I never expected to see the first round of my fightback against the DWP over my ‘Atos deaths’ FoI request fought out at Westminster – by other people. We truly live in interesting times!
I refer to the ‘information gathering’ session of the Commons Work and Pensions committee that took place this afternoon involving John Shield, Director of Communications and David Frazer, Director of Information, Governance and Security Directorate at the Department for Work and Pensions. They provided some fascinating information on the workings of the Department which may prove extremely helpful in the future.
Readers will recall that my request followed one from Samuel Miller about the number of ESA claimants who died in 2012 – while going through the Atos-run work capability assessment process; while appealing against a decision; or shortly after a decision, no matter what it was. In essence, this would be an update of a DWP statistical release entitled ‘Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients (9 July 2012)’. After a seven-month wait, he was told that the document had been an ‘ad hoc’ statistical release and there was “no intention” of updating it.
Let’s look at that. According to Mr Frazer, “The main way we make statistics available is through the publication of regular statistical series – number of people on working-age benefits, employment programmes and so forth… We release something like 50 statistical series, sometimes four or more times a year.” Why not the number of people who have died while going through the Atos-led assessment process? Is this a political decision?
“We put out regular publications that say ‘this is the latest number of people on working-age benefits; here’s a summary of the key trends and matters around that.” He went on to say this was supported by background information and charts created by dedicated statisticians and analysts. In that context, it stretches credibility for the DWP to say it does not keep statistics on the results of ESA work capability assessments, including – especially – the number of people who have died. This government department has an army of experts compiling data on its activities every day, and it is claiming that it keeps no such information?
He mentioned a ‘tabulation tool’ that allows people to create their own statistics – but this, of course, depends on the figures that are made available. He describes the data sets available as “fairly rich”, but DWP-related deaths are not among them. It is a shame that nobody picked him up on the fact that fatalities are not included. As social security benefits are principally used by people with no other means of support, in order to continue living, citizens of this country expect that to be an important part of this information; it is a key indicator of the efficacy of government policy. And it is not mentioned.
Then he said: “If ministers themselves want to use information publicly, and it’s not readily available from a first-release publication or a tabulation tool, then we also produce what’s known as an ad hoc statistical release… It’ll have the key numbers and advice on how to interpret.”
We know that ‘Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of recipients (9 July 2012)’ was an ad hoc release – so Mr Frazer was saying not only that the information it contained is gathered as a matter of course; he was also saying that this information is routinely kept out of the public domain. There cannot be any other interpretation.
Let’s move on to Freedom of Information requests. I submitted mine, requesting the same information as Mr Miller, plus some extra facts that I consider to be in the public interest. Readers will be aware that my claim was rejected as “vexatious” on the paper-thin grounds that I had written an article on this site, stating that I was submitting a FOI request and suggesting – as an afterthought – that other readers might wish to do the same, the idea being that officials and ministers could judge the strength of feeling on the issue by the number of requests arising from a single refusal, made to an individual who is not – let’s be honest – a popular media personality.
The response wrongly stated that this was “the stated aim of the exercise”, rather than the afterthought it obviously was, refusing my request by claiming it was “vexatious” in that it was “designed to harass the DWP”. Of course it wasn’t. It was designed to get the death statistics into the public domain, as anyone with an ounce of intelligence can tell!
The refusal notice stated: “Compliance with multiple repetitions of a known request also causes a burden, both in terms of costs and diverting staff away from other work, due to the significant time required to administer these requests.”
But Mr Frazer said today that the DWP makes itse responses to FOI requests publicly available on its website. He actually said, on the record: “Besides sending them to the person that’s made the FOI request, they’re readily available to everybody else”. Clearly, then, if someone sends in an FOI request for identical information to that requested by someone else, they can be directed to the relevant webpage with a minimum of effort from DWP staff. The time required is TINY, not “significant” – therefore any claim that a request is “vexatious” on such grounds is obstruction on the part of the authority – abuse of the legislation.
The next factette knocked this one into a proverbial cocked hat: It seems my request was most probably refused by a Conservative DWP Minister, for political reasons. Take a look at this exchange between Dame Anne Begg, chairing the meeting, and Messrs Frazer and Shield.
