Tag Archives: disrupt

Extension plan for UK membership of EU prompts Jacob Rees-Mogg to make a fool of himself

Jacob Rees-Mogg – what a character!

I think we should call him “Jakes” from now on.  It’s a reference to an outdoor toilet, as he seems keen to flush away his own credibility.

“Jakes” was so incensed, after Donald Tusk put forward the idea of a year-long “flextension” to the UK’s membership of the EU (to be cut short if Theresa May ever manages to negotiate conditions under which the country could leave), that he took to Twitter with what one imagines he thought was a rousing call to arms:

https://twitter.com/Jacob_Rees_Mogg/status/1114086264024727554

I commented on it myself, and received some illuminating responses:

Of course, Mr Rees-Mogg’s demand is a complete reversal of his position three years ago, when he said the UK had no power in the Euro bloc, and many people have taken issue with his apparent hypocrisy on this.

Worse still (for him) is the fact that he jumped too soon; France has secured support from Spain and Belgium for the UK to leave with no deal on April 12 – or for there to be only a short extension to the UK’s Article 50 period, to avoid precipitating a financial crisis.

In these circumstances, it seems unlikely that the UK will even get the extension until June 30 that Theresa May has requested.

So Mr Rees-Mogg has blown one of his own myths – that the UK is powerless in Europe – for nothing. Nice one, “Jakes”!

Case proven? Government stays away from benefit deaths tribunal

Seen to be done: The tribunal took place at the Law Courts in Cardiff (pictured), in public - which allowed friends of Vox Political to hear the case.

Seen to be done: The tribunal took place at the Law Courts in Cardiff (pictured), in public – which allowed friends of Vox Political to hear the case.

The Information Commissioner’s Office and the Department for Work and Pensions have highlighted the weakness of their own case for hiding the number of people who have died while claiming sickness and disability benefits – by failing to turn up at a tribunal on the subject.

They had the opportunity to explain why mortality statistics for people claiming Employment and Support Allowance since November 2011 have been suppressed, at a tribunal in the Law Courts, Cardiff, yesterday (April 23).

But, rather than be grilled on the reasons for their decision by a judge, a specialist in this area of law, and a ‘lay’ person (representing the opinions of right-thinking members of the public), they chose to stay away.

The tribunal had been requested by Vox Political‘s Mike Sivier, after he made a Freedom of Information request for access to the information – and it was refused on the grounds that it was “vexatious”.

The Department for Work and Pensions said he had written an article about his request on the blog, containing the line, “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers.” According to the DWP, this line constituted a co-ordinated, obsessive and protracted campaign of harassment against the department.

One line in a blog article, added as an afterthought – an obsessive campaign designed to “disrupt” the workings of the DWP. It’s ludicrous.

The DWP claimed it had received 23 requests that were similar or identical to Mike’s, in the days following his own, and inferred from this that they were from other members of this fictional campaign. Mike has only been able to track down evidence of seven such requests and, of them, only one mentions him by name. Without a tangible connection to Mike or Vox Political, the case is not made out – and one connected request does not constitute a campaign.

In fact, Mike’s own request was made after he read that a previous request had been refused – that of disability researcher and campaigner Samuel Miller. Mr Miller had published this fact in the social media and expressed that he was “furious” about it, and this inspired Mike to write his own request. Who knows how many other people did the same in response to Mr Miller? Yet he has (rightly) not been accused of starting any conspiracy.

Mr Miller’s original request has now received a reply, after the Information Commissioner’s office ruled that it had been mishandled by the DWP. This reply contained the wrong information and Mike urged Mr Miller to point this out. Clearly Mr Miller’s claim is not being treated as vexatious, even though it has inspired others to follow his example – as Mike’s article shows that he did. The contrast in treatment betrays a clear double-standard at the DWP (and the Information Commissioner’s office, after appeals were made to it in both cases).

Perhaps it is because of this fatal flaw in their logic that neither the ICO nor the DWP saw fit to send representatives to the tribunal. This left the floor free for Mike to make his own case, with nobody to speak against him or cross-examine him. Tribunal members asked questions, but these were entirely helpful in nature – allowing Mike to clarify or expand on his argument.

