A man with incurable neurological conditions including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tourette’s Syndrome was told his benefits had been cancelled as the coronavirus crisis hit the UK.
Simon Noonan, of Renfrew, Scotland, was deemed ineligible for Personal Independence Payment in February, after receiving the benefit for a year.
But he only discovered his benefit had been cancelled at the beginning of April. Clearly nobody responsible had the courage to tell him – they just cut him off without a word.
Now he has been told he may contest the decision by the Department for Work and Pensions – while also dealing with the stress of trying to cope without the benefit during the coronavirus lockdown.
The loss of the vital income is affecting both his mental health and that of his partner, Sarah Brodie, who has lost Carer’s Allowance as a result of the decision.
Mr Noonan had to spend seven months trying to claim PIP before the DWP accepted that he was eligible, and he had been receiving it on a monthly basis when he was told he would have to undergo a reassessment at the beginning of the year.
This is highly unusual as PIP reassessments are not usually made so soon after a claimant starts to receive the benefit. People with conditions that are unlikely to improve receive awards for between five and 10 years.
Ms Brodie said the appointment lasted only five minutes and did not go into enough depth to assess his condition properly.
But he must now request a mandatory reconsideration, with a view to possibly taking his appeal to a tribunal.
And in the meantime the couple are in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown, with no money and no means of getting any.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
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.
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.
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