Anne Begg: Who makes the decision of whether to answer a Freedom of Information request?
David Frazer: In some cases the decision is finally down to the Minister, but on a routine basis it is officials that will routinely answer and prepare them.
Anne Begg: Recently there has been a Freedom of Information request and a reply came back saying that it was a ‘vexatious’ request, and the department wasn’t going to provide the information. Who would make that decision?
David Frazer: In the first instance we have officials who will look at what the request is; they will look at whether it would produce a disproportionate cost for what it is – they will make that judgement, but I believe it will come down to Ministers to make that call. (He is saying it was a political decision).
Anne Begg: The reason given for not providing the information was the person asking it had mentioned something on a blog, and therefore it was interpreted as being vexatious, and therefore they wouldn’t supply the information.
David Frazer: Okay. I think that’s fairly rare.
John Shield: My understanding of what happens is that requests come in, officials analyse – look at those requests, go through the process David has described. Once that has happened, a recommendation is made, and that is sent to Ministers as part of a wider brief on FOIs. But of course we can check that for you to make sure that is copper-bottomed, 100 per cent accurate.
Go ahead if you like John, but I’ve already had a look at the Information Commissioner’s advice on “vexatious” requests – and you’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
Having been sold down the river by their ministers, the two officials can take heart that their responses to further questions managed to inflict considerable damage in return. Referring to Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that 8,000 people moved off-benefit and into work before the start of the benefit cap, in order to avoid being affected by it, it seems this was based on two sets of statistics – an estimate of the number of people the DWP believed would be affected, and information from Job Centre Plus that people had sought advice on the benefit cap, and 8,000 people were no longer on benefit.
It seems that Iain Duhhhhh… Smith put two and two together (conflated the information) got 8,000 and then wrote a silly little opinion piece in the Daily Mail, despite the fact that the information carried a warning from DWP officials.
“In the context of that quote, that was in relation to an opinion piece given to the Daily Mail where the Secretary of State was stating his opinion on the statistics and not only basing it on that but basing it on what staff had been telling him about the impact of the cap, the management information that he had been receiving, and what claimants had actually been saying to him,” said Mr Shield. “So that was a judgement formed by him. As a politician, he can make those judgements around what he thinks data is saying in the context of everything else.”
He continued: “This was part of an article from the Secretary of State that made out that view… It would have had some involvement from DWP officials, special advisors and the Secratary of State.”
Dame Anne Begg asked the obvious question: “So no-one checking the written articles from the Secretary of State – from the statisticians’ point of view – actually said ‘Secretary of State – if you look at the little footnote… It says that you cannot interpret that these people have gone into work as a result of these statistics’. Nobody pointed that out?”
Mr Shield’s response was revealing: “If a Minister is doing very much an opinion piece which is about their reflections and views on how policy is working and performing, sometimes they’ll be produced without press office involvement at all. Sometimes they’ll be produced by special advisors; sometimes they’ll be produced partly by us, partly by advisors, partly by ministers.”
He admitted that, “in this instance it did involve the press office”, but added: “I’m just trying to be clear that not everything that comes out of the department will go through us – particularly when there are political ends.”
In other words, it seems he’s saying that Smith ignored his officers’ advice and went ahead with a false statement. That’s my interpretation. Can anyone see any other way he could have been playing it?
Finally, for this article, let’s look at Grant Shapps and the 878,000 people he said shuffled off ESA because they were afraid to take the work capability assessment. We all know, by now, that the statement was false; it was a figure covering a five year period, and included significant numbers of people who had quit the benefit for many other reasons. The total number who had dropped out before taking the WCA was something like 19,700, who may have had their own good reasons for doing so.
What was Mr Shield’s defence of the Conservative Party chairman?
“This is purely a party piece of output. People look at the website, form their own judgements and interpretations and put out their own material…. We stay away from the politics of these matters.”
So the meeting concluded that Conservative ministers have withheld information, despite receiving perfectly valid Freedom of Information requests, for political reasons. The Secretary of State made an inaccurate statement about the effect of the benefit cap, despite being warned about the facts, for political reasons. And the Conservative Party Chairman made up a story – for political reasons. Liars all.
We should be grateful to the DWP officials for making that perfectly clear.