So the claim that the number of similar requests, received soon after the blog article appeared, indicated a campaign against the DWP was refuted with the simple observation that the subject was of topical interest at the time, because of what had happened to Mr Miller. Mike said an appropriate comparison would be with complaints to the BBC over the now-infamous radio show involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. The corporation received only a couple of complaints from people who listened to the show at the time, followed by thousands from people who heard about it later. Mike asked: “Were all those thousands of complaints vexatious in nature? Were they the result of organised campaigns against Messrs Ross and Brand? Or were they genuine expressions of horror at behaviour they considered to have gone beyond the pale? The BBC accepted the latter choice because logic mitigates in its favour.”

The claim that abusive or aggressive language exhibited by blog commenters indicated harassment that was likely to cause distress to members of the DWP was batted away with the argument that nobody from the department would have seen it if they had not gone looking for it (after reading the FOI request from a Vox Political reader who referenced the blog).

Mike said it would be “like a social landlord gatecrashing a residents’ association meeting, listening to the grievances of the tenants and then saying they are harassing him and he’s not going to service any of their requests for repairs. That is not reasonable”.

The DWP had claimed that actioning the 24 requests it insisted on connecting with Mike’s “could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions”, but Mike showed that this was not true, as an email to the ICO, dated October 21, 2013, makes clear: “We can confirm that the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit, some of the information requested.”

Nevertheless, the ICO had upheld the claim, saying on November 27, 2013: “For the DWP to respond to all of the requests, it is not simply a matter of sending an email to 24 people. There is a requirement to collate the information, consider exemptions under the Act which may apply, provide a formal response and then, if necessary refer the decision to an internal review…. The Commissioner considers that 24 requests on the same topic in a few days could represent… a disproportionate use of the FOIA.”

In his speech to the tribunal, Mike responded: “It is reminiscent of the line in the TV sitcom Blackadder The Third, when the title character, butler to the Prince Regent in Georgian times, demands a fortune in order to buy votes in a by-election for a ‘tupenny-ha’penny place’. Challenged on the amount, he responds: ‘There are many other factors to be considered: Stamp duty, window tax, swamp insurance, hen food, dog biscuits, cow ointment – the expenses are endless.’” He said the ICO’s claim “smacks of desperation”.

One aspect that worked in Mike’s favour from the start was the fact that both the DWP and the ICO have accepted that there is a serious purpose to his request – publication of figures showing how many people have died while claiming ESA. This is important because the assessment regime for this benefit has been heavily criticised as harmful to claimants and the government has claimed that it has made changes to decrease any such effect. The only way the public can judge whether this has worked, or whether more must be done to prevent unnecessary deaths, is by examining the mortality statistics, but these have been withheld. This is the matter at the heart of the request and the fact that the ICO and DWP acknowledge this is a major element in Mike’s favour.

Perhaps realising this, the ICO tried to claim that the intention was changed by the volume of requests submitted: “The purpose of the totality of the requests as a whole may have gone beyond the point of simply obtaining the information requested and may now be intended to disrupt the main functions of the DWP.”

It is not reasonable to suggest that the purpose of an action changes, just because other people carry out the same action within a similar time-frame. Mike put it this way: “Millions of people make a cup of tea in the advertising break after Coronation Street; would the Information Commissioner suggest that this was a campaign to overload the national grid?”

With nobody on hand to provide the ICO/DWP side of the case, the hearing ended at around midday, after Mike had been speaking for two hours. He was grateful to be supported by his McKenzie friend, Glynis Millward, who provided help and advice, and by a group of Vox Political readers who attended to hear the case.

Now the bad news: No decision was handed down on the day. The tribunal judge explained that the panel must now think about the issues raised and discuss their findings. He said they would aim to provide a full, written decision within 21 days.

It is interesting to note that Mr Miller has acted on Mike’s advice and has been advised that a revised response to his request should be with him soon.

