Why so tight-lipped, Downing Street? Is it because we might find out the identities of the people whose faces have been blanked out – or who have been cropped out – of images like this?
A request for information on visitors to 10 Downing Street on the dates of the Covid-19 rule-breaking parties has been refused by officials there.
Downing Street staff – all of whom are likely to have been on those logs – said the request from Lib Dem Chief Whip Wendy Chamberlain was “vexatious”.
No10 said it would be “burdensome” to provide the information – and accused Ms Chamberlain of using a “scattergun approach designed for the purpose of “fishing” for information.”
They added: “While we acknowledge that there may be a wider public interest and objective value in some of this information, disclosure would be of limited value given that there are already independent investigations taking place considering these matters.”
This Writer has some experience of the word “vexatious” being used as a way to hide from reasonable scrutiny.
In this particular instance it would mean that the request was made without any purpose other than to cause annoyance to Downing Street staff.
But those very staff admit this is nonsense in their response: “We acknowledge that there may be a wider public interest and objective value in some of this information”.
The excuse that “there are already independent investigations taking place considering these matters” would only be valid if that information has been passed to those investigations and they are passing it to the public.
If not, then there is no excuse for refusing to pass it to the public and we will have to form our own conclusions about the reasons Downing Street staff won’t pass on this information about illegal parties in their place of work, in which they personally may have participated.
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.
Brace yourself for a wave of false accusations against supporters of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party – most probably of anti-Semitism.
That is the message we are to take from the so-called Red Roar‘s fake outrage at the proposed penalties for vexatious or malicious claims.
It occurs to me that this might be the reason for the cloning of Corbyn-supporting Labour members’ Twitter handles, as explained by Evolve Politicshere.
If you are a Labour member, please take note of the advice in the last paragraph by Skwawkbox, below, and act on it.
The ‘Red Roar’, more commonly referred to among Labour members as the ‘Blue Squeak’ has been attempting to whip up outrage about the idea that a penalty for vexatious or malicious claims might be included in Labour’s disciplinary code when Labour’s NEC (National Executive Committee) meets to discuss the party’s Code of Conduct either next month or in October.
That’s right – Labour’s morally-bankrupt right, for which the Squeak is an unprincipled mouthpiece – thinks it’s a bad idea that people should be penalised for making false claims designed either to bog the party down in nonsense or to smear someone with an undeserved and lifelong taint.
The proposal… would address false complaints of any type – and is entirely in line with usual legal principles.
If someone makes a deliberate false accusation of a criminal act, they can be charged and suffer legal penalties. If someone makes a false, damaging statement about someone in the media, they can be penalised for defamation.
So the Squeak getting its knickers in a twist reveals more than they might wish – because only people who want to make false and malicious accusations are likely to worry that there might be a penalty for doing so.
It’s a dead give-away of the plans of the Labour right – of course only false accusations by Labour members would be subject to any penalty in Labour’s rules.
So what can Labour members of good will do? Find the details of your member or union representatives on the NEC and demand that they ensure that a motion for the inclusion of a penalty for vexatious, malicious or abusive complaints is on the agenda for the next NEC meeting – and that they both support it and lobby their colleagues to do the same.
The People’s Assembly Against Austerity will be holding a mass demonstration against the government’s austerity measures on Wednesday (July 8) – which is when George Osborne is set to deliver his benefits-bashing ’emergency’ budget.
They have invited Maggie Zolobajluk, who organised the petition in support of my bid to find out how many people have died while claiming sickness/disability benefits, to speak – but not me.
Maggie kindly asked me if I would be able to make it to London and speak instead of her – and I’d love to – but I don’t think it’s possible. The distance is too great, and I can’t justify being away from Mrs Mike – and also the blog, on a day that will affect the way the UK develops for the foreseeable future.
I started drafting out a few words for her to deliver on my behalf – but they turned into a full-blown speech instead. I ended up writing far too much – so, rather than ask her to say it, I’m publishing it here instead.
A previous demonstration, staged by the People’s Assembly Against Austerity in 2014.
I am neither sick, nor disabled – but I choose to side with the sick and disabled against oppression.
It isn’t an entirely altruistic choice. Mrs Mike – as she is known on my blog, Vox Political – has been ill for many years, and we have fought battle after battle with the Department for Work and Pensions over the benefits to which she is entitled.
You’re probably sick of hearing the famous verse by Pastor Martin Niemoller, but he was right. Who’s going to stand up for me, if I don’t stand up for other people first?
