The government has finally admitted that large numbers of confidential medical questionnaires – submitted by disabled people as part of their benefit claims – are being opened by Royal Mail staff.
Disabled activists first suggested early last month that ESA50 questionnaires were being opened by Royal Mail, before being forwarded to Atos Healthcare, the company that carries out “fitness for work” tests for the government.
Information suggesting the practice was widespread was contained in a response from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a Freedom of Information Act (FIA) request.
Disabled people were outraged that Royal Mail staff could be opening and handling detailed and sensitive personal information, for example about their medication, communication difficulties, incontinence, and panic attacks.
Disabled activist Sue Marsh, who wrote about the FIA request on her blog last month, said filling in such forms was the one time that most disabled people “sit down and really face exactly how their illness or disability limits their life”.
She said: “You are writing things on those forms that you probably do not even tell your mum or your partner.”
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 by Royal Mail staff.
She had to declare on her ESA form how she had been raped – because of its impact on her mental health – as well as including her address, telephone number and the fact that she lives alone.
She said it was “morally and ethically wrong” that the forms were being opened by Royal Mail staff, as well as being “frightening and humiliating and degrading”.
Another person who commented on the blog said her disabled daughter’s form had included the fact that she had been gang-raped, and that – if she knew Royal Mail employees were accessing that information – she would be “terrified” that it could be misused.
The government originally failed to comment on the claims, before eventually insisting, late last month, that the practice was restricted to one Royal Mail “opening unit”, which dealt with forms for just one Atos testing centre, in Flowers Hill, Bristol.
But the DWP has now admitted – despite repeatedly insisting that only one Royal Mail unit was involved – that the practice is far more widespread.
The discrepancy only emerged after Conservative employment minister Chris Grayling wrote a letter to Marsh’s mother, appearing to accept that the practice was common and noting her concerns “about the security of personal data” on the forms.
Nearly two weeks after Grayling’s letter was forwarded to the DWP press office by Disability News Service, a senior DWP press officer finally admitted that the practice was not just restricted to one Royal Mail unit in Bristol.
He confirmed this week that ESA50 forms and other DWP mail were also being opened in Royal Mail centres in Edinburgh, Falkirk, south London and Preston, while insisting that the previous – inaccurate – information had been provided by DWP “in good faith”.
He said there had “been no attempt by the department to mislead anyone, and we would certainly apologise if anyone felt that had been the case”.
He said the ESA50 forms opened by Royal Mail staff were “processed in a separate and secure location designated for DWP mail”, while the post opening was monitored by CCTV, among other security measures.
Marsh said discovering that it had taken the DWP so long to find out what was going on made her almost as angry as realising there was “another tier of people who get to read these details and that no-one knew about it”.
She said: “Those of us used to dealing with the DWP know their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, but to find it is systematic through the whole DWP, and that even their press officers don’t seem to know what is going on, is really worrying and quite frightening.”
17 November 2011