If this response contains updated information under the same headings as the original ‘ad hoc’ statistical release provided by the DWP in July 2012 (and from which we derived the 73-deaths-per-week figure that shocked so many people at the time), then a decision by the tribunal to release the same information may seem redundant. In fact, it is possible that the DWP may provide the information to Mr Miller, simply to spite Mike.

But this would be yet another misunderstanding of what this case is about. Mike doesn’t care who gets the mortality statistics first; for him, it is not about who gets to say they were the one who forced the government into submission – this is about getting the information out to the public, so the people can decide whether ESA does more harm than good.

The tribunal’s decision will still be important as it will establish whether the DWP – and other government departments – will be able to manipulate the principles behind the Freedom of Information Act to avoid providing politically inconvenient information in the future.

In Mike’s opinion, a decision in the government’s favour would effectively turn the Act into a dead letter.

So – for now – the long wait continues.

But it is nearly over.

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Information Commissioner rules on the cover-up of DWP-related deaths

What we're fighting for: It seems certain that Jacqueline Harris (pictured) died because her benefits were stripped from her after a one-question medical assessment. The DWP wants to hide the number of other people who are dying in similar circumstances.

What we’re fighting for: It seems certain that Jacqueline Harris (pictured) died because her benefits were stripped from her after a one-question medical assessment. The DWP wants to hide the number of other people who are dying in similar circumstances. [Picture: Daily Mirror]

Long-term readers will know that the author of this blog has spent the last few months trying to get officials at the Department for Work and Pensions to release mortality statistics for people undergoing the assessment procedure for Employment and Support Allowance.

It is in the public interest for the nation to know how many seriously ill or disabled people are dying while they wait to undergo the controversial Atos-run medical assessment, while they await the result, and while they appeal against a result that puts them in the wrong group or claims they are fit for work.

These deaths may be due to deterioration in their health – whether or not it was caused by the process – or suicide prompted by the process or the decision.

An initial Freedom of Information request was rejected by the DWP on the grounds that it was “vexatious”. I disputed that claim, and eventually had to appeal to the Information Commissioner for a ruling after ministers proved intractable.

The first obvious implication of this behaviour is that the number of deaths has been increasing and the DWP is trying to hide that fact from us. During 2012, when the department was still publishing the figures, we saw the average number of deaths leap from 32 per week to 73 per week.

The second obvious implication is that DWP policy is causing the deaths. With regard to this, your attention is drawn to the fact that this decision has been published a matter of days after it was revealed that Jacqueline Harris, of Kingswood, Bristol, died from a suspected overdose after the DWP signed her ‘fit for work’ – on the basis of a ‘medical assessment’ that consisted of one question – “Did you get here by bus?”

The partially-sighted former nurse, who required walking sticks, had a bad back and was in constant pain due to arthritis in her neck, lost all her benefits on the basis of her one-word answer – “Yes.” Amazingly, she lost an appeal against that decision and her death followed soon after.

An inquest has been opened and adjourned, so it is not possible to state the cause of death for certain – but any suggestion that the DWP decision was not a factor must beggar credulity.

That is the context in which the Information Commissioner’s ruling arrived.

You’re really not going to like it.

“The Commissioner’s decision is that the DWP has correctly applied the vexatious provision.”

It seems it is therefore impossible to use the Freedom of Information Act to extract this information from the Department for Work and Pensions. Ministers will never provide it willingly, so it seems we are at a dead end.

Apparently, “The DWP explained to the Commissioner that on 25 June 2013 they received 11 identical FOI requests and in the following days another 13 identical requests. They claim that this was the direct response to an online blog written by the complainant [that’s me] on 25 June 2013.

It seems that I am at fault for encouraging this as, after detailing my FOI request, I did write, “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers.” After a commenter asked if they could copy and past the request, I responded, “Sure, just make sure they know you’re making it in your own name”. And the following day, another commenter wrote, “If we swamp the DWP with requests they surely must respond”. Then on June 29, in another article, I added, “If you believe this cause is just, go thou and do likewise.”

The Information Commissioner’s decision notice states: “In this case, there were 24 identical requests which were sent to the DWP in a short space of time and the Commissioner has seen three identical complaints from the individuals that the DWP believes are acting in concert.

