The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally admitted that nearly all its high-profile websites were rated as being inaccessible to many disabled people and potentially breaking the law.
It has taken more than a year – and intervention from the information commissioner – to force DWP to release the information to Disability News Service (DNS) about the department’s own concerns about the accessibility of its websites and other digital services.
Among the websites described as “very high risk” by DWP civil servants were its Understanding Universal Credit and Disability Confident sites.
The “Become a DWP Workcoach” site was also described as very high risk, with the added warning that the access issues could lead to a disabled person taking an “Equality Act” legal action “due to the fact it’s recruitment”.
DWP’s Understanding Universal Credit website was said to have failed screen-reader testing, speech recognition testing and magnifier testing.
Another site described as “very high risk” and non-compliant was the website for contacting the DWP ministerial correspondence team.
Of 18 DWP websites, only two were said to comply with the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations 2018, which came into force in September 2018, nearly five years ago, with the other 16 all seen as “very high risk”.
But DWP is likely to have been relieved that one of the two websites that was considered compliant with the regulations was its “Contact DWP about accessibility” website.
Cabinet Office guidance warns that public sector bodies like DWP that do not ensure their websites or apps meet accessibility requirements “may be breaking the law”.
In all, of the 56 public-facing DWP digital services that were not due to be decommissioned, only 24 were said to be compliant with the regulations.
Of 62 staff-facing digital services that were not due to be decommissioned, only 13 were said to be compliant.
But the report also revealed that many of the digital services available only to staff were at “high risk” over their accessibility.
The “personal independence payment assessment tool” was reported as “high risk” and “critical”.
The personal independence payment (PIP) computer system – which appears to be set up to help contractors such as Atos and Capita carry out PIP assessments – was also said to be “high risk” and “critical”, while progress towards compliance was described as zero per cent.
The report said there were “probably limitations on what is possible” with the existing PIP computer system, although it will be replaced by 2025.
It added: “Badged as high risk due to incidents with staff being unable to work due to the system not working for them.”
Although all six of the universal credit digital services were said to be compliant with the regulations, not one of the nine digital services used by staff in the working-age benefits section was said to be compliant with the regulations.
Among those said to be at “high risk” was the “decision maker appeals case recorder”, while the “job seekers allowance payment system” was said to be at high risk and “critical”.
Progress on making the job seekers allowance payment system compliant with the regulations was said to be at zero per cent.
A series of DWP arms-length bodies were said to have non-compliant websites, including the Health and Safety Executive, The Pensions Advisory Service, The Pensions Ombudsman and The Pensions Regulator.
The reports date from April 2022, so the accessibility status of many of the websites and other digital services is likely to have changed in the last 14 months.
Last year, DWP refused to release the full reports, providing DNS with only headline details of the compliance failures, which did not show which websites and other services were failing on accessibility.
DWP claimed at the time that the report was exempt from being released under section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act because it “relates to the formulation or development of government policy”.
But after DNS complained to the information commissioner, DWP has now apologised and admitted that the exemption was “wrongly applied”.
It told DNS that the reports were “a snapshot in time” and that some services were marked as non-compliant because the department had no evidence they had been tested for accessibility.
It said the report was “not intended to be used for public accountability” and was “a working document to help us to move towards greater compliance”.
DNS has now submitted a fresh freedom of information request to seek up-to-date reports on the accessibility of DWP’s websites and other digital services.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said DWP’s “incorrect use of section 35 and late disclosure will be noted as part of the Commissioner’s ongoing consideration of DWP’s compliance with [the Freedom of Information Act]”.
DNS reported in March how DWP had been warned by the information commissioner for “systemically failing to comply with the law” over how it dealt with requests for information on disability benefits, universal credit and claimant deaths.
It found DWP had a “consistently poor level of performance” on handling requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.
Picture: DWP’s Caxton House offices in Westminster. Picture by Google
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