The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to release recommendations made by its own secret reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants that have been linked to its actions.
The refusal to release the information from reports completed over the last 20 months is just the latest attempt by ministers to hide information that links the department with the deaths of disabled claimants of benefits such as employment and support allowance and personal independence payment.
The department has told Disability News Service (DNS), in a response to a freedom of information request, that it cannot release any information from internal process reviews (IPRs) completed between April 2019 and last month.
It appears to argue in the response that it is exempt from its duty to release the documents because every one of those documents is linked to the development of new government policy*.
But there will be suspicions that the refusal to release the documents is because DWP is anxious to avoid revealing any further evidence linking it with safeguarding failures that have led to the deaths of claimants.
DWP did reveal in its response that it completed 82 separate investigations into deaths and other serious incidents between January 2016 and March 2019.
The existence of secret DWP reviews into suicides and other deaths and serious incidents was first revealed by DNS in October 2014.
Most, although not all, of the reviews involve the deaths of claimants, while some examine serious incidents that did not lead to a claimant dying.
After DWP refused to release the reports in 2014, the information rights tribunal ruled in April 2016 that all information from the reviews that does not directly relate to the people who died should be released under the Freedom of Information Act.
The tribunal case had been brought by DNS, and the ruling led to redacted versions of the reports being published for the first time.
DWP had argued at the time that it was prevented from releasing the information by section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992**.
That argument was squashed by the tribunal, which said the department could release some information from the reviews, as long as it did not relate to individual claimants.
This led to the release of 49 redacted documents which revealed how the secret reviews had led to recommendations for improvements by the department after the deaths of claimants.
DWP is now arguing that releasing any of the IPRs from the last 20 months could interfere with the development of policy, although it has released IPRs from the previous three years.
It said in the response: “There is a public interest in greater transparency which makes government more accountable to the electorate and increases trust.”
But it adds: “There is also a public interest in being able to assess the quality of advice being given to ministers and subsequent decision making.
“On balance, DWP is satisfied that in this instance the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
DNS is seeking an internal review of the decision by DWP, but it is likely to have to appeal to the information commissioner.
A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “You should raise your complaint with the DWP in the first instance and if you’re not happy with how the complaint is dealt with, we might be able to help.
“We wouldn’t comment beyond that at this stage on a particular request response.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to comment on the decision.
*Under section 35(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act
**This states that a civil servant is guilty of a criminal offence by disclosing “without lawful authority any information which he acquired in the course of his employment and which relates to a particular person”
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