The UK statistics regulator is examining the “shameful” failure of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to provide figures that would show how disabled people seeking to claim universal credit are experiencing the work capability assessment (WCA) process.
Despite ministers launching universal credit in 2013, it has yet to provide any statistics to show how many claimants have been put through the WCA, how long they have had to wait for a WCA, and what level of benefit they received following their assessment.
The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) is now examining concerns raised by Disability News Service (DNS) to see if it can take any action.
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 disabled people are now receiving universal credit rather than ESA, which is slowly being phased out.
Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people at the time, promised three years ago that DWP would soon be publishing official WCA universal credit statistics.
But those figures were never published.
And when, Chloe Smith, the new minister for disabled people, was asked a related question last December, she claimed that it would be too expensive, even though the same figures are published for ESA claimants.
DNS has now approached OSR to ask it to investigate DWP’s failure to provide the figures.
An OSR spokesperson said the regulator was “taking a look at the issues outlined” by DNS.
Stephen Timms, a Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said: “The DWP’s refusal to honour its commitment to publish these figures is just the latest example of its current unwillingness to be open with the public.
“The department needs to realise the harm this is doing to its reputation with disabled people.
“The first step in rebuilding trust will have to be adoption of a new openness.
“The OSR’s decision to look into the matter should now act as an urgent wake up call to the DWP to be far more transparent.”
Freedom of information campaigner John Slater said: “The DWP talks about being committed to transparency for universal credit (UC).
“However, in reality that means only publishing information that it believes reflects UC in a positive light.
“Information that doesn’t suit this narrative is either blocked from publication or delayed for years before being released.”
He pointed to the 1998 white paper Your Right To Know (PDF), which led to the Freedom of Information Act, and which opens with this paragraph: “Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision making. The perception of excessive secrecy has become a corrosive influence in the decline of public confidence in government. Moreover, the climate of public opinion has changed: people expect much greater openness and accountability from government than they used to.”
Slater said: “Refusing to produce and publish statistics that are likely to reveal the number of disabled people being unfairly found fit for work, whilst claiming that all is well within UC, is a perfect example of excessive secrecy, arrogance and defective decision making.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights and policy adviser for Disability Rights UK, said: “It is shameful that the DWP is unwilling to spend the money to compile figures to identify delays and award levels relating to universal credit work capability assessments.
“Given UC is IT-based, why has this capability not been built into its system?
“How can the DWP manage, assess, improve and rectify failures in its service without compiling the information it needs to do so?”
Butler said that disabled claimants are now waiting several months or longer for an assessment.
While they wait, they are at risk of sanctions from unreasonable work-related commitments and “needlessly placed at risk of harm or worse”, he said.
He added: “This state of affairs has filtered down from the secretary of state for work and pensions, who maintains that the DWP has no statutory duty of care to the people it serves.
“The interest of the OSR in this issue is very welcome as is the hope it can take speedy action to ensure that universal credit WCA statistics are published.”
A DWP spokesperson declined to respond to Timms’s comments or OSR’s decision to look at the concerns raised by DNS.
But she said: “We support millions of people every year and our priority is they get the benefits to which they are entitled as soon as possible, and to ensure they receive a supportive and compassionate service.”
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