“Given that this issue was raised in a previous request at the end of 2012, it is apparent that the wording of the complainant’s online blog on 25 June 2013 prompted the numerous requests on this issue at the end of June 2013.

“Taking this into account the Commissioner has determined that there is sufficient evidence to link the requesters together and to accept they are acting in concert.”

It seems that there isn’t strength in numbers after all – or rather that the way that the large (by the DWP’s standards) number of us expressed ourselves was detrimental to our efforts. I take responsibility for that. I should have said that if you really believed in the issue, you needed to do something that was clearly separate from my own efforts. With hindsight this seems obvious, but only because we have all learned about the process as we went along. Would anybody have known better?

Regarding the impact of dealing with the requests, “The Commissioner accepts that when considered in the wider context, 24 requests on one topic in a few days could impose a burden in terms of time and resources, distracting the DWP from its main functions.

“The Commissioner accepts that the purpose of the requests may have gone beyond the point of simply obtaining the information requested and may now be intended to disrupt the main functions of the DWP.”

Surely, one of its main functions is the continued well-being of those claiming benefits. If people like Jacqueline Harris are dying because of DWP policy, it could be argued that the requests were reminders of its main function – not a distraction.

I have maintained throughout this process that there was no intention on my part to disrupt DWP functions. The only intention has been to see the mortality figures published. It seems neither the DWP nor the Information Commissioner are willing to allow that.

You have to wonder why, don’t you?

There are gaps in the argument which might provide future possibilities.

According to the decision notice, “The DWP argue that ‘the nature of the actual request is not the issue here. It is merely how these requests were instigated and orchestrated which led to them being treated as vexatious.”

In that case, why did the DWP not honour Samuel Miller’s original request for the information, which was turned down in June? If the nature of his request “is not the issue here”, then it should have been honoured and my own FOI request would never have been made. By its own intransigence, the DWP has wasted not only its own time but mine and that of 24 other people.

How many other requests were made, on the same subject, that the DWP could not associate with this blog?

Also, I was surprised to read the Information Commissioner’s statement: “However, the most significant factor is that the complainant runs an online blog in which the main focus is the DWP and their ‘cover-up’ on the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died in 2012.”

If that was the most significant factor in this ruling, then the decision is invalid. This blog was not set up to focus on the DWP’s admittedly despicable behaviour towards its clients; its focus is on British politics in general. Look at the articles published in the last week, covering topics ranging from immigration to the minimum wage, to the economy, and – yes – concerns about the DWP. If DWP ministers think the entire blog was set up to harass them, they’re getting ideas above their station.

It could also be argued that the quoted belief of the DWP, that “it is reasonable to view the requests as part of an obsessive campaign of harassment against it and its officers” is insupportable. If 24 people made FOI requests, but only three complained about the response, this is hardly obsessive. Were any of these people writing in on a regular basis, or were they corresponding only after they themselves had been contacted? I think we all know the answer to that.

Also, the Commissioner’s comment that “the disparaging remarks and language used in the blog cannot be overlooked and does demonstrate a level of harassment against the DWP” is insupportable. The language of the articles has been moderate, when one considers the subject matter. Regarding remarks made by other commenters, the DWP and the Information Commissioner should bear in mind that the comment column is a forum where people may express their opinions. If the DWP doesn’t like those opinions, it should modify its corporate behaviour.

It seems I have a further right of appeal, to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights). I will consider this; observations from interested parties are encouraged.

DWP obstruction over Atos deaths – a plea for sanity

Fear of fallout: Is Iain Duncan Smith desperately trying to keep a lid on the number of people who have died while going through his murderous ESA assessment regime, because he knows the resulting public outrage would finish him - and may even topple the government?

Fear of fallout: Is Iain Duncan Smith desperately trying to keep a lid on the number of people who have died while going through his murderous ESA assessment regime, because he knows the resulting public outrage would finish him – and may even topple the government?

Emailed to the Department for Work and Pensions today:

Thank you for your response to my Freedom of Information request. I am writing to request an internal review, on the grounds that your refusal of my request, on the grounds that it is “vexatious”, is unreasonable. I believe the decision may also be politically motivated.