Mrs Mike and I are used to winning those battles, and I wonder how much of that success is due to the fact that I am able-bodied. Think about it – if you are battling constant pain, or are a victim of depression, or your condition fluctuates so you simply don’t know if you’ll be able to get out of bed in the morning, or you have any number of the other maladies that may affect the sick or disabled – then the last thing you’ll want to do is argue over tiny details with a gang of suited pedants in Whitehall.
Additionally, these pedants have employed private contractors to make sure they judge the severity of a person’s sickness using information that is wrong.
If you’re sick, or disabled, the pressure can be too much to bear. And not every sick or disabled person has an able-bodied partner like me to take up the slack.
So, inevitably, the worst happens.
Only last weekend I learned about Graham Shawcross, of Manchester. Mr Shawcross had lived – and worked – with Addison’s Disease for 40 years before having to claim sickness benefit. It is a potentially fatal condition whose symptoms include exhaustion, muscle weakness, dizziness, fainting and cramps that can lead to adrenal crisis, which can be fatal. But that isn’t what killed him!
No – Mr Shawcross died of a heart attack in February, after being ruled “fit for work” by the DWP in November last year. He had been preparing to present an appeal against the decision – writing out the details several times a day, and talking about it constantly.
His widow said the stress of having to do this – stress that was created by, and only by, the DWP’s “fit for work” decision – was what killed him.
You should be aware that the DWP says it is “irresponsible to suggest a causal link between the death of an individual and their benefit claim”, and “mortality rates among people with serious health conditions are likely to be higher than those among the general population”. We’ve seen that comment in the newspapers very often over the last few weeks.
It’s a statement that falls flat when the DWP’s own position is that the individual was “fit for work” at the time of his death.
Months after Mr Shawcross passed away – and despite being told this had happened by his widow – the DWP initially invited him to an appeal hearing, and then admitted he was seriously ill and deserved Employment and Support Allowance.
It’s a bit late for that now!
How many other benefit denials have been reversed after the claimant has died?
We don’t know – but it’s the subject of my next Freedom of Information request!
The man responsible for this regime, Iain Duncan Smith, is said to be religious so he should understand me when I say people claiming benefit must feel as though they have been crucified by their physical or mental ill-health. Instead of offering relief, Mr Duncan Smith and his department complete the job with a ‘crown of forms’ that push them into an early grave.
One has to question the morality of a supposed Christian who approves of crucifixion!
But then, it seems even leading members of the Catholic Church to which he belongs have tried pleading with him to alter the fatal direction of his policies – there was an article to that effect in the most recent edition of Catholic newspaper The Tablet.
But government ministers say it is “irresponsible” to claim that the benefit assessment system had anything to do with the death.
I wonder if they’ll say that to Mrs Shawcross, who is adamant that the system is what killed her husband. That would be a conversation worth hearing!
I first became concerned about the number of people who were dying while claiming benefits when the DWP itself revealed that 10,600 deaths had occurred between January and November 2011. Note that the official figures did not include December, which is considered to be a season of increased suicides.
This concern became alarm after I learned that Freedom of Information requests by other individuals, calling for updated figures, had been refused for no reason other than that the 2011 statistics had been part of an ‘ad-hoc’, one-off, release.
So I sent off a request, and asked readers of the blog to support it with requests of their own – to show that it was a matter of wider public concern. Only 23 did, but that was enough for the DWP to refuse me on the grounds that I was being “vexatious” – trying to flood the Department with work.
I’m still not sure how that claim can be justified. It’s the same information – all they had to do was put it together and send it off to the people who wanted it. It seems that creating a mailing list of email addresses is too much for a government department with more than 100,000 employees.
The tribunal that turned down my appeal did express considerable sympathy for my position, and suggested that another FoI request should result in publication of the statistics. So I wrote another one.
I won’t go into the details – it’s enough for you to know that, after several months of fighting with the DWP, I won.
The DWP then chose to take the matter to a tribunal, employing an expensive Treasury barrister to make out the case. It seems that, while Freedom of Information requests cannot cost more than £600 – that’s the legal limit – the government can spend as much of your money as it likes, if it wants to withhold the facts.
That’s when Maggie Zolobajluk started her petition, calling on the tribunal to refuse the appeal.
Now, instead of 23 supporters, my request has 230,000.
So David Cameron told Parliament that the figures will be published. What he didn’t tell Parliament was that they would be homogenised, amortised, Age-Standardised Mortality Rates, that show the deaths as a ratio compared with the death rate amongst the wider population – and he certainly won’t tell anyone how many people have died while claiming sickness and disability benefits since November 2011.
And now the Justice Secretary is trying to make it harder for Freedom of Information requests to succeed. It seems the embarrassment they cause is just too much for the administration that once said it intended to be the most open government ever.
