The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) broke the law by destroying a damaging internal report about its failure to ensure the safety of benefit claimants in jobcentres, the information commissioner has ruled.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued a decision notice in which it concludes – following a complaint from Disability News Service (DNS) – that DWP breached the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) by failing to release the report.
Instead, the report was destroyed, but the commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said she was unable to prove that this was done deliberately to prevent its release and so has not recommended a criminal prosecution.
The report into safeguarding failures in south London jobcentres was written by two or three disabled people recruited under its Community Partners initiative, which was set up to build bridges between jobcentres and the local community.
They had written the document soon after taking up their posts, after becoming increasingly alarmed by the failure of the 18 jobcentres they were working with to take basic actions to protect people claiming benefits such as universal credit, employment and support allowance and jobseeker’s allowance.
They recommended that urgent steps should be taken to ensure jobcentre staff were properly trained in safeguarding.
One of the report’s authors said this week that she believed DWP had destroyed the “damning” document because it did not want to see it published.
She said: “The fact that they destroyed it is worrying because it puts people further at risk.”
The report is believed to have been written in August or September 2017, and DNS learned of its existence the following spring, about eight months later.
To avoid identifying its source, DNS submitted a freedom of information request asking DWP to release all reports written by Community Partners while working for DWP in London in 2017 and 2018.
But DWP continually delayed answering the request.
Last August, a civil servant in DWP’s freedom of information team told DNS that she had repeatedly attempted to secure a response from the jobcentre operations team and had warned them they had breached their legal duties under the act, adding: “I have tried. I don’t know why they are digging their heels. I am sorry.”
DWP eventually answered the request by claiming that it held no such reports, but after DNS complained to the information commissioner, DWP released several documents in January this year, although they did not include the safeguarding report.
DWP later admitted the report did exist, and that the document “raised concerns about the DWP safe guarding procedures”.
It told ICO that it had only managed to speak to one of the Community Partners mentioned by DNS, and they confirmed that they had helped “pull together a document about safeguarding procedures in South London”, but could not find this document as old emails had now been deleted and could not be retrieved.
DWP said the report was destroyed 12 months after it was written because the department’s “Information Management policy only requires us to keep a corporate document of an internal briefing for a period of 12 months”.
But that 12 months period ended at least four months after DNS first asked for this and other Community Partner reports to be released, suggesting that DWP could have destroyed the safeguarding report to prevent it being released to DNS.
DWP told ICO that it made a mistake when it originally told DNS that Community Partners “were not required to write reports” and by the time it realised its mistake and carried out a reinvestigation in November/December 2018 “the document would have already been destroyed”.
The information commissioner therefore concluded that “on the balance of probabilities” the report was destroyed before DWP reconsidered the DNS request to see the report.
DWP also told ICO that it “retains only those documents and data which support business objectives”, even though the subject of the document was the safety of benefit claimants.
The ICO has now ruled, in response to DNS’s complaint: “The Commissioner’s decision is that the Department for Work and Pensions held requested information at the time of the request but one requested report was latterly routinely destroyed, in accordance with its Information Management Policy.
“The Commissioner finds that the Council breached section 10(1) of the FOIA by failing to disclose the information which was held within the statutory time for compliance.”
But although the ICO has now ruled that DWP broke the law, Denham said she had carried out “extensive enquiries” and had failed to find any evidence that the report was “intentionally destroyed” by DWP “with the intention to prevent its disclosure”.
For that reason, she will not recommend a criminal prosecution of DWP under FoIA.
A DWP spokesperson declined to comment “beyond the position DWP has outlined in the decision notice”.
But the ruling that DWP acted unlawfully still adds to mounting evidence that DWP as a department is not fit for purpose and that it needs to make urgent changes to ensure the safety of all benefit claimants is a priority, as demanded by the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition*.
For years, DNS has been reporting on the alleged failure of DWP jobcentres to safeguard disabled people left in vulnerable situations because of flaws in the benefits system.
Many of these failings have led to the deaths of benefit claimants and will have subsequently been reported on in secret DWP peer reviews (now renamed internal process reviews).
Many other disturbing cases have focused on safeguarding failures in other parts of DWP.
This year, DNS has reported on the Independent Case Examiner report into the death of Jodey Whiting in February 2017, which concluded that DWP failed five times to follow its own safeguarding rules in the weeks leading up to her suicide.
And only last week, the Liverpool Echo reported that work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd had admitted that an internal review into the death of Stephen Smith, from Liverpool, had found the department missed “crucial safeguarding opportunities” and had “identified areas where we need to change our policy” to protect claimants in vulnerable situations.
Smith died in April, months after he was found fit for work by DWP, despite being in hospital with such severe health problems that his weight had fallen to six stone.
The Liverpool Echo had revealed that DWP ignored two separate doctors’ letters about Smith’s serious health problems.
*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
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