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What does Iain Duncan Smith have to hide? That is the obvious question.

With a general election coming up in May, it seems clear that the Conservatives intend to guard any figures that reveal the failure of their policies jealously.

In this instance, it seems likely they are also perverting the course of justice. Failure to act in order to prevent deaths caused by the actions of an organisation like the Department for Work and Pensions is a crime.

So what is the DWP really saying? “We’re going to keep these murderous policies. We like that they are killing these people. We want them to keep killing these people – and you’re not going to stop us.”

Does that about cover it?

You see, an email arrived at Vox Towers yesterday from the DWP’s Freedom of Information people. It upheld a decision to refuse a request made by this writer all the way back on May 28, 2014. Yes – that’s nearly nine months ago.

The reason the request was refused is as follows: “I can confirm that we do hold some information which can be used to answer most of your queries however as we also intend to publish this information it is exempt from disclosure under section 22 of the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]. I can also confirm that we do not have a definite publication date at this stage but we will pre-announce the agreed date here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/announcements

“The exemptions in Part II of the FOIA, such as exemption 22, are known as ‘absolute’ or ‘qualified’ exemptions. If an absolute exemption applies, the information can be withheld without any public interest assessment. If the exemption is a qualified one, the public authority must weigh the public interest in maintaining the exemption against the public interest in disclosure. This is the public interest test. The exemption relating to information which is intended for future publication – section 22 of the FOIA – is a qualified exemption and its use therefore requires a public interest assessment. The Department intends to publish the information you seek and the established publication process will apply once a date is settled.”

This is what the DWP has been telling people since mid-2013.

The last information released on this subject is now more than three years out-of-date – and revealed that a horrifying 10,600 people had died while going through the claim process for Employment and Support Allowance between January and November 2011.

That is to say, four people were dying every three hours or so.

Who knows how many thousands – how many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands (remember, the draconian Welfare Reform Act was passed in February 2012, making matters much worse for benefit claimants with illnesses or disabilities) have died since then?

The point of publishing statistics in a regular basis is to ensure that the system is running properly and the DWP is adhering to its duty of care in preventing deaths that could have been prevented. Clearly the DWP has been derelict in that duty – otherwise, why hide the figures?

Guidelines by the Information Commissioner’s Office show that the date of publication does not need to be definite for the DWP to apply a section 22 exemption. However, there are certain rules that apply:

  • There will be some information that is compiled as part of a scheduled procedure which includes a planned publication date” – that does not apply in this case as there is no planned publication date.
  • “The date of publication of other material may be less certain, for example: “A deadline may be provided, but publication could be at any time before then;” – no deadline has been provided.
  • “Publication will take place once an information gathering exercise has been completed;” – the information is gathered routinely and is available now.
  • “Or by reference to other related events” – there are no other related matters that have bearing on the publication of this information.

To cut a long story short, the DWP is breaking the rules by refusing to provide the information.

After the DWP refused the May 2014 FoI request – a refusal that, itself, broke the law as it was months late – a call for reconsideration was sent out on August 31, 2014. It is this call that was answered yesterday – nearly six months after it was sent, and nearly nine months after the original request was made.

Does anybody think perhaps the DWP has been stalling for time, in the hope that this would run on until after the 2015 general election.

In early October, when it became clear that the DWP’s reconsideration process was not happening, the Information Commissioner was contacted for a judgement on the matter. It seems his officers are still working on this matter. Perhaps they are also stalling. Now, why would that be?

In the event of a judgement against the request, the intention was to take the matter to an information tribunal. Vox Political has done this before, over the now-infamous ‘vexatious’ FoI request of 2013. That case was only lost on a point of law and the tribunal’s report was that its members were “sympathetic” to the requester.

It seems unlikely that there will be time for that now.

Perhaps the Information Commissioner’s Office will decide against the DWP, and that organisation will be forced to divulge the information it has guarded so ardently since November 2011. Before the general election? This seems unlikely.

Perhaps it is time for some of us to speak out about this in more public arenas.

Your thoughts are invited.

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