The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused by leading lawyers of an “extraordinary and reprehensible infringement of the law” over its failure to comply with its legal duties to release information about Disability News Service editor John Pring.
Pring has been trying for two years to obtain details of emails and other information written about him by DWP’s communications department.
But despite the Information Commissioner’s Office agreeing that DWP’s failure to provide the information was a clear breach of data protection laws, the department has repeatedly refused to release the information.
Now information rights legal experts at solicitors Mishcon de Reya have agreed to act pro bono for the Disability News Service (DNS) editor in his battle to secure the information from DWP.
They have written to DWP about Pring’s latest attempt to secure the information, in January 2020.
The letter states that the department’s behaviour is “unfair and unlawful”, and that it has 21 days to meet its legal obligations.
Pring had asked to see copies of emails that mentioned him and were sent or received by members of the DWP communications department’s disability desk during 2019.
DWP should have produced the information within one month, and certainly within three months, but it has repeatedly failed to answer emails about the request or provide the information.
In its letter, Mishcon de Reya says DWP “utterly failed” to comply with the request, under the General Data Protection Regulation, and that this failure was an “extraordinary and reprehensible infringement of the law”.
It points out that DWP had also ignored the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) instruction last year to provide the information to Pring “ASAP”.
In its letter, Mishcon de Reya tells DWP: “Our client is an eminent journalist – founder and editor of Disability News Service, a highly respected public interest news publication filling the gap created by the absence of in-depth reporting in both the specialist and mainstream media on issues that affect the lives of disabled people.
“Our client has a compelling interest in understanding what personal data you process about him, in his capacity as a journalist and campaigner on matters of intense public interest.
“And he has a right to the data and the associated information: your failure to respect his right – as well as being a serious contravention of your statutory obligations – reflects terribly on you, as a government department.”
Mishcon de Reya also points out that Pring was forced to take legal action because of ICO’s refusal to use its own powers to ensure DWP passed over the information.
Jon Baines, senior data protection specialist at Mishcon de Reya, said: “Mr Pring should never have been put in this situation.
“Being able to access one’s data within a specified timescale is a fundamental human right, yet DWP has decided to evade its obligations in this regard, whilst the ICO has simply stood back and refused to take any meaningful action.
“It cannot be right that a data subject – and especially one who performs such an important public interest role as Mr Pring – is forced to consult lawyers simply to get a government department to comply with the law.”
DNS was originally put in touch with Mishcon de Reya earlier this year by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI).
Katherine Gundersen, CFOI’s deputy director, said: “We’re deeply concerned a government department has been able to flout their legal obligations for so long and the ICO has allowed it to.
“We appreciate the ICO can’t enforce every subject access request it receives a complaint about, but it needs to show it’s prepared to do so where necessary.
“In this case, the DWP is discriminating against a journalist whose reporting of disability issues it apparently considers to be a nuisance and has ignored an instruction from the regulator to provide him with data it holds on him.”
An ICO spokesperson said: “The Department for Work and Pensions had informed us that it had responded fully to the subject access request. We are now reopening the case.
“Our role as an independent regulator is to act in the public interest, and our approach has always been to be a pragmatic and proportionate regulator as set out in our Regulatory Action Policy.”
A DWP spokesperson said the department would not be adding to its previous written responses about the subject access request.
Meanwhile, DWP and the government’s Disability Unit appear to be continuing to treat DNS, and its disabled editor, in a less fair way than other journalists and publications.
After DNS was told last week by a non-government source about the impending launch of the National Disability Strategy, Pring asked the press office for the Cabinet Office – where the Disability Unit is based – to provide an embargoed copy of the report.
There was no response to this request from the Cabinet Office, and while other journalists across the country were able to read the strategy hours ahead of its publication, DNS was not.
DNS was also not invited to a briefing about the strategy by Justin Tomlinson, the minister for disabled people, with journalists on other national publications.
The previous week, DWP’s press office failed to send any press releases about the new disability benefits green paper to DNS.
Despite DNS subsequently asking a DWP press officer to ensure it was sent all the department’s press releases, no press release or copy of the disability strategy was sent last week, other than a press release about the transport elements of the strategy from the Department for Transport.
The Cabinet Office refused to comment on the failure to provide DNS with an embargoed copy of the National Disability Strategy.
A DWP spokesperson also declined to comment on the failure to provide DNS with an embargoed copy of the strategy.
He said he had sent DNS a copy of the strategy and the press release on request, although this was only in response to a complaint from DNS and after the strategy had already been published and had appeared on the DWP website.
He said he had been on annual leave the previous week and had not been aware that DNS had asked to be sent all future DWP press releases.
He said: “I apologise this was not sent to you earlier.”
He said the media briefing had only been held with “national press” and “in no way was this a slight against you”.
In recent years, DNS has had to ask the DWP press office repeatedly to provide it with departmental press releases, because of its continuing failure to do so.
And last year, DWP stopped providing meaningful responses to DNS news stories, until it was publicly shamed into changing its policy.
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