Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey has been accused by a senior MP of damaging disabled people’s trust in her department by failing to publish a report that concluded that claimants of disability benefits had “unmet needs”.
The report, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), was watered down after the department told its authors to delete some of its analysis and reduce the number of times it referred to disabled people’s unmet needs.
A whistleblower told Disability News Service (DNS) last week that DWP had refused to publish the watered-down report, despite promises made to more than 100 disabled benefit claimants who had agreed to be interviewed that it would be published.
Coffey was questioned about the report yesterday (Wednesday) by the chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, Stephen Timms.
But she repeatedly refused to provide direct answers to his questions, instead quoting from past letters she had sent to the committee about the report.
She said it was “not necessary” to publish the report, despite Timms pointing out that government rules stated that it should be published.
When Timms told her that DWP had approved a letter sent to the 120 disabled people who took part in the research, promising that it would be published, she told him: “Well, I’m not aware of that interaction of the department.”
When Timms insisted that the department had cleared the letter, Coffey replied: “Well, I don’t know who in the department cleared that letter. It wasn’t me.”
She then appeared to smirk (pictured) at Peter Schofield, DWP’s permanent secretary, who was sitting next to her (see 09.18).
Timms pointed out that the report should have been published last Christmas, and he added: “There does seem to have been quite a major outbreak of ministerial rule-breaking last Christmas.
“Do you accept that even senior ministers have to obey government rules?”
When Coffey repeated a previous response, Timms told her that DWP’s own social security advisers had said in a report, published in January, that “DWP officials themselves acknowledge that the department is not trusted by many disabled people”.
He added: “Do you accept that it’s hard to think of a way of handling this NatCen report that is as damaging to the trust of disabled people as the one that you’ve chosen?”
When he asked Coffey about last week’s DNS story and DWP’s request to reduce the number of references in the report to unmet needs, Coffey said: “I’m not aware of the sources of Disability News Service.”
She then refused to say whether the report had been used in preparing this summer’s green paper on disability benefits, telling Timms: “I’m not aware exactly of all the lists of the different works that we did.”
After the evidence session, the whistleblower who spoke to DNS last week – who is close to the team that prepared the report – described Coffey’s evidence as “repetitive, evasive and misleading”.
They said that Coffey had looked “uncomfortable and almost shifty” throughout her evidence on the report and had failed to answer a single question directly.
They added: “Let’s be clear. This was a publicly-funded piece of research involving 120 disabled people who, in line with the government’s own rules on publication, were promised (not once, but twice) they would be able to see the findings.
“The secretary of state knows, and has always known, that she should publish the report but hides behind cowardly and fabricated excuses for non-publication.
“The interviews with disabled people included questions about their needs and the extent to which they could meet them, but the government does not want anyone to know what they said.
“It is no coincidence that the report was suppressed at the same time the green paper was published in July.
“The government wants to stifle debate about unmet needs and benefit levels. It is a shameful situation.”
Timms told DNS: “No remotely plausible reason has been provided for not publishing – the protocol [on publishing research and analysis in government] suggests that the only exceptions are if publication would have an impact like threatening national security or destabilising the economy.
“The department accepts that it has a problem in not being trusted by disabled people.
“It should publish the report now, before that trust is damaged even further.”
Meanwhile, freedom of information campaigner John Slater has lodged a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office about DWP’s failure to publish the NatCen report, or to release it under the Freedom of Information Act.
He has told the commissioner: “There is considerable weight in the public knowing about the activities of Departments such as the DWP, especially when it relates to disabled people.
“A simple search online reveals the scale of the problems faced by disabled members of society who must interact with the DWP to claim social security benefits such as ESA, PIP, Universal Credit and so on.
“People have starved to death because the DWP terminated their benefits.”
His complaint adds: “The DWP has announced that it wants to make significant changes to health and disability benefits.
“If the DWP has ignored evidence from NatCen which is critical of how it deals with the needs of disabled people and the implications for future spending on benefits, there is a strong public interest in seeing the evidence that has been disregarded.
“I suggest that [the NatCen report] didn’t suit the narrative that the DWP wishes to promote, despite making NatCen amend it.
“The DWP then chose to ignore [the report] and has tried to ‘bury it’ for political reasons.”
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