The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to release evidence that would show how many secret reports it has compiled into the deaths of claimants of its new universal credit, in a fresh breach of freedom of information laws.
DWP compiles an internal process review every time a “suicide is associated with DWP activity”, as well as in some other cases involving the deaths of disabled or “vulnerable” benefit claimants.
The last batch of reviews released by DWP were published in heavily redacted form two years ago.
But Disability News Service (DNS) is keen to secure evidence of how many reviews have been carried out since then relating to the introduction of the much-criticised universal credit benefit system.
Repeated concerns have been raised about the introduction of universal credit and its impact on claimants in vulnerable situations.
Disabled activists have warned that universal credit is “rotten to the core” and have warned of “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced.
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.
In July, employment minister Alok Sharma was asked by MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee why the benefits of hundreds of sick and disabled universal credit claimants were apparently being sanctioned, even though they should not have had to meet any of the strict conditions imposed by the system.
In the same month, further concerns were raised by the committee about disabled people with high support needs who claim universal credit and face the possibility of strict conditions – such as being forced to carry out hours of job searches every week – as they wait for a work capability assessment.
And MPs on the public accounts committee heard, also in July, how claimants were facing “considerable hardship and considerable deterioration in their mental health” because of universal credit.
As a result of earlier concerns about universal credit, DNS submitted a freedom of information request to DWP on 21 June, asking how many internal process reviews had been carried out since April 2016; how many involved a claimant who had died; and how many involved a claimant of universal credit.
The request also asked for DWP to release the recommendations made by each review.
But DWP’s freedom of information team has failed to respond to the request, and to a follow-up email on 7 August asking why it had not replied, even though it is legally obliged to respond within 20 working days under the Freedom of Information Act.
A legal case taken by DNS secured the publication of redacted versions of DWP’s secret reports – then known as peer reviews – for the first time in 2016, thanks to the pro bono legal work of barrister Elizabeth Kelsey, from Monckton Chambers.
The information rights tribunal ruled in 2016 that DWP should release recommendations from all the peer reviews it held, although not any information directly related to the people who died.
A further batch of redacted reviews into another nine benefit-related deaths was released by DWP later in 2016, following pressure from the Information Commissioner’s Office, but it is believed that no further reports have been released since then.
Last week, DNS revealed how DWP had refused to release other secret reports connected with its welfare reforms, this time those written by disabled people who had been recruited as “community partners” to work with its jobcentres.
When asked why DWP’s freedom of information team had refused to respond to the internal process review request, a DWP spokeswoman said: “As explained last week, any issues relating to FOI requests can be dealt with by writing to [email protected].
“If you are unhappy with the handling of an FOI request please contact the Information Commissioner’s Office.”
DNS will be lodging a complaint with the information commissioner about DWP’s failure to release the internal process reviews.
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