Michael Gove wants to include “thinking time” in the cost of handling FoI requests.
What does that even mean?
Parliament’s Justice Select Committee has already stated that including “thinking time” in FoI costs would introduce an unwelcome variable into the system, which relies on everyone having equal access to the facts. The cost of “thinking time” would depend on the abilities of the civil servant dealing with the request.
Not only that, but we should ask what “thinking” has to do with it in any case. When a request is made under the Freedom of Information Act, the only questions a public authority may ask are whether it has the information and can publish it within the £600 cost limit. Questions about – for example – the motives behind the request are immaterial.
What are we to conclude?
That we have a government that intentionally complicates benefit claims for the sick and disabled.
That people who might live decent and, in many ways, productive lives are having those lives cut short because of goverment policy.
That the government does not want the wider population of the UK to know the true number of deaths.
That the government wants to shut down the Freedom of Information system so inconvenient questions like this can no longer be asked.
In short, that the government wants to smother any attempt to question it.
Too many sick and disabled people have been smothered already.
Tarnished record: Mark Harper previously came to our attention when it was discovered that he dodged a £20,000 fine for employing an illegal migrant worker. Vox Political covered the story on August 7 this year. [Image: Political Scrapbook.]
The new Conservative minister for disabled people has insisted that his department is right to ignore reports of deaths linked to the loss or non-payment of disability benefits, according to the latest article from kittysjones.
It seems that, in an interview with the Disability News Service at last week’s Conservative conference, he said he did not accept that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should be collecting this information or trying to learn lessons from such deaths.
“But Harper said he did not ‘accept the premise’ that DWP should collect and analyse reports that suggest a disabled person’s death could have been linked to the non-payment or withdrawal of benefits.
“He said: ‘If somebody in those sort of cases, if someone has [a] mental health [condition] and then something happens, trying to disaggregate what was the cause I don’t think is as simple as you are trying to suggest.’
“When asked whether he accepted that any deaths had been caused, or even partly caused, by the loss or non-payment of benefits, he said: ‘Of the cases I have seen since I have been the minister where there have been allegations, when you look at the detail they are not as simple and straightforward as people are alleging.’
“But Harper did promise to ‘go back and look back at what processes we have in place to track cases’ and to look at the Freedom of Information Act response from DWP that led to the DNS story.
“Many of the cases became widely-known through media reports of inquests, but in the case of Ms DE, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland concluded that the work capability assessment process and the subsequent denial of ESA was at least a ‘major factor in her decision to take her own life’.”
Of course this all goes back to the Freedom of Information requests submitted by Samuel Miller and others that prompted Yr Obdt Srvt to make the now-infamous “vexatious” request of June 2013. When it was refused on appeal to an information tribunal, Disability News Service submitted its own request.
A repeat request by Vox Political has since been refused on the grounds that the DWP intends to publish some or all of the information at an unspecified time in the future. These ‘section 22’ refusals must be supported by certain conditions which the DWP did not meet, and a reconsideration request has been met with stony silence (other than the acknowledgement of receipt), so once against it seems an appeal to the Information Commissioner (and possibly another tribunal hearing) will be necessary.
It’s all stalling tactics. The Conservatives in the government know that, if the true extent of the deaths becomes clear, the game will be up for them.
After all, who in their right mind would want to vote back into office an organisation that had just caused the deaths of anything up to or beyond 50,000* of their fellow citizens? Nobody would be safe under such a government.
Turning back to Mr Harper, independent disability researcher Mo Stewart has written to him with a stern rebuke that he will, no doubt, ignore. Here it is:
“Please be advised that the public are beginning to challenge why, historically, your predecessors don’t manage to remain in post for very long and I note your website continues with the government rhetoric whilst totally disregarding the human consequences of the austerity measures.
“I often wonder what exactly MPs mean when claiming that we are living in ‘difficult times for families’ when failing to take responsibility for the deaths and devastation you have clearly created, using cash as the only justification for the fact that ‘malnutrition’ is now regularly found in Coroners’ reports. The poor, the sick and the disabled people of the UK didn’t create the banking crash Mr Harper, so why are you hurting them but refusing to publish the growing mortality rates of government policies?
“Please be advised that your defensive claims that that you do not “accept the premise” that the DWP should collate and analyse the many, many thousands of deaths now directly linked to the withdrawal of DWP benefits is tantamount to an abandonment of responsibility by the British government, it may well lead to charges of crimes against humanity once all the detailed and often disturbing evidence has been collated and analysed by other sources and the British government is already about to be investigated by the UN for the demonstrated human rights violations of disabled people. All this whilst the UK faces the return of Victorian diseases linked to extremes of poverty…. That’s quite a track record this government has built up.
