This Writer received an email today from the Information Commissioner’s solicitor, regarding my request that the Department for Work and Pensions should be charged with contempt of court for failing to answer my request adequately, after being ordered to do so by the Commissioner.
The sticking-point was the part of my request that states: “Please provide the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died since November 2011.” You know – the very first bit.
My position was that the DWP’s responses, provided from August 27 onwards, related only to those individuals who had died within an extremely limited period of time after the decision was made and their claim was ended – which was not what I had requested.
The request clearly relates to everybody who has claimed the benefits at any time since November 2011. It was phrased in that way, in order to ensure that people like Michael O’Sullivan, Julia Kelly and Stephen Carré – all of whom had been in receipt of benefits, but these claims had been terminated by the DWP a significant time before they took their own lives. Coroners have blamed the DWP for all three deaths.
So there is a strong precedent for believing that other people may also have died, several weeks or months after being deprived of their benefit. The request took this into account and demanded full disclosure of the figures.
“The DWP’s view is that it has provided information in relation to any individuals who were in receipt of IB or ESA at the time of their death and that anyone not in receipt of either benefit when they died cannot be considered an IB/ESA ‘claimant’. As such, those individuals would not fall within the scope of your request,” is what I read today.
“Information requests are treated and dealt with on the plain meaning of the words used in the request rather than a requester’s underlying intention. I consider that the DWP’s interpretation of your request is an objectively reasonable interpretation of the wording of your request, albeit that it may not be the only interpretation.
“Whilst I anticipate that you may disagree with the DWP’s interpretation of your request, on the facts before me, I am of the view that the Commissioner will be unable to issue a certificate in this case. Accordingly, the Commissioner will not be taking any enforcement action under section 54 of the Act.
“It does, of course, remain open to you to make a new request to the DWP for any further information you may seek.”
Here’s my response, for the record:
“Of course, as people who die after their claims are closed with a ‘fit for work’ decision had been IB/ESA claimants, and were only not such claimants because they have been thrown off the benefit against their will, any death after they have lost the benefit may be deemed to be as a result of the DWP wrongly having removed it – as has happened in several high-profile cases publicised in the national press in recent months (partly as a result of my Freedom of Information request).
“You will – or should – be aware that the deaths of Michael O’Sullivan, Julia Kelly and Stephen Carré have all been attributed by coroners to the DWP’s closure of their benefit claim, even though the deaths occurred weeks and months later. My understanding is that the coroners’ findings have legal weight. Therefore the DWP’s position, as related in your email, is wrong; their status at the time of their deaths was not relevant – it was enough that they had been benefit claimants.
“Allowing the DWP to avoid scrutiny over the many other possible deaths which may have taken place in the same, or similar, circumstances is certainly a betrayal of the memories of those for whose deaths the Department has already been found guilty – especially as it hangs on your, and their, choice to misinterpret my words in an arbitrary way that benefits the Department rather than those it is still nominally supposed to serve.
“How many other people have died after having had their benefits cut off, in similar circumstances to Michael O’Sullivan, Julia Kelly and Stephen Carré? If you choose to close this matter, based on a misinterpretation of my request, the answer may never be known and the Department will, of course, escape justice.
“Are you happy to have those deaths on your conscience?
“Is the Commissioner?
“Bear in mind that other efforts will be made to find out how many people have died in this way. Once those numbers are known, any complicity in hiding them – by you and the Commissioner, must also be examined.”
The suggestion that I should make another FOI request is – as those of you who are familiar with this affair will know – unpalatable.
However, one possibility may be that I ask for all available figures relating to people who have died at any time after their benefits were terminated by the DWP, within a period spanning, say, January 2011 to the present day. In the same request I could add that, if that proves impossible on cost grounds, then I would like the relevant numbers for a single specified month within that time period.
I suspect that the DWP would refuse my request on the grounds that it doesn’t hold the information, but that presents another opportunity for criticism, as I am told the Department carries out follow-up interviews on claimants who have been sanctioned, in order to ascertain how they have survived during the period of their sanction. This clearly suggests an expectation that people would not be able to manage. In that case, if the DWP didn’t follow up the cases of anyone thrown off-benefit, doesn’t that indicate an intent that those people should die?
These are just initial thoughts; your observations are invited.
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