To cut a long story short: It looks as though the DWP has blown it, big-time.
Dedicated VP readers who read the article earlier this week will know that the Department for Work and Pensions had until yesterday (October 16) to provide a full response to my Freedom of Information request on the deaths of incapacity benefits claimants.
I received a response by email at around 7.15pm on Thursday – and it’s another attempt at evasion…
… a very poor attempt.
Let’s remind ourselves of the request. On May 28, 2014, I asked:
“Please provide the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died since November 2011. 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 had an appeal completed against a Fit for Work (FFW) decision.”
On April 30 this year (2015), after I appealed against the DWP’s refusal, the Information Commissioner ordered the department to disclose all the information I had requested.
Here’s the start of the DWP’s response of October 15:
“In its Grounds of Appeal, the Department noted that it did not in fact hold information to the 28 May 2014 at the time of the request… Accordingly, the Department did not hold all the necessary data to respond to your request in full as at 28 May 2014.
“At the time of your request, the Department only held processed data, which could be analysed within the FOI cost limit, in relation to all five parts of your (amended) request up to 31 December 2013… Accordingly, the Department maintains that it has provided all the information which could have been provided to you, within the FOI cost limit, at the time of your request had it not intended to publish the information in the future.
“We can confirm, however, that the Department would now be able to provide the information you requested for the period 1 March 2014 to 28 May 2014 within the FOI cost limit on receipt of a new request under the Freedom of Information Act.”
What a shame, then that this excuse doesn’t carry any weight at all or make the slightest bit of difference to the DWP’s obligations. In fact, this seems to be an admission of even worse skulduggery than we had discovered previously.
Firstly, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 states that, when a request has been made in accordance with the Act, the requester is entitled to be informed in writing by the public authority whether it holds the information, and to have that information communicated to him or her. Paragraph 4 states that the information “is the information in question held at the time when the request is received, except that account may be taken of any amendment or deletion made between that time and the time when the information is to be communicated … being an amendment or deletion that would have been made regardless of the receipt of the request.”
In the letter, the DWP states it now has the information, so it is data that the DWP would have collected regardless of my request, so it is data that the DWP must communicate to me immediately, in accordance with the law, as it has not yet communicated the information I requested back in May 2014. Publishing part of the information does not mean the request has been honoured.
But wait – there’s more.
In the original refusal notice of August 12, 2014, the DWP stated: “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 under the terms of Section 22 (Information intended for future publication) of the FOIA.”
The only part of my request that the DWP specifically stated would not be answered was the line that originally referred to “those who have an appeal pending”; the Department claimed compliance would cost more than the £600 cost limit. But the letter admitted that, under section 16 of the Act, the Department had a duty “to provide advice and assistance, so far as it would be reasonable to expect the authority to do so, to persons who propose to make, or have made, requests for information to it”. Therefore the letter suggested I change that part of my request to one referring to “those who had an appeal completed” under a ‘fit for work’ decision. Ever willing to be reasonable, I agreed to the change.
The letter does not state that any of the information was not held by the DWP. If it had, then the Department would have been duty-bound to provide advice to me – at the time – to help me get the facts I wanted. So, not only was I misinformed about the availability of the information, but I was also deprived of the opportunity to revise my request – perhaps to have the missing information when it became available.
Either this was negligence on the part of the DWP, or it was a conscious and malicious decision to hide that important information from me. Either way, it seems the DWP is guilty of maladministration because its action was incorrect and has led to an injustice.
It is also a form of false argument known as ‘moving the goal posts’. Failing to address the points I make in my demand for the information, the DWP has instead raised a further point which had not been an issue previously. I call “foul”.
Considered in this way, the assertion that I should submit a new FoI request is risible. It is not up to me to submit a new request; it is the DWP’s responsibility to correct the omissions it made in its handling of the original – and to explain why my request was handled so poorly.
I shall be consulting with the Information Commissioner’s lawyers regarding the implication of maladministration.
And that’s not all!
It seems whoever wrote Thursday’s letter failed to realise that the DWP is not responding to my original FoI request any more. It is responding to the Information Commissioners decision of April 30, ordering the Department to release all the information relevant to my request. The Department was allowed to delay the release while it had an appeal pending – but it dropped the appeal after releasing the limited and unhelpful figures that were published on August 27. The Information Commissioner’s legal team had contacted the DWP after I pointed out that my request, and the Commissioner’s decision notice, had still not been honoured in full.
So it doesn’t matter what information the DWP had on May 28, 2015. Taken from any angle you like, the DWP has a duty to provide all the information it currently holds, relating to my request. That’s the law.
Those of you who read the previous articles on this subject will know that the Information Commissioner’s lawyers were seeking further information from the DWP, to aid an investigation into whether the Department had contumeliously (I now love that word; it means scornfully and insultingly; insolently) disregarded the Commissioner’s decision.
Considering the content of the DWP’s letter, it seems very clear the answer to that question is: Yes.
This lays the DWP, its officers and ministers, open to legal action for contempt of court. Oh, and I still want my information.
Watch this space.
Afterword: This article takes us only partway down page three of a six-page DWP letter. Expect further points to be addressed in future articles.
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