“With respect, you are not professionally qualified to assess these reported cases and regardless of if you admit it or not, high calibre REAL experts are now advising that: ‘…there is growing evidence that the draconian welfare reforms are irreparably damaging the mental and physical health of benefit claimants.’
“If someone is already surviving on a token income and the government reduce or remove it, with savage sanctions or by using a totally compromised ‘assessment’, how precisely do you expect these people to live, to eat or to survive when they are already the poorest in the land?
“This question isn’t going to go away because DWP Ministers fear the public reaction if the figures of welfare reform related deaths are ever published.
“Now the DWP are attacking our older disabled veterans by threatening to remove the DLA of our War Pensioners, whilst the PM continues to wax lyrically at Conference about the debt this nation owes to our armed forces. Unwise Mr Harper, very, very unwise.
“Release the mortality figures Mr Harper and don’t ever presume that we are about to stop asking for them.”
In addition to the above, it seems appropriate for Vox Political to reiterate:
Not only does the DWP have mortality statistics for benefit claimants, but it has them in a form that may be freely distributed to anybody asking for them, within the cost limits imposed by the Freedom of Information Act.
The only reason these numbers are not in the public domain is the fact that ministers like Mark Harper refuse to allow their release.
The only reason they have for refusing to release these figures – that makes any sense – is that they fear the consequences: Public shock and outrage.
That is not the response of a responsible government. It is the response of a gang of criminal killers who are terrified their misdeeds will be revealed.
*This is an estimate based on the known number of deaths related solely to a single benefit – Employment and Support Allowance – between January and November 2011.
“Nonetheless, the tribunal also found that had Sivier not tried to get others involved, his request would have been reasonable and even adding that ‘We have considerable sympathy for the Appellant’.
“Based on this decision, Benefits and Work made an application to the DWP for exactly the same information contained in the original request and drawing the DWP’s attention to the tribunal’s findings.”
That request was made on May 15. It seems odd that BaW then had to wait months for its reply, which only arrived after the DWP had responded to a renewed Vox Political request for exactly the same information, made on May 28. VP had its response on August 12; the DWP responded to BaW on September 10 – almost a month after the information in its response became available and nearly four months after the request was originally made.
By law, FOI requests must be answered within 20 working days. Unfortunately, there is no legal penalty for failure to respond.
“In relation to the request for the information about ESA deaths the DWP pointed out that they published the total number of deaths in July of this year.”
VP had that, too. It’s only a total number of deaths if nobody on ESA has died since the end of March 2012. Otherwise we can dismiss this feeble attempt to fob us off with the wrong figures.
“The response went on to say that: ‘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 BaW article stated.
“We have now requested a review of this decision and made it clear that if we do not receive a response within the statutory period we will immediately forward the correspondence to the Information Commissioner without further notice.”
This is exactly what Vox Political had from the DWP, and this blog has two observations to make:
Firstly, anyone making a Freedom of Information request of any kind to a government department should read this article, which shows how FoI legislation has been undermined by the bureaucrats.
Secondly, guidelines from the Information Commissioner indicate that the DWP has acted wrongly in using the s22 exemption to withhold the ESA death statistics from Benefits and Work and Vox Political. VP is happy to forward this information to Benefits and Work, to help that site with its own request.
If nothing else, the fact that Benefits and Work made its own FoI request after the failure of the ‘vexatious’ attempt by Vox Political proves that there is strong public support for the release of this information. VP knew nothing of the BaW request until yesterday (September 18) – who knows how many other requests have been made – only to have the DWP sit on them, illegally, for months on end?
It seems Yr Obdt Srvt has become the victim of DWP game-playing that shows contempt for sick and disabled benefit claimants whose lives are threatened by poor decision-making.
You may be familiar with the following saying (or at least with the fact that George W Bush wasn’t): “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
I mention this as a precursor to the following story, for reasons that should become clear.
Back in May, I sent another Freedom of Information request to the Department for Work and Pensions, again asking for an update of the ad-hoc statistical release Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of Recipients from mid-2012 (long-term readers will be aware a previous request was refused as “vexatious”).
In it, I pointed out: “A response to a previous Freedom of Information request (FOI 2013-IR665) stated that ‘Whilst we currently have no plans to directly update the ad hoc report on “Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of Recipients” published on 9th July 2012, the Department does monitor requests we receive for new statistics and consider whether we can produce and release analysis that will helpfully inform public debate. The Department is therefore looking at this issue with a view to seeing what statistics could be produced on a regular basis.’
