The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) unlawfully prevented the release of secret reports into the deaths of at least 20 benefit claimants, the information commissioner has ruled.
The commissioner, John Edwards, has found that DWP breached the Freedom of Information Act by blocking documents which would have showed recommendations made by its own civil servants to improve safety and reduce the number of suicides and other deaths.
The victory should mean that ministers now release between 20 and 30 so-called internal process reviews (IPRs) that were completed between March 2019 and September 2020 and have until now been kept secret.
It is the latest legal defeat suffered by DWP in an eight-year fight by Disability News Service (DNS) to ensure that crucial details from its IPRs are not kept secret.
DNS has argued that releasing the recommendations made by the IPRs – previously known as peer reviews – is vital in ensuring DWP is held to account for how it has responded to deaths linked to the social security system.
DWP had argued that it could not release the IPRs because this could impact on the development of government policy, including its green paper on disability benefits, its “vulnerable customers policy”, “paying the customer the right amount at the right time”, and its national data strategy.
The information commissioner agreed that 14 IPRs that were linked to the national data strategy or the green paper were used to “inform” the development of government policy.
But the commissioner also ruled that DWP had “failed to consider the strong public interest in the timely understanding, and scrutiny of, the recommendations made in the IPRs”.
The ruling added: “The IPRs provide insight and understanding of where DWP acknowledges that errors were made or improvements are required.
“They would also allow scrutiny of whether DWP has taken action to implement these improvements or ensure that the errors do not occur again.
“Disclosure would also allow scrutiny of whether the actions taken were sufficient or timely enough to prevent the harm identified occurring again.
“The Commissioner considers that there is a strong public interest in understanding DWP’s approach to preventing future errors and safeguarding issues.”
The ruling concluded that “DWP has not provided compelling arguments regarding how the specific policies named would be undermined by disclosure of the IPRs” and “therefore considers that the balance of the public interest favours disclosure”.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We have received the decision notice from the Information Commissioner’s Office and we are currently considering its impact.”
DNS currently has another complaint being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office, relating to DWP’s refusal to release the recommendations made by more than 90 IPRs completed between September 2020 and April 2022.
DWP branded DNS editor John Pring “vexatious” for requesting the release of those IPRs earlier this year.
The release of recommendations made by the reviews has revealed key safety failings by the department over the last six years.
The first batch of reviews, finally released in 2016 after a lengthy freedom of information battle with DNS, showed how at least 13 of the reports explicitly raised concerns about the way that “vulnerable” benefit claimants were being treated by DWP.
Another review obtained by DNS, in 2018, helped show how DWP had been forced to soften the “threatening” tone of the agreement that claimants of universal credit are forced to sign to receive their benefits.
And in December 2020, a freedom of information request allowed DNS to show that DWP staff had had to be repeatedly reminded what to do when claimants said they may take their own lives, following reviews into as many as six suicides.
Those reviews suggested that a series of suicides between 2014 and 2019 were linked to the failure of DWP staff to follow basic rules that had been introduced in 2009.
But more recently, DWP has resorted to increasingly desperate tactics to keep all content from the reviews secret.
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