Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants ignored media coverage that exposed how ministers’ policies had led to the deaths of benefit claimants, in a series of confidential reports for their bosses.
The DWP Media Evaluation reports, obtained by Disability News Service (DNS) following a freedom of information request, show how the department’s communications department repeatedly attempted to paint flattering portraits of how the media was responding to ministers’ work.
Over the course of 13 months, from September 2015 to September 2016, the reports ignore significant moments in the campaign to expose how ministerial decisions led to the deaths of disabled benefit claimants.
They are the second collection of DWP Media Evaluation reports obtained by DNS – following an initial batch released in October – and appear to show that the communications department has been more careful about how it writes the reports in the months since DNS first asked to see the documents in September 2015.
Among the stories that are ignored in the latest reports is the revelation by DNS in September 2015 that a coroner had blamed flaws in the work capability assessment (WCA) process for the death of a benefit claimant.
The case was followed up by ITV News and other mainstream media organisations, but there is no mention of the story in the evaluation report, which merely notes that September 2015 was “a mixed month for coverage”.
The following month, the report again ignored that story, even though it was raised by the SNP’s Angus Robertson in prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
In November 2015, DWP’s monthly document ignored media coverage of another influential coroner’s report – into the death of Stephen Carré (pictured) – which has since helped activists build a case suggesting that two work and pensions ministers should face a criminal investigation for their refusal to improve the safety of the WCA.
The coroner’s report into Carré’s death was again covered by ITV News, and covered widely elsewhere in the mainstream media.
One of the most striking omissions comes in DWP’s internal report for March 2016, when it manages to avoid mentioning coverage of the resignation of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
Duncan Smith claimed he had quit in protest at the decision to impose further cuts to personal independence payment (PIP), and his resignation led to the government deciding within hours to abandon those cuts.
But the only mention of those events in the March report is the line: “This month the disability desk worked to ensure coverage around PIP was balanced.”
The following month, there was a brief mention of a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4 on the PIP assessment process, with the report’s author saying that the “majority of the programme focused on Capita and the mentions of the Department were balanced, reflecting the strong briefing given by the Press Office”.
And in May 2016, the reports ignored widespread coverage of the release by DWP – following a lengthy legal battle with DNS – of redacted versions of 49 secret reports into the deaths of benefit claimants.
Disabled campaigner David Gillon said the reports showed “much the same manipulative mess we saw with the previous batch”, while he pointed out that the reports’ authors had stopped pointing out all of the potential stories that the press office had “managed to strangle at birth”.
He said: “We’re given an unsurprising insight into DWP attitudes when a piece on benefit overpayment targets being missed (a long time internal DWP problem) is labelled ‘the lowest ever level of fraud and error’.
“Where did fraud come into it? And if benefit fraud is at its lowest level ever, why wasn’t that being shouted from the rooftops? Or doesn’t it fit in with the scrounger narrative?”
He added: “What’s very noticeable is that no matter how indefensible the story, the press office call it ‘balanced’ if they manage to insert the DWP position.
“Yet so many stories that dominated the news and hammered DWP don’t make it into the reports.
“Clearly someone at DWP doesn’t like it when the stories tell the truth without any manipulation; not even when it’s their own minister’s resignation.
“Meanwhile, the utter failure of Disability Confident to challenge corrosive attitudes to disability employment is visible when you realise that, even in DWP’s internal reporting, we’re ‘X, who was born without a forearm’, rather than ‘X, who is a successful disabled model’.”