Newly-promoted Chloe Smith faces a claim that she misled parliament about the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to publish “essential” figures about its “fitness for work” assessments.
The claim has emerged just days after Smith was appointed work and pensions secretary by the new prime minister, Liz Truss.
DWP has repeatedly refused calls from MPs and the UK statistics regulator to provide figures that would show how many universal credit (UC) claimants are being found “fit for work” through the work capability assessment (WCA) process.
Both Smith (pictured), previously the minister for disabled people, and Therese Coffey, until this week the work and pensions secretary, have dismissed calls to prepare and publish such statistics.
Smith told MPs on the work and pensions committee in July that it was too expensive and too much effort to produce the statistics about key parts of an assessment system linked to hundreds, and probably thousands, of deaths over the last decade.
Last December, she told Vicky Foxcroft*, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, in a written parliamentary answer that DWP was “unable to provide Universal Credit (UC) WCA statistics as these could only be provided at disproportionate cost”.
But yesterday, in response to a freedom of information request from Disability News Service (DNS), DWP admitted that it had no figures showing the cost of producing this new set of statistics.
It told DNS: “An appraisal of the resources needed to enable the publication of data on the Work Capability Assessment outcomes for Universal Credit claimants has not been made.”
This means that either Chloe Smith misled Foxcroft in her answer, or DWP is misleading DNS.
Smith was appointed by Truss this week to her new cabinet as work and pensions secretary, replacing Coffey, who has become health and social care secretary and deputy prime minister.
Despite ministers launching universal credit in 2013, DWP has yet to provide any statistics to show how many disabled claimants have been put through the WCA, how long they have had to wait for a WCA, what level of benefit they received following their assessment, and how many of them were being found fit for work.
Campaigners have previously described publication of the figures as “essential” and warned: “If the DWP isn’t collecting and measuring data about key aspects of universal credit then its claims that all is going well must ring hollow.”
Even though the WCA system has been closely linked to countless deaths of disabled people over the last decade, DWP produces only statistics relating to employment and support allowance (ESA) and the WCA.
Most non-working disabled people are now receiving universal credit rather than ESA, which is being phased out.
A DWP spokesperson said this afternoon (Thursday) that it “would not be appropriate for us to comment” as DNS had requested an internal review of the department’s response to the freedom of information request.
Meanwhile, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has failed to act over DWP’s continuing failure to publish the figures.
DWP told OSR last month that it will assess the “priorities” in its statistics development programme once it confirms the “resources available”.
OSR has now responded to DWP’s refusal to act but has failed to do anything except express disappointment at its position and urge it to fill the gap.
OSR’s head of casework, Siobhan Tuohy-Smith, said the failure to publish universal credit WCA statistics “leaves a gap in the information available”.
In a letter to DWP’s chief statistician, Steve Ellerd-Elliot, she added: “It is disappointing that, due to circumstances beyond your control, the Department is tolerating this significant data gap.”
But instead of demanding their publication, she only asked DWP to be “clear in its publications” about the existence of the gap.
She asked Ellerd-Elliot to ensure DWP’s “internal processes” were “progressed expeditiously”, bearing in mind the “wealth of evidence around the need for transparency around Universal Credit WCA statistics”.
Following publication of the letter, OSR told DNS: “We will continue to monitor the situation, to ensure the department makes it clear to users that this data gap exists and its impact on use and also to urge this data gap to be filled when resourcing issues become clearer.”
Asked by DNS why it had not taken stronger action, OSR had not responded by noon today.
OSR has been in discussions with DWP since DNS wrote to the regulator in March to question the department’s continuing failure to produce the figures.
*Foxcroft was not able to comment this week as she is unwell with Covid
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