The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has backed down in its fight to hide recommendations made in 22 secret reports into the deaths of benefit claimants.
Ministers had been told by the information commissioner to release the recommendations to Disability News Service (DNS), but they appealed against the ruling.
The case was due to be heard later this year by the information rights tribunal, but DWP told DNS last week that it has now withdrawn its appeal.
The recommendations were made by DWP’s own civil servants in secret reports completed between April 2019 and September 2020 and should show what advice was given to ministers on how to improve safety and reduce the number of suicides and other deaths of disabled people claiming benefits.
The DNS bid to secure the information was made in September 2020, but DWP has been resisting its release for more than two years. It is now likely to be released early next month.
DWP had argued that releasing the reports would interfere with the formation or development of government policy.
But DNS has argued that releasing the recommendations made by the internal process reviews (IPRs) – previously known as peer reviews – is vital in ensuring DWP can be held to account for how it has responded to deaths linked to the social security system.
The information commissioner decided last October that DWP had “failed to consider the strong public interest in the timely understanding, and scrutiny of, the recommendations made in the IPRs” and that releasing them would “allow scrutiny of whether the actions taken were sufficient or timely enough to prevent the harm identified occurring again”.
The commissioner said he had decided there was “a strong public interest in understanding DWP’s approach to preventing future errors and safeguarding issues”.
The decision should have meant that ministers released recommendations from 22 IPRs that were completed between March 2019 and September 2020 and have until now been kept secret.
John Pring, editor of DNS, submitted a lengthy witness statement to the tribunal.
In his statement, he referred to DNS news stories which he said showed “that DWP’s actions continue to cause the deaths of claimants”.
He added: “By continuing to secure access to the recommendations made in IPRs we can at least secure some information that will help to hold the department to account and force it to offer a public explanation if it fails to act on recommendations made in its own reviews that could prevent further deaths.”
He said he believed DWP was only seeking to avoid the release of IPR recommendations to avoid embarrassment and to make it easier to prevent being held to account for its failures.
He said: “Preventing the release of further IPRs will make it easier for DWP to hide its fatal errors and will put the lives of countless disabled people claiming benefits at risk.”
It is the latest episode of a near decade-long battle by DNS to force DWP to release information about deaths linked to flaws in the benefits system.
The tribunal previously ruled in 2016 that redacted versions of reviews carried out between 2012 and 2014 should be released.
But in recent years, particularly under the last work and pensions secretary, Therese Coffey, the department has tried to rely on exemptions contained within the Freedom of Information Act to prevent the release of further reviews.
The reviews that have been released have revealed key safety failings by the department.
The first batch of reviews, when they were eventually released in 2016 after a 21-month legal battle, showed that at least 13 reports had explicitly raised concerns about the way that “vulnerable” benefit claimants were being treated by DWP.
Another review obtained by DNS, in 2018, helped show how DWP had been forced to soften the “threatening” tone of the agreement that universal credit claimants must sign to receive their benefits.
And in December 2020, another freedom of information request allowed DNS to show that DWP staff had had to be repeatedly reminded what to do when claimants said they may take their own lives, following reviews into as many as six suicides.
Those reviews suggested that a series of suicides between 2014 and 2019 were linked to the failure of DWP staff to follow basic rules that had been introduced years earlier.
DWP refused this week to say why it had withdrawn its appeal, and whether it would apologise for delaying the freedom of information process and wasting money on the appeal.
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