medical notes. They protect this data so strongly in every walk of your life.”
One of the disabled people who commented on Marsh’s blog said she felt as if she had been “punched” when she read how the forms were being opened and sorted by Royal Mail.
She was forced to declare on her ESA form how she had been raped – because it affected her mental health – as well as including her address, telephone number and the information that she lives alone.
She added: “I already feel desperately frightened of life and vulnerable as hell. This makes me feel even worse.”
Another described how the form asks for information such as medication, hospital visits, any problems with drugs or alcohol, communication difficulties, incontinence, any mental health conditions, blackouts, and anxiety or panic attacks.
They added: “Why do they not put anything on the form to tell us that this is what will happen? Surely that is against the rules?
“Whether ‘illegal’ or not, it is morally and ethically wrong. It is frightening and humiliating and degrading.”
A Royal Mail spokesman refused to comment. He said: “We would never talk about individual customers to third parties.”
The Department for Work and Pensions was also unable to comment.
13 October 2011