The Department for Work and Pensions has been ordered to disclose the number of Incapacity Benefit and ESA claimants who have died between November 2011 and May 2014.
The ruling comes from the Information Commissioner after an appeal by Vox Political‘s Mike Sivier.
But it seems likely to have been delayed – possibly for political reasons. If the number of deaths has been high, then it would generate a backlash against the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties that presided over them in the Coalition Government.
Mr Sivier said: “The decision notice was ready in March, but the Information Commissioner’s Office delayed its release for reasons that have not been given. Suppose a large number of deaths have taken place – I have heard suggestions that 60,000 people or more may have died as a result of government policy.
“It seems clear that the revelation of many deaths may turn voters away from supporting the Conservatives or Lib Dems – so it seems appropriate to question that delay. Will the election result be valid if the number of deaths is not known on May 7?”
The DWP had refused a Freedom of Information request on the grounds that the information would be published in the future (a section 22 exemption) – but the Information Commisioner found that officials had been wrong to do so.
The ruling means the DWP must disclose – within 35 calendar days of April 30 – the number of IB and ESA claimants who have died between November 2011 and May 2014, broken down into the following categories:
- Those in the assessment phase,
- Those who were found fit for work,
- Those who were placed in the work-related activity group,
- Those who were placed in the support group, and
- Those who had an appeal pending.
In his ruling, the Commissioner states: “It appears … that the DWP has had reasonable time to prepare for publishing [the] information and that disclosure was not so novel or unusual given the previous requests and disclosures made.
“DWP have not supplied any detailed or convincing evidence about the time needed and what preparation would need to be undertaken during this time or what the specific impact of disclosure would be… The DWP has previously published similar information.
The decision notice continued: “It is not reasonable for the DWP, having had enough time to extract the information and prepare internally for publication, to seek further time to provide the information requested.
“The Commissioner also finds that delaying publication is not reasonable in light of the requests DWP have received from the public and the fact that the previous statistics published were around two years old at the time of the request.”
Mr Sivier said he had first asked for information on benefit-related deaths in the summer of 2013: “It was almost a year after the DWP had published an ‘ad hoc’ report entitled Incapacity Benefits (Deaths of Claimants).
“That document stated that 10,600 people had died between January and November 2011, while claiming benefits that should have helped them survive with a reasonable quality of life. Some of those people may have died because of their conditions but evidence that has become available since suggests that many died due to the stress of constant reassessment by an unsympathetic government department that was determined to clear as many people off its books as possible, no matter what the health risks might be.”
He said: “I knew that other FOI requests had been made in November 2012 – a year after the last date covered in the ‘ad hoc’ report – but they had been refused. When I made my request in June 2013, I publicised it via my website, Vox Political, and asked for others to submit a similar request in the hope that weight of numbers might sway the DWP. This was a mistake as the department was able to use FOI rules to dismiss my request as being ‘vexatious’.
“I made a new request last May, and the DWP illegally delayed its response by several months. When ministers finally denied me the information, claiming they would be publishing it at an unspecified date in the future, I checked the rules and found that they were wrong. That is why I appealed to the Information Commissioner – and I am delighted that the Commissioner has upheld my appeal.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the DWP may appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal, but Mr Sivier said he doubted any such appeal would succeed: “I took my first request to a tribunal and, although the decision was upheld, the judges stated that they were extremely sympathetic to my cause.
“They said they did not see any reason why another FOI request, properly made out, should not be successful. That is why I tried again.”
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