The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) appears to have performed a partial U-turn after disabled campaigners reacted angrily to an apparent ban on media requests from Disability News Service (DNS).
Last week, DNS reported how DWP’s press office had failed to provide a meaningful response to questions submitted by DNS on 10 consecutive news stories.
The stories covered issues including the deaths of benefit claimants, the failure of minister for disabled people Justin Tomlinson to engage with disabled people’s organisations, and the silence of the government’s Disability Unit during the coronavirus pandemic.
Following DNS’s report, disabled activists and Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people have raised concerns about DWP’s actions.
Rick Burgess, from Manchester Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “If it affects DNS, it means the whole disabled population is affected.
“DNS is really the only specialist news service for a demographic of the population, and if they are not speaking to DNS they are saying, ‘We don’t want to communicate to that section of the population.’
“It’s telling us, ‘You’re not part of society.’ In pure social model terms, they are introducing a new barrier towards disabled people. They are putting a barrier in front of our press.
“If they tried to do that with almost any other minority group, I suspect it would be a lot more difficult, but unfortunately in disability there is not a stronger unified voice that would take the government to account on this.”
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said: “Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me; this is a concerning trend.
“MPs across the house, myself included, have repeatedly asked questions in parliament and the government has avoided answering.
“Accessible information is core to the press being able to hold the government accountable – freedom of the press must always be respected.”
Disabled activists who commented on social media on DWP’s refusal to respond to DNS said its evasion of accountability was deeply worrying.
“Ben Claimant”, who tweets at @imajsaclaimant, said DNS had “been a thorn in the side of DWP for years”, exposing its failings “again and again”.
He said: “The DWP press office has now stopped answering his questions. This should concern everybody!”
Other campaigners described the failure as “unacceptable”.
James Lee, a consultant and a member of Transport for London’s independent disability advisory group, said: “Government departments gain nothing by refusing to respond to public scrutiny. This is disgraceful.”
Dr Rosa Morris, who has published expert analysis of the work capability assessment and out-of-work disability benefits, said DWP was trying to do everything it could to gain disabled people’s trust at the same time as “refusing to engage with the only disability-focused news service”.
Benefits adviser Mark Harris said: “Every day there’s another nail in democracy’s coffin, and alas accountability was buried a long time ago.
“I’ve not many years left but I was hoping my grandchildren would inherit a better, more open, caring Britain.
“With this type of action and many like it, it’s not looking promising.”
There was also support from journalists in the mainstream media, with the Daily Mirror’s Dan Bloom saying the failure seemed “pretty odd”.
He said: “DWP is always rightly keen to respond to stories I write, even if it’s just to give a generic statement on the issue.
“DNS has exposed some important errors and failings – what’s different?”
The Guardian’s Patrick Butler added: “Strange that @dwppressoffice – normally understandably keen to get its view across in the media – appears to be refusing to answer questions put to it by @johnpringdns.”
Over the last decade, DNS has reported on links between DWP and the deaths of disabled benefit claimants, DWP’s breaches of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, evidence of flaws in DWP programmes such as Disability Confident, and misleading statements made to parliament by work and pensions ministers.
A DWP spokesperson at first refused to comment this week, but later said: “We treat every media enquiry on a case-by-case basis and respond as appropriate.”
It later provided a brief, one-line statement in response to a story about a protest action by artist-activist Dolly Sen (see separate story), although it failed to answer questions on the protest.
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