The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally released 90 pages of emails that include information about Disability News Service (DNS) editor John Pring, following a two-and-a-half-year legal battle.
It has taken since January 2020 to obtain the information from DWP, even though the department had a legal duty to release it within one month.
The emails, all sent during 2019, would never have been released without pro bono legal support for DNS from information rights legal experts at solicitors Mishcon de Reya.
Although there appear to be no startling revelations, there are a small number of emails which confirm errors made by DWP ministers and civil servants.
These include an apparent admission that the former minister for disabled people, Justin Tomlinson, made an error in May 2019 when he dismissed reports that the government was planning to test merging the assessments for employment and support allowance and personal independence payment into one.
That comment from Tomlinson appeared to mislead MPs about the government’s plans, and it contradicted a statement from work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd and a later comment from work and pensions minister Baroness [Peta] Buscombe.
But in one of the emails, someone from DWP, asked how to respond to DNS, says: “Okay. Whatever the answer is, it has to reflect Amber’s words and Peta’s statement. Even if that contradicts [redacted] I am afraid.”
The author of the email advised ignoring the question on whether Tomlinson would be apologising to MPs, before adding: “Pring will write [redacted] up however he choose [sic].”
The emails also confirm that DWP’s “usual” approach to dealing with questions from DNS is to “issue an overarching response rather than answering each question in turn”.
Another email confirms that a news story DNS ran in March 2019 was right to accuse a benefits assessor working for DWP contractor Capita of lying about what they had been told by a disabled woman who had repeatedly spoken about her thoughts of suicide during a personal independence payment (PIP) assessment in November 2018.
Despite describing her paranoid delusions, hallucinations, psychosis, extreme levels of anxiety and suicidal depression, the assessor told DWP in her report: “She denies experiencing any thought disorders or perceptions.”
The woman was later admitted to hospital with suicidal thoughts, days after DWP removed her PIP.
A DWP civil servant later confirmed the decision to remove her PIP and told her that assessors have “nothing to gain by fabricating evidence or suppressing information and will invariably report what they observe and what they are told at the assessment”.
They concluded: “The available evidence indicates there is no significant degree of impairment.”
But a DWP email sent on 26 March 2019, and released to DNS this week, says: “Ops colleagues have looked into the case and have found that the assessment report is contradictory.
“The quality assurance team have looked at the case today and have identified a number of issues with the report and the decision making.
“We are therefore asking the assessment provider to look at this case again. It is possible that she will need to go for another assessment.
“Unfortunately we will not have clarity over the outcome for some time and certainly not before John Pring’s deadline, so it is not possible for us to apologise publicly until we have confirmation that we were at fault.”
The attempts by DNS to secure the emails from DWP began in January 2020 when Pring submitted a request for DWP to release details of emails written about him during 2019 by the department’s communications department.
Although the Information Commissioner’s Office has agreed that the failure to provide the information was a clear breach of data protection laws, DWP repeatedly refused to release the emails.
Now, following pressure from Mishcon de Reya, DWP has finally backed down.
In a letter to Mishcon, the Government Legal Department said DWP had decided to release the documents “in the interest of dealing with the matter amicably” and to avoid “incurring unnecessary expense”.
Jon Baines, senior data protection specialist at Mishcon de Reya, said: “On any view it is remarkable – and greatly concerning – that it has taken two-and-a-half years for DWP to comply with John’s subject access request.
“Let us remember that the law actually required them to do so within one month.
“Unfortunately, the Information Commissioner’s Office decided (and seem to decide as a matter of course) that it was not for them to take enforcement action in individual cases like John’s.
“But this means that a worrying justice gap can emerge where a data controller fails to comply with a request, and the ICO choose not to order them to do so.
“Were it not for John’s extraordinary tenacity, we doubt very much that he would have ever received a full response. That cannot be right.”
DNS was originally put in touch with Mishcon de Reya last year by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI).
Katherine Gundersen, CFOI’s deputy director, said: “It’s very worrying that a government department can so blatantly breach the law and face no action from the ICO.
“People can enforce their data protection rights in court themselves, but for most people this is a daunting prospect and a risky one as they may have to pay the other side’s costs if they lose, which will include hefty lawyers’ bills.
“If the ICO demonstrated it was ready to enforce in cases like this, government departments and other bodies would take these rights more seriously.”
Pring said: “The aim of the request back in 2020 was to secure a snapshot of how DWP views key issues around disability equality and benefit reform, and my coverage of those issues.
“Although the information released does little to shine a light on any of that, I am glad that it shows that DWP’s communications department appears in general to have behaved professionally when discussing my work for DNS during 2019.
“However, questions must be asked as to why it has taken two-and-a-half years to obtain information that should have been released within a month.
“If this case shows one thing clearly, it is that DWP still has significant and worrying problems when it comes to transparency and meeting its legal duties to release information.
“I hope this case will encourage other disabled people, journalists and campaigners to persist in their efforts to push DWP to meet those legal obligations.
“I also want to thank Mishcon de Reya, and particularly the brilliant Jon Baines, for their fantastic support over the last year.
“Without their help, and legal expertise – and the original help from CFOI – there is no doubt that DWP would never have released these emails.”
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