Information Commissioner to decide about DWP deaths

The price we pay for a Conservative-led Department for Work and Pensions: While ministers stall demands for information, the death toll increases.

The price we pay for a Conservative-led Department for Work and Pensions: While ministers stall demands for information, the death toll increases. [Image: Eric Hart]

This will be no surprise to anyone:

The Department for Work and Pensions has stuck to its boneheaded reason for refusing to say how many people have died because of its policies.

Readers may remember (it is now a long time ago!) that Vox Political submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department, back in June, asking for details of the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died in 2012 – including deaths of those who had been thrown off-benefit altogether, if such information was held.

This request was refused on the specious grounds that it was “vexatious”. The DWP officer making the refusal cited as his reason, not any part of the request itself, but the last line of the blog entry about it, stating “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers”.

The DWP decision-maker used this to claim that the request “is designed to harass DWP in the belief that encouraging others to repeat a request which they know has already been raised will affect the outcome of that request” and stated very clearly that this was “the stated aim of the exercise”.

In other words, the Department decided to squirm out of its responsibility by making a false claim about something that was not even part of the request.

A demand for reconsideration was soon wending its way on electric wings to the DWP, pointing out a few home truths from the Information Commissioner’s guidance notes on “Dealing with vexatious requests”, refuting the position the Department had chosen to take.

The guidance states that a public authority must have reason to believe that several different requesters are “acting in concert as part of a campaign to disrupt the organisation”. In this instance, “acting in concert” does not cover a sentence at the end of a blog entry suggesting that people who feel the same way about an issue might like to do something about it. That is perverse.

The guidance also states that “it is important to bear in mind that sometimes a large number of individuals will independently ask for information on the same subject because an issue is of media or local interest”. Media interest must include mention in a blog that is read up to 100,000 times a month, and the DWP decision-maker had clearly failed to recognise that people can only take action on a issue when they know it exists and have been told there is something they can do!

The reconsideration demand also quotes examples of evidence an authority might cite in support of its case that a request is vexatious, such as whether other requesters have been copied in or mentioned in email correspondence – in other words, can it be proved that these co-conspirators are working together? Nobody involved with Vox Political knows of any other request made “in concert” with our own, and the direct question to the DWP, “Have you received such correspondence?” went unanswered. We must therefore assume they have not.

ICO guidance also states that a website must make an explicit reference to a campaign. Vox Political did not.

The only logical conclusion is that the request – and any others that followed it – were “genuinely directed at gathering information” – according to ICO guidance. In that circumstance, the only reason the DWP could legally use to refuse the request is that it would “cause a disproportionate and unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress” – which it cannot prove as the information is available to it, and would only have to be collated once. After that, distribution to anyone requesting it would be easy, via email.

The response that arrived today was written by someone “of a senior grade to the person who dealt with your request previously” but who appears to be so ashamed of their own response that they have failed to legitimise it with their own name.

This person stated: “The guidance on vexatious requests encompasses a range of activities including requestors [sic] acting in concert to repeatedly request the same information. Thus I uphold the original decision.”

No information was provided to support this claim, therefore it is irrelevant and the DWP is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act.

The matter will now go to the Information Commissioner who will, in time, make mincemeat of the DWP arguments.

But it will take time.

This is what the Department wants, of course – time. Time to continue with its dangerous policies, which are deeply harmful to the unemployed, the sick and the disabled and have caused many, many thousands of deaths. It seems clear that ministers want this… ‘social cleansing’, you could call it… to continue for as long as possible and do as much harm as possible.

Curiously, the Director of Public Prosecutions may have just shot them in the foot.

The DPP, Keir Starmer QC, has declared that anyone found to be cheating on benefits in England and Wales could face longer jail terms of up to 10 years, after he issued guidance that they should be prosecuted under the Fraud Act rather than social security laws.

He clearly hasn’t considered the possible advantages of this for people who would otherwise face an uncertain future of destitution, worsening health and even imminent death if their benefits are refused. To them, a term in jail might seem like absolute luxury.

What greater incentive could there be for someone to lie extravagantly about their situation on a benefit form than the possibiity of losing everything, including their life, if they don’t get the money? If the alternatives were imprisonment or death, what do you think a person on the danger line would take?

