The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out its threat to stop answering any questions from the country’s only disability news agency.
DWP’s chief press officer (disability) had previously warned that he and his staff would stop dealing with Disability News Service (DNS) if it refused to change its procedures.
DWP has repeatedly missed deadlines, but has begun insisting that if and when it finally produces a late comment – even if produced hours after stories have been sent out to subscribers and have been published – DNS should update its website to show the government’s response.
John Pring (pictured), the disabled editor of DNS, has pointed out that if he was to do so, he would also have to alert every one of the agency’s subscribers with updates every time a comment arrived after deadline, as well as offering the service demanded by DWP to every other organisation and individual that had been asked to comment on a story that week.
Pring has also told DWP that its habit of frequently missing deadlines and leaving it until the last possible moment to provide a comment has already had a negative impact on his mental health.
Pring said: “I have made it clear – repeatedly – to the DWP press office that to take on the extra workload of continually updating my subscribers throughout the week with developments on old stories, in addition to producing the next week’s stories, could have an adverse impact on my mental health and even make it impossible to continue with DNS.”
He believes that the press office should consider this request to allow DNS to continue with its current way of operating to be a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, even if DWP is not acting as a service-provider under the act.
After DNS published a blog about DWP’s efforts to force Pring to change these procedures, he was flooded with messages of support from disabled activists and campaigners.
Among the many supportive responses on Twitter, the DWP threat was described as “utterly disgraceful”, a “clear abuse of power”, the “classic behaviour of a bully”, “shameful”, “appalling”, “dreadful”, “immoral”, “shocking and tribalistic” and “outrageous”.
The disabled journalist Frances Ryan tweeted: “Every journalist – disabled or not – should worry over the DWP’s threat to stop giving information to @johnpringdns.”
Emails were also supportive, with one disabled campaigner writing: “I can see why they want to silence you, but believe this would discriminate against many disabled people, myself included.”
Another disabled activist said: “It is clear to me the DWP is bent on reducing challenges to its authority, systems, errors, poor decision-making and ultimately providing information which can be used to challenge the secretary of state…
“As in the past, some of these challenges to the secretary of state have proved rather bruising and embarrassing to government.”
A third said: “I find the way you are being victimised by the DWP is just a symptom of the way they think about us as disabled people.
“DWP are obviously trying to pressure you into changing your views and way you work.”
Many messages of support also arrived via Facebook and the DNS website.
One leading disabled campaigner said: “I am appalled… We all have different views and attitudes, but without informed news we can’t make clear judgements. This is an unacceptable action.”
Another said: “I’m not at all surprised that you’re butting heads with the DWP. Your recent stories have put that department in the hot seat and they’re intent on retaliating.
“I’ve stated on numerous occasions that there’s a need for greater transparency from the DWP and less hypocrisy from its ministers.”
But one DNS-user suggested Pring should agree to DWP’s demands.
She said, in an email: “I think you should not publish a news report until you have heard from DWP… It is more important to respect DWP than to rush inaccurate stories out.
“DWP are already horrid to disabled people. There is no need to get their back up.
“DWP do not make exceptions in their benefit rules, so are highly unlikely to continue making exceptions [to] disability media. Do not push DWP, it will only turn the situation sour.”
Following the publication of Pring’s blog, DNS asked the press office to comment this week on the revelation that the information watchdog is investigating DWP over its refusal to release secret reviews into 49 benefit-related deaths.
But the chief press officer (disability) said: “Thanks for the opportunity to comment on your forthcoming peer review story but, as discussed previously, we won’t be offering any responses to DNS articles until we can agree on working practices.
“That basic principle is that, if we are to have a working relationship, it should be one which is fair; in which standard conventions are observed; and in which the time and effort that you put into writing your stories and the time and effort that my staff put into answering your questions are given equal respect.”
He added: “I don’t find it particularly surprising that a self-selecting group of your Twitter followers, close contacts and subscribers who have chosen to comment would take your side over ours in this, or indeed any, disagreement.
“I suppose it’s much the same as if I did a straw poll of my civil service colleagues and asked them what they thought – it would probably be a bit of a one-sided outcome.”
Pring said: “Although this is not the way a typical news agency would operate, I do work alone, I have a mental health condition, I am extremely careful with my research, and I believe I behave responsibly in the way I operate, often working more than 80 hours a week to ensure my stories are properly researched and factual.
“I therefore think it is reasonable for me to ask DWP to allow DNS to continue to operate in the way it has done – with some success and no similar threats from any other organisation in more than six years – to avoid the risk of my mental health deteriorating further.”
DWP’s chief press officer (disability) has yet to confirm whose decision it was to stop answering DNS questions.
When DNS suggested that it might name him in a news story, as the person who made the decision should be held publicly accountable, he said: “As you know, I am a public servant and I act on behalf of the department rather than in any personal capacity.
“If you choose to name me in an article you will, again, be going against a convention which every other news provider respects.
“So if your wish is to conclude this discussion and rule out any possibility of the DWP Press Office dealing with DNS again at any point in the future, that is a sure fire way to achieve it.”