The information watchdog has ordered the government to publish hugely controversial figures that will update the number of people who have died while claiming out-of-work disability benefits.
Activists have been calling on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to publish the figures since November 2012.
The ruling came after an appeal by Mike Sivier, a freelance journalist and carer who runs the Vox Political blog and has himself been pushing for the figures to be published since the summer of 2013.
DWP originally published statistics in July 2012 which showed that 10,600 people had died between January and November 2011 while claiming employment and support allowance (ESA), and where the date of death was within six weeks of the claim ending.
Their publication caused huge controversy, although many disabled campaigners disagreed over what the figures actually showed. Ministers subsequently blocked publication of any updated figures.
When challenged under the Freedom of Information Act, DWP claimed that new figures would be published at some point in the future.
But the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has now told DWP that that was not a valid reason not to publish the figures, and has ordered it to disclose how many claimants died between November 2011 and May 2014.
When the figures are finally published, they should show how many people died while in the ESA assessment phase; after being found fit for work; after being placed in the ESA work-related activity group; after being placed in the support group; and with an appeal pending.
In his ruling, the ICO concludes that DWP had had “reasonable time” to prepare the figures, and adds: “The commissioner also finds that delaying publication is not reasonable in light of the requests DWP have received from the public and the fact that the previous statistics published were around two years old at the time of the request.”
Some disabled activists have suggested that the original figures showed that many of the 10,600 people died as a result of being found fit-for-work.
But some commentators, including Tom Chivers in the Daily Telegraph, pointed out that the 10,600 deaths refers to those who died “within” six weeks of their claim ending, so many of them could simply have died and then had their ESA claim ended by DWP.
Chivers also points out that most of those who died were in the support group, and many of them were therefore people with life-limiting conditions.
He also says in the article that it would be “absolutely amazing, though, if [the number of those who died after their claim ended] made up more than the tiniest fraction of that 10,600 figure”.
Sivier said: “Some of [the 10,600] people may have died because of their conditions but evidence that has become available since suggests that many died due to the stress of constant reassessment by an unsympathetic government department that was determined to clear as many people off its books as possible, no matter what the health risks might be.”
DWP can still appeal to the information rights tribunal, but if it chooses not to do so it will have only about a month to produce the figures.
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots campaigning organisation Black Triangle, said he believed the updated statistics would prove vital.
He said: “I believe that these figures are going to show the devastating impact that government policy has had on mortality.
“When the truth comes out about the devastation that this has caused, the whole of society will be absolutely appalled.”
He said he believed the figures could go some way towards waking society up to this “devastation”, and that the government’s welfare reforms over the last five years had shown a “reckless disregard for human life”.
McArdle said DWP’s refusal to publish the figures demonstrated that “the general public are not being given the information they need to make an informed decision on the future of our country”.
He pointed to a letter from nearly 100 senior public health professionals, published in the Guardian this week, which highlights “the damage that the coalition government’s policies have done to the health of the British people”.
The letter says that the coalition’s austerity policies “can be linked to a reversal in the long-term downward trend in suicides, which have increased most where welfare cuts have been most severe”.
It says that this and other policies have been “damaging to health and has led to many thousands of unnecessary deaths”.
Rick Burgess, co-founder of New Approach, which campaigns to scrap the “fitness for work” test, said: “Mike deserves great praise for persevering.
“Of course, Whitehall delaying it until after the election is a sign of a highly-politicised civil service and is utterly undemocratic.
“People should know the cost of policies they are voting upon, especially when they are causing mass deaths.
“But like the hidden £12 billion cuts [to social security] the Tories promise [in their manifesto], it appears we no longer are to be allowed to know what government does.
“So the question for voters at the general election is: do you wish to live in a democratic society or one where the government destroys disabled people’s lives and welfare and covers it up?”
Anita Bellows, a researcher with Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), added: “DPAC congratulates Mike Sivier who has battled for almost two years with DWP in order to obtain statistics on claimants’ deaths.
“It shows a lack of transparency and accountability in the way DWP operates.
“The government has a duty to monitor the impact of its policies, and to make the results public. It also has a duty to respond to requests from the public.
“The fact that the publication of these figures will occur after the elections seems to indicate that the government has much to hide.”
DWP has failed to respond to a request to comment.
But an ICO spokesman said: “On 1 May we concluded our enquiries into a freedom of information complaint made against the DWP requesting the release of information concerning the mortality rates of those claiming benefit payments.
“After considering the details, we have overturned the department’s original decision and ruled that the information should be disclosed.
“The department now has 28 days from the day the notice was served to appeal our decision to the first tier tribunal, or release the information within 35 calendar days.”
Meanwhile, a new silent film listing many of the disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the government’s austerity programme has premiered at an arts festival in Norfolk.
The film, by disabled artist-campaigner Vince Laws and film-maker Andrew Day, uses details compiled by Black Triangle.
Laws said: “If the work capability assessments, the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions had not been in place, many of these people would be alive today.
“This film is made in honour of their pain and suffering. It is a reminder that they will not be forgotten.”
Pictured: Flowers laid on the grass outside parliament to represent the 10,600 people who died, at a memorial service in 2013 to highlight the human cost of the government’s austerity programme.