The information watchdog is to investigate the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over its refusal to publish secret reviews into 49 benefit-related deaths.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has launched the investigation into DWP’s failure to provide information requested by Disability News Service (DNS).
A series of DNS Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) requests eventually revealed how DWP has carried out 49 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
Of the 49 “peer reviews”, it later emerged that 33 contained recommendations for improvements in procedures at either national or local level within DWP, while 40 of the 49 reviews were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant.
But despite FoIA requests from DNS, and others, DWP has refused to publish the reviews, or their summaries, recommendations or conclusions, even with personal details of benefit claimants removed.
It claims that releasing the reviews – even with these details removed – could breach section 44 of the FoIA, because section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 makes it an offence for anyone employed in social security administration to “disclose without lawful authority any information which he acquired in the course of that employment and which relates to a particular person”.
Now the ICO has said that it will investigate a complaint lodged by DNS into the failure to release the information.
The ICO’s case officer said: “The focus of my investigation will be to determine whether the DWP is entitled to rely on section 44 as a basis for refusing to provide the information you requested.
“Should it not be a valid refusal of your request the commissioner will also determine what information can be provided within the appropriate cost limit.”
The investigation is likely to take several months. Even if the ICO rules that the information should be released, DWP would still have a right of appeal.
DWP has refused to comment.
Last month, the Commons work and pensions committee called on the government to set up a new independent body – modelled on the police complaints watchdog – to investigate the deaths of benefit claimants, and ensure “that the role of all publicly-funded agencies involved in the provision of services or benefits to the individual is scrutinised”.