The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been ordered to release a secret report that describes the impact of its errors on “vulnerable” benefit claimants, which it admits could have a “negative” impact on its reputation.
The report contains “worst case scenario” information that DWP has calculated about the impact of its errors on claimants, which it appears keen to keep hidden from the public.
A decision notice by information commissioner John Edwards, instructing DWP to release the report, suggests that the document contains estimates of how many benefit claimants have been harmed by the department’s errors.
The report is said to contain “a narrow, informal snapshot of information relating to some errors which may impact on the experience of some of its customers as well as case-specific information”.
DWP says the information was only intended to be considered by its serious case panel.
And it told the information commissioner that “some of the information, if presented in its current format, could have a negative reputational impact on DWP”, while also noting the report’s “informal language and candid tone”.
It is the third time in a month that DWP has been told to release a document to Disability News Service (DNS) that describes how its policies affect disabled people claiming benefits, particularly those experiencing mental distress*.
And it is the latest setback – now stretching back nearly a decade – to its continuing attempts to hide evidence of how its failings are harming disabled people, often fatally.
The report was considered by DWP’s serious case panel in October 2022 (PDF), and DNS has been trying to obtain a copy since March.
DWP has refused to release the document, claiming that publication “would be likely to inhibit candour and likely prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.
After DNS complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), DWP told the information commissioner that “maintaining the safe space for free and frank conversations, at the time of the request, outweighed the public interest in disclosure”.
It suggested that if the report was released now, it was “likely to lead to pressure for quick solutions or responses, rather than time and space to implement the most effective changes, which is ultimately in the greater public interest”.
DWP also told the commissioner that the report “includes details of a sensitive nature” and publishing it “could harm the overall working of the Department”.
The information commissioner said he accepted that the serious case panel “handles complicated and sensitive matters such as those relating to welfare and safeguarding” and that there was “a public interest in allowing DWP the time and space to implement the recommendations made in the paper”.
But he told DWP that this was “outweighed by the strong public interest in the timely understanding and scrutiny” of the recommendations made by the report, while he was “not persuaded that it is in the public interest to wait until after these actions have been implemented” before publishing the document.
He also said there was “strong public interest in understanding DWP’s approach to preventing future errors and safeguarding issues”, which would “allow scrutiny of the quality of the analysis put to the Serious Case Panel and whether the recommendations are accepted and implemented”.
The information commissioner also found that DWP breached the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to the original request by DNS within the correct timeframe.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are aware of the decision notice from the Information Commissioner’s Office and we are currently considering our position.”
*Last week, DWP released a report that ministers had kept hidden for four years and which revealed significant flaws at the heart of the universal credit system and how DWP supports “vulnerable” claimants, after being ordered to do so by the information rights tribunal, thanks to the efforts of campaigner John Slater. Earlier this month, the information commissioner told DWP to release its written assessment of how the decision to abolish the work capability assessment would impact disabled people and other groups protected under the Equality Act
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…