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What we're fighting for: It seems certain that Jacqueline Harris (pictured) died because her benefits were stripped from her after a one-question medical assessment. The DWP wants to hide the number of other people who are dying in similar circumstances.

What we’re fighting for: It seems certain that Jacqueline Harris (pictured) died because her benefits were stripped from her after a one-question medical assessment. The DWP wants to hide the number of other people who are dying in similar circumstances. [Picture: Daily Mirror]

Long-term readers will know that the author of this blog has spent the last few months trying to get officials at the Department for Work and Pensions to release mortality statistics for people undergoing the assessment procedure for Employment and Support Allowance.

It is in the public interest for the nation to know how many seriously ill or disabled people are dying while they wait to undergo the controversial Atos-run medical assessment, while they await the result, and while they appeal against a result that puts them in the wrong group or claims they are fit for work.

These deaths may be due to deterioration in their health – whether or not it was caused by the process – or suicide prompted by the process or the decision.

An initial Freedom of Information request was rejected by the DWP on the grounds that it was “vexatious”. I disputed that claim, and eventually had to appeal to the Information Commissioner for a ruling after ministers proved intractable.

The first obvious implication of this behaviour is that the number of deaths has been increasing and the DWP is trying to hide that fact from us. During 2012, when the department was still publishing the figures, we saw the average number of deaths leap from 32 per week to 73 per week.

The second obvious implication is that DWP policy is causing the deaths. With regard to this, your attention is drawn to the fact that this decision has been published a matter of days after it was revealed that Jacqueline Harris, of Kingswood, Bristol, died from a suspected overdose after the DWP signed her ‘fit for work’ – on the basis of a ‘medical assessment’ that consisted of one question – “Did you get here by bus?”

The partially-sighted former nurse, who required walking sticks, had a bad back and was in constant pain due to arthritis in her neck, lost all her benefits on the basis of her one-word answer – “Yes.” Amazingly, she lost an appeal against that decision and her death followed soon after.

An inquest has been opened and adjourned, so it is not possible to state the cause of death for certain – but any suggestion that the DWP decision was not a factor must beggar credulity.

That is the context in which the Information Commissioner’s ruling arrived.

You’re really not going to like it.

“The Commissioner’s decision is that the DWP has correctly applied the vexatious provision.”

It seems it is therefore impossible to use the Freedom of Information Act to extract this information from the Department for Work and Pensions. Ministers will never provide it willingly, so it seems we are at a dead end.

Apparently, “The DWP explained to the Commissioner that on 25 June 2013 they received 11 identical FOI requests and in the following days another 13 identical requests. They claim that this was the direct response to an online blog written by the complainant [that’s me] on 25 June 2013.

It seems that I am at fault for encouraging this as, after detailing my FOI request, I did write, “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers.” After a commenter asked if they could copy and past the request, I responded, “Sure, just make sure they know you’re making it in your own name”. And the following day, another commenter wrote, “If we swamp the DWP with requests they surely must respond”. Then on June 29, in another article, I added, “If you believe this cause is just, go thou and do likewise.”

The Information Commissioner’s decision notice states: “In this case, there were 24 identical requests which were sent to the DWP in a short space of time and the Commissioner has seen three identical complaints from the individuals that the DWP believes are acting in concert.

“Given that this issue was raised in a previous request at the end of 2012, it is apparent that the wording of the complainant’s online blog on 25 June 2013 prompted the numerous requests on this issue at the end of June 2013.

“Taking this into account the Commissioner has determined that there is sufficient evidence to link the requesters together and to accept they are acting in concert.”

It seems that there isn’t strength in numbers after all – or rather that the way that the large (by the DWP’s standards) number of us expressed ourselves was detrimental to our efforts. I take responsibility for that. I should have said that if you really believed in the issue, you needed to do something that was clearly separate from my own efforts. With hindsight this seems obvious, but only because we have all learned about the process as we went along. Would anybody have known better?

Regarding the impact of dealing with the requests, “The Commissioner accepts that when considered in the wider context, 24 requests on one topic in a few days could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions.

“The Commissioner accepts that the purpose of the requests may have gone beyond the point of simply obtaining the information requested and may now be intended to disrupt the main functions of the DWP.”

Surely, one of its main functions is the continued well-being of those claiming benefits. If people like Jacqueline Harris are dying because of DWP policy, it could be argued that the requests were reminders of its main function – not a distraction.

I have maintained throughout this process that there was no intention on my part to disrupt DWP functions. The only intention has been to see the mortality figures published. It seems neither the DWP nor the Information Commissioner are willing to allow that.

You have to wonder why, don’t you?

There are gaps in the argument which might provide future possibilities.

According to the decision notice, “The DWP argue that ‘the nature of the actual request is not the issue here. It is merely how these requests were instigated and orchestrated which led to them being treated as vexatious.”

In that case, why did the DWP not honour Samuel Miller’s original request for the information, which was turned down in June? If the nature of his request “is not the issue here”, then it should have been honoured and my own FOI request would never have been made. By its own intransigence, the DWP has wasted not only its own time but mine and that of 24 other people.

How many other requests were made, on the same subject, that the DWP could not associate with this blog?

Also, I was surprised to read the Information Commissioner’s statement: “However, the most significant factor is that the complainant runs an online blog in which the main focus is the DWP and their ‘cover-up’ on the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died in 2012.”

If that was the most significant factor in this ruling, then the decision is invalid. This blog was not set up to focus on the DWP’s admittedly despicable behaviour towards its clients; its focus is on British politics in general. Look at the articles published in the last week, covering topics ranging from immigration to the minimum wage, to the economy, and – yes – concerns about the DWP. If DWP ministers think the entire blog was set up to harass them, they’re getting ideas above their station.

It could also be argued that the quoted belief of the DWP, that “it is reasonable to view the requests as part of an obsessive campaign of harassment against it and its officers” is insupportable. If 24 people made FOI requests, but only three complained about the response, this is hardly obsessive. Were any of these people writing in on a regular basis, or were they corresponding only after they themselves had been contacted? I think we all know the answer to that.

Also, the Commissioner’s comment that “the disparaging remarks and language used in the blog cannot be overlooked and does demonstrate a level of harassment against the DWP” is insupportable. The language of the articles has been moderate, when one considers the subject matter. Regarding remarks made by other commenters, the DWP and the Information Commissioner should bear in mind that the comment column is a forum where people may express their opinions. If the DWP doesn’t like those opinions, it should modify its corporate behaviour.

It seems I have a further right of appeal, to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights). I will consider this; observations from interested parties are encouraged.