Your letter states that your refusal is entirely based on a single line – not in my FOI request itself, but on my political blog website – at the end of an entry in which I gave details of the request, the reasons it is necessary, and the information required. That line was “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers”.

Your letter states: “With this as the stated aim of the exercise I believe your 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.” Although you do not make clear what “this” is, the statement must be considered irrelevant. The stated aim of the exercise is the release of statistical information about people who have died, during 2012, while going through a DWP policy process, namely the Atos-led work capability assessment system for Employment and Support Allowance, while appealing against it, or after having had the benefit refused. This fact is made abundantly clear in the main body of the article and it is unreasonable to suggest that an afterthought on the last line changes the entire tone of the piece.

Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office, ‘Dealing with vexatious requests’ supports my position. It may be found at http://www.ico.org.uk/~/media/documents/library/Freedom_of_Information/Detailed_specialist_guides/dealing-with-vexatious-requests.ashx

Paragraph 86 states that, “if a public authority has reason to believe that several different requesters are acting in concert as part of a campaign to disrupt the organisation by virtue of the sheer weight of FOIA requests being submitted, then it may take this into account when determining whether any of those requests are vexatious”. It is unlikely that the ICO will consider an afterthought comment at the end of a blog post to be, in any way, “acting in concert as part of a campaign to disrupt”. A concerted campaign would, in my opinion, require me to be contacting other individuals and telling them what to do and when to do it, in order to cause the kind of disruption the guidance describes.

Skipping ahead to Paragraph 92, this 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. Public authorities should therefore ensure that they have ruled this explanation out before arriving at the conclusion that the requesters are acting in concert or as part of a campaign”. You have no proof that I have launched a campaign against the DWP. Even if others making the same request have mentioned my name or the blog article, this does not constitute a campaign – it indicates that the issue is of interest to the public. They would not be asking if they did not want the information. It is the information that is important – not any unjustified claim by the DWP that it is being harassed.

Since you have made that claim, let’s look at Paragraph 87, which supplies examples of evidence an authority might cite in support of its case that a request is vexatious. The example that “requests are identical or similar” can be ruled out because this is likely in a case that has come to public attention at a particular time. Also to be ruled out is the example stating there is “an unusual pattern of requests, for example a large number submitted within a relatively short time” – this is to be expected when a matter of public interest comes to public attention.

The question of whether you have received email correspondence in which other requesters have been copied in or mentioned is relevant, though. Have you received such correspondence? I have not, and as the suggested instigator of your imagined campaign, I think I would need to be a part of such communication!

The question of whether a group’s website makes an explicit reference to a campaign is also relevant. My website is my own, and does not belong to a group but, for the sake of fairness, let’s ignore that in your favour. Does my comment, as quoted by you, make an explicit reference to a campaign of harassment against the authority? Of course it does not. I’m sure the Information Commissioner would laugh at such an inference.

Paragraph 89 states that “If the available evidence suggests that the requests are genuinely directed at gathering information about an underlying issue (in this case, the number of deaths occurring in relation to a DWP policy process), then the authority will only be able to apply section 14(1) where it can show that the aggregated impact of dealing with the requests would cause a disproportionate and unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress. You cannot prove this.

The DWP habitually collects the information I requested, and has already turned the data from 2011 into an ‘ad hoc’ press release without claiming that it caused a disproportionate or unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress.

At a meeting of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee on July 10, David Frazer, your Director of Information, Governance and Security Directorate, 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 that the information it contained is gathered as a matter of course. It should, therefore, be easy to gather it together and release it into the public domain.

Mr Frazer said: “We put out regular publications that say [for example]‘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 claim 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.

In your refusal letter, you argued that “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.”

However, we know from the evidence of Mr Frazer that this is not the case. He said, on the record, that the DWP makes its responses to FOI requests publicly available on its website: “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.

And consider this: If the purpose of s.14 is to protect the resources of a public authority from being squandered on disproportionate use of FOIA, the fact that multiple requests are being made, by different people, means that this use of your resources is NOT disproportionate but would, in fact, rectify an omission in the Department’s statistical coverage. This is information that should be in the public domain and it is remiss of the DWP to withhold it. Some might say it constitutes dereliction of duty.

