Disability News Service (DNS) has won its appeal against the Department for Work and Pensions’ refusal to publish information from 49 secret reviews it conducted into the deaths of benefit claimants.
The decision of the information rights tribunal to allow the DNS appeal means the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should now be forced to hand over all of the information from the 49 “peer reviews” that does not directly relate to the people who died.
DWP has been given five weeks to agree with DNS which information it will release from the reviews, 22 of which took place in 2012-13, 16 in 2013-14, and 11 in 2014-15.
The information it releases will not include details of the circumstances of each death or even the summaries of the findings in each case, but DWP is now required to release most of the recommendations that were made by the authors of the reviews.
This should allow disabled campaigners to hold DWP to account over whether it has implemented changes to its procedures to avoid such deaths happening again.
The information DWP eventually releases should also provide a picture of the policies and procedures that were found to be flawed by its own internal reviews, and which have contributed to claimants’ deaths.
In its decision, the first-tier tribunal allowed the DNS appeal against the DWP’s refusal to release any information from the peer reviews, and the decision of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last September to uphold DWP’s refusal.
Tribunal judge Andrew Bartlett QC, who led the three-person tribunal panel, said in the ruling: “We express the hope that DWP will revisit Mr Pring’s* information request in the light of our decision to allow the appeal and set aside the [information commissioner’s]decision notice and, under the oversight of the commissioner, disclose what should have been disclosed in answer to his request.”
The panel ruled that the information commissioner had made an error in law by agreeing with DWP that it was prevented from releasing the information by section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.
Section 123 states that a civil servant is guilty of a criminal offence by disclosing “without lawful authority any information which he acquired in the course of his employment and which relates to a particular person”.
But the tribunal panel agreed with the submissions made by barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, of Monckton Chambers, who was acting pro bono for DNS, that DWP had interpreted the phrase “relates to a particular person” too widely.
Bartlett concluded: “DWP, because of its interpretation of section 123, regarded the whole of the reviews as prohibited from disclosure. We have arrived at a different construction of section 123.
“On examination of the reviews, it is plain that there is material in them which does not relate to particular persons in the sense that the content of the information is about those persons.”
DNS has been trying since August 2014 to obtain information contained in the 49 peer reviews, to find out what actions ministers have taken following deaths linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of benefits such as employment and support allowance and to the discredited work capability assessment.
DWP first insisted that it held no information about such deaths, but later admitted that it carried out internal reviews into some deaths and serious and complex benefit-related cases, and that it had conducted 49 reviews of deaths between February 2012 and the autumn of 2014.
DNS appealed to the information commissioner after DWP refused to release any of the information from the peer reviews, but was forced to appeal to the information rights tribunal when the commissioner ruled in favour of DWP.
A DWP spokeswoman said: “We have received the tribunal’s decision and are considering the judgement.”
An ICO spokeswoman said: “The commissioner is reviewing the tribunal’s decision and can make no further comment at this stage.”
*John Pring, editor of DNS