This blog therefore predicts an increase in the UK prison intake due to benefit fraud.

And here’s the funny part: Mr Starmer said it was time for a “tough stance” because the cost of benefit fraud to the nation is £1.9 billion (he was wrong; in fact it’s only £1.2 billion, unless new figures have been released).

One year’s ESA costs the state around £5772, while a year’s imprisonment costs £37,163 – in other words, prison costs the taxpayer six times as much as the benefit. At that price, the DPP could imprison only 51,126 people before the cost of imprisoning them exceeds the cost of fraud – according to his own figures.

Of the 2.5 million people claiming ESA, the DWP is busy throwing 70 per cent off-benefit – that’s 1.7 million people who could justifiably be accused of benefit fraud and imprisoned. Total cost to the taxpayer: £63,177,100,000 per year.

Meanwhile, £12 billion in benefits goes unclaimed every year.

It seems this Conservative-led Coa-lamity of a government can’t even get its sums right.

32 thoughts on “Information Commissioner to decide about DWP deaths

      1. nick

        thanks mike as it saves me a lot of hassle from going around other blogs and i

        have identified this as being 1 of 3 independent blogs worth watching so it’s important we stay focused to the task at hand

        by the way you’re doing a grand job in what are very difficult circumstances

  1. Edward Melville

    Nice figures there so , put evetyone that claims disability benefits in prison , the tax payer nation would then be crippled, but not the ones who tax avoidance. ?..

  2. Samuel Miller (@Hephaestus7)

    The pertinent excerpt from my Internal Review response on this same matter:

    I am of a senior grade to the person who dealt with your requests previously, and can confirm that I have carried out an internal review. I confirm that I have considered your requests afresh. In conducting my review, I have discussed the original replies, the handling and the decisions on what can be provided.

    I can confirm that your original requests for information were managed as general
    correspondence and not as formal Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests. The
    Department is unable to handle every item of correspondence through FOI channels due to the vast volumes received. Each year the Ministerial Correspondence Team alone receive around 45,000 pieces of correspondence from Members of Parliament, Peers, and members of the public.

    I have reviewed the responses that were provided and found that there was an element of ambiguity in the responses. I have investigated what would be provided if your requests were now raised through FOI channels and I am aware that since raising this internal review request you have received further correspondence from the Department with regards to queries you raised on the 29th June 2013 and 1st July 2013.

    Whilst we currently have no plans to directly update the ad hoc report on “Incapacity Benefits: Death 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.

    With regards to your comments on DWP being at fault, reference to newspaper articles, and query on whether you were purposely misled and politely brushed off, we must point out that the Freedom of Information Act allows requests for the supply of recorded information and is not intended for debate or discussion on any issues. We are therefore under no obligation to respond to these queries.

    If you have any queries about this letter please contact us quoting the reference number above.

    Yours sincerely

    Freedom of Information Team

    Information, Governance and Security Directorate

    Department for Work and Pensions

  3. samspruce

    I feel as if I am stating the obvious but surely they must have released the figures and still be getting ‘a disproportionate number’ of demands before it could be claimed to be vexatious. They have not released the figures once. They are clearly in breach of the Freedom of Information Act.

    1. Mike Sivier

      I ran the two together because I wanted to point out the conjunction between them – that the new prosecution guidelines mean people can avoid the Grim Reaper by going to jail. And isn’t that a bizarre way to behave?

      1. Mike Sivier

        I actually read your tweet about this before going through the notifications on the blog, so I’ve already put this link up!
        Oh well, once more won’t hurt…

      2. Angela Sullivan

        And if you ever are in a position where taking a job is possible for you, a spell of imprisonment will look good on your CV and help your employment prospects?

        When I wrote this I was being sarcastic, but thinking it over, there are quite a few good people working in the prison and probation service, so a spell in prison might genuinely be of more use to unemployed people than attending a government “work experience” programme.

  4. joanna

    Not to mention everyone would have to go through a trial (Each) more time and more money, plus those who are innocent can sue the ass off the government!!!!!

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  7. kittysjones

    The information Commissioner ordered the Government to provide the public with the the Health & Social Care risk assessment, as did a tribunal….we are still waiting.

    I f anyone doubted that we have an authoritarian Government, then I wonder what it would take to convince??