So you see, the aggregated impact of dealing with the requests, according to the DWP’s own Director of Information, would not cause a disproportionate and unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress. It may be handled as a matter of course and, in any case, the information should be publicised as it is a matter of public interest.

You may wish to claim that public interest arguments are irrelevant as ICO guidance states there is no public interest test when considering whether a request is vexatious. This would be a misreading of the rules. Public interest is relevant when considering the context of the request, and the guidance states that a public authority may take this aspect into account. The subject of my request is clearly a matter of substantial public interest, acknowledged as such by the DWP, otherwise the ‘ad hoc’ statistical release of 2012 would not have been published.

I draw your attention also to paragraph 27 of the guidance. The information about an “accusatory tone” is irrelevant as my tone, although formal, may not be considered aggressive in any way. But the paragraph goes on to state that if the “request has a serious purpose and raises a matter of substantial public interest, then it will be more difficult to argue a case that the request is vexatious“. As you know, my request was for very specific information that has been withheld from the public (in my opinion) unreasonably, and it is in the public interest to have that information published.

Finally, taking all of the above into account, it seems likely that there is a political motivation behind the refusal of my request. Paragraph 13 of the ICO’s guidance states explicitly that “Section 14(1) is concerned with the nature of the request rather than the consequences of releasing the requested information,” but in his evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee on June 10 – in relation to this very request – Mr Frazer revealed that it is likely my request was refused by a Minister, for political reasons. He said: “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.”

With regard to this alone, it is clear that the DWP is abusing the ‘vexatious’ exemption. It is not intended to shield the government from politically challenging fallout.

So you see, there are no possible grounds for refusing my request. Please carry out an internal review – with alacrity. There should be no difficulty with this as John Shield, your director of communications, has already promised the Commons Work and Pensions committee that he would check this request, to make sure the response is “copper-bottomed, 100 per cent accurate”. He will find that it is not.

Afterwards, you must immediately release the information I requested. My FOI request was made after I learned that a previous request, made in November last year, had been refused. The DWP delayed responding for more than seven months before notifying the requester that it had no intention of releasing the details he had requested. It is now eight months since that original request was made. According to the ‘ad hoc’ statistical release last year, this means an average of 2,482 people are likely to have died while going through the process in the intervening time – but those figures are out of date. How many deaths have really taken place?

If you persist with your negative decision, I will have to complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office for a ruling.

Will the DWP do ANYTHING to avoid revealing the true extent of the Atos deaths?

Getting a little worried, George? According to a commenter on this blog, IDS is "not listening to anyone and will be carrying on until the bitter end". So much for democracy, then.

Getting a little worried, George? According to a commenter on this blog, IDS is “not listening to anyone and will be carrying on until the bitter end”. So much for democracy, then.

The Department for Work and Pensions has turned down my Freedom of Information request on the number of people who have died while going through the Atos benefit assessment process, or shortly afterwards – claiming that I am harassing officials with a co-ordinated, web-based campaign to disrupt the organisation.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “They’re having a laugh, aren’t they?”

Alas, no.

My request was for the department to provide the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died in 2012. Please break that figure down into the following categories:

  • Those who are 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
  • Those who have an appeal pending

I stated that I was aware that the DWP came under criticism last year because it did not follow up on the conditions of people who had been found fit for work and signed off the benefit, and said I hoped this had been rectified and follow-up checks carried out, so details of

  • Former ESA/IB claimants who have died after being put onto Jobseekers’ Allowance, and
  • Former ISA/IB claimants who were taken off benefit but put onto no other means of support, and the number of these who have died

could be provided.

Here’s the response. Read it and weep:

“Upon considering your request I consider it to be vexatious in nature and therefore under section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act the Department is under no duty to answer your request.

“To be a vexatious request the Information Commissioner’s guidance notes that we should consider, amongst other things:

  • whether compliance would create a significant burden in terms of expense and distraction
  • whether the request has the effect of harassing DWP or causing distress to staff.

