The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has repeatedly breached freedom of information laws in an apparent attempt to prevent the release of secret reports written by disabled people recruited to work within its jobcentres.
Two years ago, DWP published a work, health and disability green paper, Improving Lives, in which it revealed plans to recruit about 200 new “community partners”.
Ministers said these community partners would have “personal and professional experience of disability” and would support work coaches in jobcentres.
The aim was for them to “provide valuable first-hand insight” into the issues faced by disabled people in “securing and sustaining employment”, with work coaches able to draw on their local knowledge.
The community partners, many of whom were to be seconded from disability organisations, would also help map local provision of peer support and service-user groups.
But Disability News Service (DNS) has since learned that these community partners submit regular reports on their work, often based on their experiences of visiting jobcentres.
For years, DNS has been reporting on the alleged failure of DWP jobcentres to safeguard disabled people left in vulnerable situations because of flaws in the benefits system.
Many of these failings have led to the deaths of benefit claimants and have subsequently been reported on in secret DWP peer reviews (now renamed internal process reviews).
DNS therefore submitted a freedom of information request to DWP in May, asking to see any of the reports written by community partners working in London Jobcentre Plus districts in 2017 and 2018, in case any of them included concerns raised by Community Partners about such failings.
Such requests are supposed to be answered within 20 working days, but there has so far been no written response from the department’s freedom of information department.
On 5 July, DNS emailed DWP’s freedom of information team to ask why it had failed to respond to the request, and followed that up with another email on 19 July, warning that the failure to respond was a clear breach of the Freedom of Information Act.
DNS has since spoken to a civil servant in DWP’s freedom of information team, who promised to try to find out why no response had been sent.
She told DNS this week that she had repeatedly attempted to secure a response from the jobcentre operations team and had warned them that they had breached their legal duties under the act.
She said she did not know why they had failed to respond to the request.
She told DNS: “I chased it again this morning and I don’t know why it has taken so long. I have reminded them of their duty to reply in time and that is where I am with it.
“You have every right to go to the Information Commissioner’s Office [to lodge a complaint].
“I have tried. I don’t know why they are digging their heels. I am sorry.”
A DWP spokeswoman refused to explain the reason for the repeated breach of the Freedom of Information Act.
But she said in a statement: “Any issues relating to FOI requests can be dealt with by writing to [email protected].
“If you are unhappy with the handling of an FOI request please contact the Information Commissioner’s Office.
“The latest statistics show that DWP answered 95 per cent of FOI requests within 20 working days, exceeding the information commissioner’s compliance threshold of 90 per cent.
“As you know, DWP spokesperson statements must come from the DWP press office, and we regularly provide you with statements, as we are doing so in this instance.
“Please can you therefore use the above wording in your story instead of quoting from phone calls with DWP employees.”
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