  8. sparaszczukster

    Glad to hear you’ve complained to the ICO, Mike. I’ve also done so – about three weeks ago now – after receiving much the same kind of unsigned response to my request for an internal review of the DWP’s refusal to release information about ESA deaths on the same grounds that my request was ‘vexatious’. So far I’ve not heard anything back from the ICO apart from an acknowledgement of my complaint, but like you say, it takes a while. The fact that someone else has made the same complaint might mean there’s a chance of a good result.

    1. Mike Sivier

      The ICO take about 30 days to get an initial response back to you – it really does take a while. But hopefully, yes, something good will come of it. I think some other people have also put in complaints and I hope more will join in as they exhaust their avenues of appeal with the DWP itself.
      This ‘vexatious’ issue – I take it you made your FoI request independently and didn’t mention anyone else making such a request? If so, I find it hard to understand why they would accuse you of it.

  9. Tom (AAV)

    Mike, when it comes to the swelling of the prison population, I think it is always worth mentioning the numerous examples of prison labour schemes, farming out prisoners to corporations for as little as 30p an hour.

    That corporations have access to such a supply of virtually free labour contributes to the unemployment situation (because they don’t have to pay real workers, with real wages and real labour rights). the move to imprison more unemployed people might well create a (highly profitable) prison labour negative feedback loop.

    1. Mike Sivier

      Good point!
      But weigh it up against the possibility that they might find it impossible to live in Cameron’s Britain and I don’t think there’s a choice at all.
      There is also the small matter of pressure on the UK government to give certain prisoners the vote. If this came in – and it still might! – then people who have been cheated out of their benefits by his vile party could vote them out – from inside – and then have their sentences ended by a future government that changes the law on benefits.

      Or are we all convinced that this will never happen?

  10. 1234

    I am an ESA claimant who, like all of the others in my position, have taken a consistent beating from DWP.

    I’ve recently won my appeal, and been placed in the support group (although from January I could be back on the reassessment circuit).
    I’m hugely lucky in that my family have been absolutely wonderful. I have of course thought what happens if/when they can no longer offer so much help, and this article is absolutely right.

    I suffer from PTSD, Panic Disorder, Stress, depression etc, and I can say honestly that I have considered what possibilitys lie ahead for me if my family are not able to take the burden.

    It comes down to 2 choices: 1. Homelessness, and presumably being off any medication.
    2. Some form of crime that would get a custodial sentence, and presumably still access to medication? Or at the least a roof.

    It’s not a realisation that I came to lightly and I have no prior record, but those are the only options open to the vulnerable. Which is frankly an appaling reflection on the society the coalition have left us in.

    I haven’t posted my name for obvious reasons, I have no current plans to carry something out, but I am very much aware that I may find myself in a position where I am faced with that choice

  11. beastrabban

    Very best of luck to you and everyone else challenging the lies and evasions of the DWP on this issue.

  12. beastrabban

    Reblogged this on Beastrabban’s Weblog and commented:
    My brother, Mike, once again refutes the specious arguments the DWP uses to try to avoid actually revealing the true figures of the people who’ve died due to being thrown off their benefits by Atos. He also attacks Keir Starmer’s intention to punish benefit fraud with up to ten years in prison. As with so much of the Condem’s thinking, this doesn’t make sense economically, and the punishment would far more expensive than the crime. But what’s the use of humanity and common sense when you’ve got such a great chance of kicking the poor when they’re really down.

  13. ystir

    I’d respectfully ask you to consider using a less triggering image at the start of this post – if people post the link on twitter, the image comes up if the tweet is expanded (including accidentally clicking on the tweet in TweetDeck, for example.) I’m sure you don’t want to trigger vulnerable people, including benefit claimants who may well already be suicidal or close to it.

    1. Mike Sivier

      I’ve had a bad reaction to it from one or two people on Twitter as well. You’re right – I don’t want to ‘trigger’ vulnerable people – but the complaint creates an interesting question: How do I get the point across to people who would not otherwise pay attention, WITHOUT offending or upsetting, or setting off people’s conditions?
      None of the people who were offended have come up with an answer for that, yet.
      (I should add that only four people, out of the nearly 2,400 who have accessed it so far, have complained. Many have expressed support for my choice.)

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