Ministers ‘breach FoI laws’ by delaying release of fresh benefit deaths reviews

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Ministers are delaying the release of nine secret reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants, even though civil servants apparently prepared them for release three weeks ago under freedom of information laws.

A response to a request to release redacted versions of the documents was completed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) freedom of information team on 23 May, and just needed official clearance to be released.

But the documents – which are likely to be heavily-redacted versions of the nine reviews – have still not been released to Disability News Service (DNS), three weeks later, in an apparent breach of freedom of information laws.

The reviews cover the period from August 2014 to January 2016, and are likely to be similar in format to the 49 reviews that were released by DWP last month following a 21-month battle with DNS to keep them secret.

DWP is so far refusing to say how many of the nine secret reviews concern a claimant who took their own life.

The latest request was submitted on 15 April, but DNS has been told by DWP’s freedom of information team that a draft response was completed on 23 May – three weeks ago – but has still not been signed off so that it can be released.

A DWP spokeswoman apologised for the delay, but refused to explain why the response had not yet been released.

She said: “We always aim to respond to freedom of information requests within 20 working days – in fact nine out of ten responses are sent within that timescale.

“We will get a response to you in due course.”

Many of the 49 reviews released last month concerned the deaths of disabled people who had applied for the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA), through the work capability assessment (WCA) process.

And many of the reviews – 40 of which refer to benefit claimants who took their own lives – concerned the reassessment of long-term claimants of incapacity benefit (IB).

Although key parts of the peer reviews were missing because they were so heavily redacted, DNS found 10 key recommendations for DWP to take national action to improve the way it treated vulnerable benefit claimants. 

DNS is still waiting to hear from DWP if those 10 recommendations were ever carried out.

The nine peer reviews – now renamed internal process reviews – are likely to be scrutinised closely by disabled activists for further evidence of failings in the way DWP has dealt with benefit claimants labelled as “vulnerable”, many of whom are likely to be mental health service-users or have learning difficulties.

They could provide crucial evidence for calls – led by the Scottish-based grassroots group Black Triangle, and backed by many other disabled activists – for former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to face a criminal investigation for misconduct in public office following his refusal to address a coroner’s concerns about the safety of the WCA in 2010.

They want to hold Duncan Smith and his former employment minister Chris Grayling to account for their failure to improve the safety of the WCA, when they were warned that it risked causing further deaths.

Last November, government-funded research concluded that the programme to reassess people claiming IB using the WCA could have caused 590 suicides in just three years.

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