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You may be aware that This Writer made his writing debut in the national news media today (June 25), discussing the struggle to get the DWP to update its statistics on the number of people who have died while claiming incapacity benefits.
It was appropriate that this should happen today, because it is the second anniversary of the launch of my first Freedom of Information request on the subject – you know, the vexatious one.
The article that appeared was, in fact, the second piece I sent in to The Independent. The first was considered – rightly – to be a little too involved for the casual reader, so I pulled back a little and wrote a new version.
Here’s what I originally wrote:
If percentages are the evasive politician’s favourite tool, what does this make ratios?
Ministers love to use percentages if the numbers don’t add up too well – but the Department for Work and Pensions has introduced an entirely new level of evasion.
In response to my Freedom of Information request for an updated number of deaths among sickness-related benefit claimants, the DWP has said it wants to publish the details as ‘Age-Standardised Mortality Rates’ (ASMRs) – as a ratio compared with the population as a whole.
Apparently the DWP has been working on this for no less than two years – it was first mentioned in a refusal to honour a similar request in 2013.
At the time, we were told: “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.”
Not according to the Information Commissioner!
His guidance states that any details withheld by a public authority must either have a planned publication date or a deadline for publication. Alternatively, if an information-gathering exercise is under way or there are related matters, publication may be delayed.
None of those conditions apply. I have an email from the DWP, stating that the Department has most of the requested information and could publish it within cost limits.
When I appealed against the DWP, the Information Commissioner supported me. But the DWP is taking the matter to a tribunal because it insists on holding back the information – until it can be fudged in the form of ASMRs.
That is not what I wanted when I made my latest FoI request in May 2014 – nor is it wanted by more than 225,000 people who have signed a petition in support of my request.
We want to know how many people have died, to compare with what we were told in a DWP release from July 2012 stating that, between January and November 2011, 10,600 ESA claimants had lost their lives.
Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has labelled this demand “disgraceful”.
Challenged about his refusal to publish the figures by Labour MP Marie Rimmer on Monday, he said, “Opposition Members deliberately try to misrepresent what happens… I find it disgraceful that she is going round making such allegations.”
He added, “The Department does not collate numbers on people in that circumstance” – a lie. Labour’s Debbie Abrahams raised a point of order about it on Wednesday and the DWP has yet to respond.
It seems clear that any “disgraceful” behaviour is being carried out by Iain Duncan Smith and his department.
These are time-sensitive figures; they should be published regularly, so that policies may be modified – particularly if many people are dying. This means figures need to be published in a way that makes them easily comparable – which is exactly what Iain Duncan Smith is trying to avoid.
And how does the DWP justify its bid to fudge the figures? “Taken in isolation, the statistics… were likely to be misinterpreted. Specifically, incorrect conclusions were likely to be drawn as to causal links between assessment outcomes and mortality.”
Perhaps the DWP’s £49,000+ per year lawyer failed to notice that Freedom of Information requests are “motive-blind” – it does not matter why I or anyone else want the information, or why DWP representatives think we want it; all that matters is whether the DWP has it and can publish it within cost limits.
It does, and it can.
Let’s have it.
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