Campaigner’s six-year battle to secure the truth about universal credit

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A freedom of information campaigner has vowed to continue his six-year battle to uncover the grim truth about universal credit and its impact on disabled people and other groups fighting poverty.

John Slater has been using freedom of information laws since 2012 in an attempt to force the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to reveal the serious flaws at the heart of its new benefits system.

Slater, who has an extensive background in software development and programme management in industry, has submitted scores of requests under the Freedom of Information Act in the last six-and-a-half years.

But his attempts to secure information that he believes should be publicly available have been repeatedly obstructed by DWP’s frequent breaches of freedom of information laws.

He first became intrigued in universal credit in early 2012 after claims from work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith that DWP was going to complete the move to universal credit within just five years, a claim he knew was a “ludicrously short timescale for such a complex programme”.

But he was also alarmed to hear about DWP’s plans to adopt an “agile” approach to developing the programme, something that had never been attempted on such a large and complex programme.

Agile is a technique used mostly for small IT projects and which relies on flexibility, responding rapidly to change and making frequent and continual improvements.

None of these, Slater knew, were descriptions usually associated with DWP, or the ministers in charge of the programme, including Iain Duncan Smith.

He therefore began asking DWP questions about Agile, the risks the department associated with the programme and the “milestones” it had set to measure the progress of universal credit, through freedom of information (FoI) requests.

But right from the start, the department placed every obstacle it could in his way.

In May 2012, Slater told DWP that it had breached its legal duty to respond to freedom of information requests within 20 working days.

Although the department responded to his complaint later the same day, it then relied on an exemption under the act, claiming that releasing the information would “prejudice the free and frank provision of advice” or the “effective conduct of public affairs”.

Slater did not finally secure all the information he was seeking until April 2016, nearly four years later, following a series of tribunal hearings and appeals. The information he received, he says, “did not show a well-run programme”.

He says he has continued to ask questions about the programme for more than six years because he is “stubborn”.

“As long as the DWP tries to hide what is really going on within UC, I will keep asking reasonable questions and asking for information that should shine a light on what’s actually happening.”

He adds: “I suspect that if the DWP hadn’t fought so hard to prevent me getting the risks, issues and milestones and been so dishonest I may well have stopped after that initial FoI request.”

Since that first FoI, most of his requests have initially been refused by DWP, resulting in repeated complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

He has so far been successful in every single appeal he has made to the information rights first-tier tribunal, and in responding when DWP has appealed to the tribunal, including cases when DWP has withdrawn its appeal before the hearing.

He also complained to the ICO about DWP’s plans to share the sensitive data of claimants of universal credit with other organisations, which he believed breached the Data Protection Act, and which led to ICO raising “significant concerns” and his own subsequent FoI request which he used to ask DWP what measures it had taken to protect claimants’ sensitive personal data.

One of his FoI requests asked if DWP had a schedule or plan to show how the rollout of universal credit would be completed by 2021, as it claimed at the time.

He said: “Unsurprisingly, no such plan existed. This meant, in my opinion, that the date was a guess.”

One of his latest bids for transparency was launched in April 2017, seeking the information that was provided for regular meetings of the programme board that reviews progress on implementing the universal credit system and whose members are mostly senior DWP civil servants.

Like many other requests, its progress has been hindered by refusals, delays, appeals, complaints to the information commissioner, further delays, criticism of the department by the commissioner, and yet more of what he told DWP were “outrageous delaying tactics” and “contempt for the law”.

He said: “Given how hard it is to get accurate information about universal credit out of the DWP I asked for the packs of information that the UC programme board get given for their monthly meetings.

“I assumed that this was likely to show an accurate view of what was really going on with UC.”

Last week, Disability News Service revealed how he had forced DWP to deposit significant numbers of previously confidential documents about universal credit in the House of Commons library as a result of this request.

Among those documents, Slater found evidence that appears to show that DWP is planning to transfer more benefits – including the contributory version of employment and support allowance – onto the creaking universal credit IT system.

He believes this would place greater stress on the system and expose even more disabled people to the stress and anxiety of having to cope with an online system that is already inaccessible to many of them.

He is currently waiting for the ICO to rule on whether DWP should release unredacted versions of the documents deposited in the Commons library, which he believes would reveal even more embarrassing information about the impact of universal credit on the people forced to rely on it.

Slater – who has worked closely on his campaigning with Disabled People Against Cuts – believes that universal credit was a “total mess” in its early years, before DWP brought in outside experts to assess what was going wrong.

This led to a major “reset” of the programme in 2013, following severe criticism by the government’s own Major Projects Authority.

Although Slater suspects it has now improved to some extent, he believes the disaster of the early years of its development means it is never likely to regain that lost ground.

He says: “Once something on this scale has gone so horribly wrong, I don’t think you can ever fully recover it and get it to the place it would have been if it had been run properly from the start. I’ve seen this with other programmes and projects.”

And he believes the senior civil servants leading on universal credit “are only just waking up to what it means to deliver change on this scale”.

But he also believes that DWP has failed to think about the impact of such major reform on the claimants themselves, including sick and disabled people, and “fails to reflect or take account of people’s real lives”.

“I don’t think they give a damn about the claimants. I think they are almost seen as a nuisance,” he says.

The warnings and concerns of disabled activists, politicians and other professionals suggest he is right.

Campaigners have repeatedly warned that universal credit is “rotten to the core”, with “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced, while, in June, a report by the National Audit Office said DWP was failing to support “vulnerable” claimants and was unable to monitor how they were being treated under universal credit.

Secret DWP reviews have already been carried out into the deaths of at least four universal credit claimants that have been “linked to DWP activity”.

Disability News Service also reported earlier this month how a man with learning difficulties died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto the “chaotic” universal credit system that left him hundreds of pounds in debt. It is not clear whether this was one of the four deaths reviewed by DWP.

And only last week, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, said universal credit had “built a digital barrier that effectively obstructs many individuals’ access to their entitlements”.

Slater agrees with this and warns of the “unexpected and unintended consequences” of the rush to rely on an online system, particularly as the numbers moving on to universal credit continue to increase and DWP continues to introduce major alterations to the software that powers the system.

He also agrees with Alston’s conclusion that the government’s “test and learn” approach “could treat vulnerable people like guinea pigs and wreak havoc in real people’s lives”.

Slater says: “The drive to reduce costs and automate parts of the UC process, especially sanctions, will cause major problems unless the DWP spends the time to think about and talk to people who are using the system.

“I think as the UC system becomes more complex and things are automated, we will see more and more unexpected and unintended consequences.

“For example, in the recent Panorama program a man was sanctioned because his work coach was away and a meeting couldn’t take place.

“If the DWP is going to automate more of the process, this is only going to get worse for people.”

He fears that universal credit will never work properly because DWP refuses to listen to claimants, particularly those with the highest support needs and the most complex barriers to using the system.

In the meantime, he intends to continue probing the flaws of universal credit with his freedom of information requests.

He says: “As long as the DWP keeps trying to present universal credit in an unrealistically positive light, I will keep trying to get information that shows what is actually going on.

“This is why we have the Freedom of Information Act.

“I don’t like organisations that are dishonest and use their size and power to bully people and impose their will or get away with mistakes that should be made public.”

 

 

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