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140113FoI

It seems Yr Obdt Srvt has become the victim of DWP game-playing that shows contempt for sick and disabled benefit claimants whose lives are threatened by poor decision-making.

You may be familiar with the following saying (or at least with the fact that George W Bush wasn’t): “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

I mention this as a precursor to the following story, for reasons that should become clear.

Back in May, I sent another Freedom of Information request to the Department for Work and Pensions, again asking for an update of the ad-hoc statistical release Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of Recipients from mid-2012 (long-term readers will be aware a previous request was refused as “vexatious”).

In it, I pointed out: “A response to a previous Freedom of Information request (FOI 2013-IR665) stated that ‘Whilst we currently have no plans to directly update the ad hoc report on “Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of Recipients” published on 9th July 2012, the Department does monitor requests we receive for new statistics and consider whether we can produce and release analysis that will helpfully inform public debate. The Department is therefore looking at this issue with a view to seeing what statistics could be produced on a regular basis.’

“It went on to state that ‘the balance of the public interest test falls in favour of withholding this information. As I have explained above, statistics on this issue will be published in due course.’

“I have studied DWP release schedules extensively and in the 11 months since I made my request, I have found no publication of statistics on this issue… Was the DWP’s statement that ‘statistics on this issue… will be published in due course’ made in error?

“If this is the case, then there can be no public interest argument against disclosure of this information in response to either my previous request or any future request, as it is not set to be published as part of the DWP’s current schedule. I remind you that this is time-sensitive information; it is important that the data becomes public knowledge as soon as it is available, in order to inform government policy and avoid preventable fatalities in the future.”

If this was not the case, I continued, then – as at midday on May 28 this year, what was the date on which it is planned that the DWP will be publishing figures from November 2011 to those which are most up-to-date?

If no date of publication was set down, I concluded, then the DWP had a duty to provide an update, to me, immediately.

I reminded the Department’s FOI officers that an email from the DWP to the Information Commissioner’s office, dated October 21, 2013, stated that “we can confirm that the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit… the information requested.”

The substantive issue: A DWP statistical release in 2012 showed that more than 200 people were dying every week as a result of Iain Duncan Smith's changes to assessment procedures for incapacity benefits - either they were put into groups where unreasonable demands were placed on them or the stress and anxiety of constant re-assessment was too much for their bodies to take. Many were driven to suicide.

The substantive issue: A DWP statistical release in 2012 showed that more than 200 people were dying every week as a result of Iain Duncan Smith’s changes to assessment procedures for incapacity benefits – either they were put into groups where unreasonable demands were placed on them or the stress and anxiety of constant re-assessment was too much for their bodies to take. Many were driven to suicide.

Apart from acknowledging receipt, the DWP ignored my request. I therefore invoked my right to have it reconsidered, immediately after the legally-prescribed period ran out. By this time the DWP was already breaking the law.

Apart from acknowledging receipt, the DWP ignored my reconsideration request. Are you getting angry about this yet? Remember, it is about deaths caused by government policy. I therefore notified the Information Commissioner and requested a ruling on this matter.

The Commission responded late last month, saying the DWP had 10 working days to get a response back to me. Tomorrow was the deadline and the response arrived today.

You’re really not going to like it.

“Unfortunately there was a mistake in the response you were sent for FOI 2013-IR665. Due to an administrative error an Annex A (about the Public Interest Test) appeared at the very end of the letter. It was not intended for this response and as such there is no mention of it anywhere in the main letter.

“So the answer to your first question ‘Was the DWP’s statement that ‘statistics on this issue [incapacity benefits: deaths of recipients] will be published in due course’ made in error?’ with respect to the reply you received is yes. That statement was not intended to be part of the response and was therefore made in error. We therefore attach a corrected copy of the reply to FOI 2013-IR665 and apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

That is not good enough. There was no way I could have read that response without believing that I was being told updated statistics were to be published in the future; any other interpretation would have defied common sense.

Also, it makes a nonsense of what was said in the body of the response – that the DWP was working on releasing figures on a regular basis.

And it means one of two things: Either the DWP was lying then, when it said work was progressing on what could be published, or it is lying now, by saying the information about the public interest test was included in error.

Either way, it seems clear that the intention was to stop my request from progressing any further.

Let’s move on to the really insulting part. Today’s response states, and I quote verbatim:

We can confirm that we do intend to publish further statistics on this topic and these will answer a majority of your questions. As the statistics are intended for future publication this information is exempt from disclosure under the terms of Section 22 (Information intended for future publication) of the FOIA. This exemption is qualified, and is therefore subject to a public interest test. The public interest test is where the Department considers whether the balance of the public interest falls in favour of withholding or disclosing the information requested.

“Arguments in favour of disclosure: There are public interest arguments in favour of disclosure of this information at the present time. Disclosure would for example improve transparency in the operations of the Department.

“Arguments against disclosure: There are public interest arguments against disclosure of this information at the present time. These arguments include that it is in the public interest to adhere to the existing publication process for official statistics, which includes time for the data to be collated and properly verified.

“It is also in the public interest to ensure that the publication of official information is a properly planned and managed process, to ensure that the data are accurate once placed into the public domain. It is also in the public interest to ensure that the information is available to all members of the public at the same time, and premature publication could undermine the principle of making the information available to all at the same time through the official publication process.

“On this occasion, the balance of the public interest test falls in favour of withholding this information. As explained above, statistics on this issue will be published in due course.

“We do not have a planned publication date at this stage but we will pre-announce the agreed date.”

That’s right – having apologised for misleading me into believing that updated information was to be produced when it wasn’t, the DWP went on to say that updated information was to be produced, but it wasn’t going to provide that information to me – even though no publication date has been set – for precisely the same reasons, to the letter, for which it had just apologised.

I get the impression that someone in Caxton House is trying to be funny.

What a big joke – to put off a Freedom of Information request about thousands of needless deaths with an excuse that has already been used wrongly, on the basis that it was wrong then but it isn’t now.

No. Not funny.

Pants: Iain Duncan Smith

Pants: Iain Duncan Smith

The situation is reminiscent of one mentioned in an article earlier today, wherein someone blew the whistle on Iain Duncan Smith’s expenses claim for underwear so he called her into a meeting and reduced her to tears with a show of belligerence. The substantive issue was of no interest to the man we call RTU (Returned To Unit); his only worry was that it should be hidden from the public. The same applies here.

As mentioned at the start: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I won’t be fooled again.

The information is held by the DWP, and could be provided easily enough.

The public interest test cannot be applied to my request as the DWP has not proved that statistics on this issue will be published in due course. For this to apply, a publication date would have to have been provided in the response and none was forthcoming.

Therefore I conclude that the DWP’s response is false and will be appealing to the Information Commissioner again – and to the First-Tier Tribunal if necessary. The tribunal is likely to take a very dim view of this as, after a previous hearing, its members stated that “we have considerable sympathy for the appellant”.

We have to prove that these people are not above the law.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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