“On your website where you share information about the request you have raised with other people, you have stated “I have therefore, today, sent a Freedom of Information request to the DWP … I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers”. With this as the stated aim of the exercise I believe your 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.

“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.

“The ICO also advises that if a public authority has reason to believe that several different requesters are acting in concert as part of a campaign to disrupt the organisation by virtue of the sheer weight of FOIA requests being submitted, then it may take this into account when determining whether any of those requests are vexatious.

“As your request is part of a website based campaign I consider that it meets the above criteria and therefore is vexatious in nature.”

Readers may remember I sent my request after a previous attempt by Samuel Miller had failed. His request did not succeed because he was a single individual the officials thought they could push around – now mine has failed because they say I’m acting mob-handed and they think I’m trying to push them around!

In other words, they’re trying to have it both ways.

If I recall correctly, they refused Mr Miller’s request on the spurious argument that the previous FOI request – for which he was requesting an update – was a one-off. This was clearly nonsense.

We all know that it is in the public interest to know how many people are dying as a result of government policy. The DWP certainly knows it because of the reaction the information received when it last became public knowledge – press coverage and public outrage. Therefore there is no justification for any argument that it has not monitored these figures. Any claim that it has not had reason to monitor deaths after people were thrown off the benefit may also be rejected because of the strong public reaction against the Department for failing to provide this information last year.

Now they are rejecting my request on the specious argument that I am harassing them by the strength of my numbers… My number being exactly one. I have not organised anybody else into doing anything; I merely suggested that if the DWP refuses to answer a lone voice, it may pay more attention if others make the same request.

I find it extremely interesting to note that DWP officials are monitoring my blog. I made no mention of it in my email to them. Some might find that sinister.

I take issue with the claim that “harassment” of the DWP is “the stated aim of the exercise”. The stated aim was for the DWP to release its figures on the number of people who have died, either while going through the assessment process for IB or ESA, or afterwards – as stated in the FOI request. The suggestion that others might wish to do likewise was clearly an afterthought.

I dispute the claim that compliance with multiple repetitions of a known request causes a burden in terms of costs and staff time. In the Internet age, only one response to a request needs to be written; it can then be sent to multiple recipients at no cost in money or time, as readers of my blog are aware after receiving identical messages in response to correspondence they have sent on other matters. In any case, this is beside the point as the comment about compliance with multiple requests is irrelevant. I had no reason to expect that anyone would follow my lead when I put in my own request – it was a single request for information and any suggestion that it was part of an orchestrated campaign of harassment is paranoid hysteria.

Furthermore, it distracts from the fact that there was no reason to refuse the original request by Mr Miller. If the DWP had simply answered his questions, there would have been no reason for my request or any of the many others the department seems to be claiming it has received (for which I have no proof other than the vague implication that this is the case).

Bear in mind that this is the same government department that accused a disabled woman of harassment, alarm or distress under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, against everybody working for it – and sent the police around to her Cardiff flat, just before midnight on a Friday night last year, to put the frighteners on her. They are well-acquainted with the practice of turning the facts upside down. Just who was being harassed, again?

This leaves us with the impression that the Department for Work and Pensions will do anything to withhold the figures on the number of deaths caused by its policies.

It seems unlikely that a government department would go to such lengths unless those figures reveal a serious problem with the policy; therefore we may reasonably suspect that the number of deaths has increased, perhaps dramatically.

In turn, considering that we know ministers, the Secretary of State (Vox‘s Monster of the Year 2012 – Iain Duncan Smith), and the Prime Minister have all been warned that the assessment system they have brought in (admittedly inherited from Labour but altered under the Coalition) – and all have refused to instigate changes to make it more humane – it seems possible that a legal case for corporate manslaughter of the many thousands who have died could be made – IF the current figures were made available.

This means that its own actions have put the DWP, its officials and ministers, precisely where I want them.

We all knew they were unlikely to give up the information without a struggle, and the shape of our campaign would be dictated – to a certain extent – by their response to our reasonable requests. Now we have that response, we may proceed.

… But we’ll leave our departmental interlopers guessing about exactly what we’ll be doing, I think!