The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been told by the information watchdog that it does not need to release secret reviews it carried out into the deaths of 49 benefit claimants.
Campaigners have expressed frustration and disappointment at the decision, with one MP saying it underlines the need for an independent inquiry into the use of benefit sanctions.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying since last autumn to discover what DWP learned from its investigations into deaths linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of disability benefits.
A series of freedom of information requests eventually revealed that DWP had carried out 49 internal peer reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
Of those 49 reviews 33 contained recommendations for improvements in DWP procedures at either national or local level, 40 were carried out following the suicide or apparent suicide of a benefit claimant, while 10 of the claimants whose deaths were reviewed had had their benefits sanctioned at some point.
But despite freedom of information requests from DNS, and others, DWP has refused to release the reviews, or summaries of the reports, their recommendations or their conclusions, even with personal details of benefit claimants removed.
After DNS complained about this refusal, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) agreed to launch an investigation.
But the watchdog has now told DNS that ministers were within their rights to refuse to release the reviews, thanks to a loophole created by section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act, and section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992.
Section 123 says that DWP staff are not allowed to disclose information about a person which they obtained through their job. DWP claimed this applied to the civil servants who prepared or contributed to the internal reviews, and the ICO agreed.
The ICO concluded: “The documents provide a detailed account of the service encountered by former claimants through their interaction with the DWP, all of which would have been obtained either from official DWP records that had been created by DWP staff, or by future investigations by DWP staff.”
In addition, section 44 of the Freedom of Information Act does not allow the ICO to rule that the reviews should be released in the public interest.
The ruling has dismayed disabled people’s organisations and campaigners who have been trying for years to uncover the true impact of welfare reforms and cuts.
Anita Bellows, a researcher with Disabled People Against Cuts, who has submitted her own freedom of information requests to DWP about the 49 reviews, said: “This is a very disappointing outcome, and even more so that no public interest test needs to be considered with this exemption.
“Public interest is the main reason for asking these questions: why did these people die? Were their deaths avoidable? What lessons have been learned?”
It was Bellows who discovered that 10 of the 49 claimants whose deaths were reviewed by DWP had had their benefit payments sanctioned.
She said: “As long as the DWP refuses to answer these questions and to reveal what led these people to take their lives or to their deaths, the department cannot be trusted in its dealings with people facing the greatest barriers and challenges in our society.”
John McArdle, co-founder of the user-led Black Triangle campaign, said it would be “reasonable and proportionate” to at least publish the conclusions of the reviews in an anonymised format.
He said: “There is an unwillingness on the part of the DWP to do that and you have to ask why.
“We want to ensure that avoidable harm doesn’t happen again, which is a matter of the greatest public interest.
“We are supposed to live in a democratic society. The whole point of the Freedom of Information Act is to hold the actions of the government to account. In this instance, we don’t seem to be able to do that.”
Debbie Abrahams (pictured), a Labour MP and member of the Commons work and pensions committee, said the ruling was “deeply frustrating”.
She said: “I have called in parliament on several occasions for the DWP to be more open about these peer reviews, including publishing details about the recommendations and changes in procedure that have been made as a result of them.
“Although we must respect the information commissioner’s interpretation of the law around the issue of releasing this information, it doesn’t mean we should stop demanding the government give us answers to our questions and set up a full inquiry into the issue immediately.
“It’s not enough for the government to say they ‘keep their guidance on dealing with vulnerable claimants under constant review’ but then not even say if, or how, they’ve changed the way they treat people who come into that category.
“More than ever now we urgently need a full independent inquiry into the way the government uses social security sanctions.
“This is the only way we will ever stand a chance of getting to the truth about [whether] sanctions are being used appropriately, and if the government is doing enough to ensure that vulnerable people are not being adversely affected by their sanctioning regime.”
She added: “As I’ve stated before, my belief is that ministers, both past and present, will never allow a full independent inquiry, because they have too much to hide and too much to lose.”
Mark Harrison, chief executive of Equal Lives, formerly Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People, said that if the reviews were not published, it would be impossible to find out what had gone wrong with DWP benefits policies and practices, and what lessons had been learned.
He said: “Of course there is a public interest. All the people concerned are dead.
“Also, surely, their families and loved ones deserve to know what happened and who was responsible for their deaths.
“If there has been an inquiry, it should be in the public domain.”