“It went on to state that ‘the balance of the public interest test falls in favour of withholding this information. As I have explained above, statistics on this issue will be published in due course.’
“I have studied DWP release schedules extensively and in the 11 months since I made my request, I have found no publication of statistics on this issue… Was the DWP’s statement that ‘statistics on this issue… will be published in due course’ made in error?
“If this is the case, then there can be no public interest argument against disclosure of this information in response to either my previous request or any future request, as it is not set to be published as part of the DWP’s current schedule. I remind you that this is time-sensitive information; it is important that the data becomes public knowledge as soon as it is available, in order to inform government policy and avoid preventable fatalities in the future.”
If this was not the case, I continued, then – as at midday on May 28 this year, what was the date on which it is planned that the DWP will be publishing figures from November 2011 to those which are most up-to-date?
If no date of publication was set down, I concluded, then the DWP had a duty to provide an update, to me, immediately.
I reminded the Department’s FOI officers that an email from the DWP to the Information Commissioner’s office, dated October 21, 2013, stated that “we can confirm that the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit… the information requested.”
The substantive issue: A DWP statistical release in 2012 showed that more than 200 people were dying every week as a result of Iain Duncan Smith’s changes to assessment procedures for incapacity benefits – either they were put into groups where unreasonable demands were placed on them or the stress and anxiety of constant re-assessment was too much for their bodies to take. Many were driven to suicide.
Apart from acknowledging receipt, the DWP ignored my request. I therefore invoked my right to have it reconsidered, immediately after the legally-prescribed period ran out. By this time the DWP was already breaking the law.
Apart from acknowledging receipt, the DWP ignored my reconsideration request. Are you getting angry about this yet? Remember, it is about deaths caused by government policy. I therefore notified the Information Commissioner and requested a ruling on this matter.
The Commission responded late last month, saying the DWP had 10 working days to get a response back to me. Tomorrow was the deadline and the response arrived today.
You’re really not going to like it.
“Unfortunately there was a mistake in the response you were sent for FOI 2013-IR665. Due to an administrative error an Annex A (about the Public Interest Test) appeared at the very end of the letter. It was not intended for this response and as such there is no mention of it anywhere in the main letter.
“So the answer to your first question ‘Was the DWP’s statement that ‘statistics on this issue [incapacity benefits: deaths of recipients] will be published in due course’ made in error?’ with respect to the reply you received is yes. That statement was not intended to be part of the response and was therefore made in error. We therefore attach a corrected copy of the reply to FOI 2013-IR665 and apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
That is not good enough. There was no way I could have read that response without believing that I was being told updated statistics were to be published in the future; any other interpretation would have defied common sense.
Also, it makes a nonsense of what was said in the body of the response – that the DWP was working on releasing figures on a regular basis.
And it means one of two things: Either the DWP was lying then, when it said work was progressing on what could be published, or it is lying now, by saying the information about the public interest test was included in error.
Either way, it seems clear that the intention was to stop my request from progressing any further.
Let’s move on to the really insulting part. Today’s response states, and I quote verbatim:
“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. This exemption is qualified, and is therefore subject to a public interest test. The public interest test is where the Department considers whether the balance of the public interest falls in favour of withholding or disclosing the information requested.
“Arguments in favour of disclosure: There are public interest arguments in favour of disclosure of this information at the present time. Disclosure would for example improve transparency in the operations of the Department.
“Arguments against disclosure: There are public interest arguments against disclosure of this information at the present time. These arguments include that it is in the public interest to adhere to the existing publication process for official statistics, which includes time for the data to be collated and properly verified.
“It is also in the public interest to ensure that the publication of official information is a properly planned and managed process, to ensure that the data are accurate once placed into the public domain. It is also in the public interest to ensure that the information is available to all members of the public at the same time, and premature publication could undermine the principle of making the information available to all at the same time through the official publication process.
“On this occasion, the balance of the public interest test falls in favour of withholding this information. As explained above, statistics on this issue will be published in due course.
“We do not have a planned publication date at this stage but we will pre-announce the agreed date.”
That’s right – having apologised for misleading me into believing that updated information was to be produced when it wasn’t, the DWP went on to say that updated information was to be produced, but it wasn’t going to provide that information to me – even though no publication date has been set – for precisely the same reasons, to the letter, for which it had just apologised.
I get the impression that someone in Caxton House is trying to be funny.
What a big joke – to put off a Freedom of Information request about thousands of needless deaths with an excuse that has already been used wrongly, on the basis that it was wrong then but it isn’t now.
No. Not funny.
Pants: Iain Duncan Smith
The situation is reminiscent of one mentioned in an article earlier today, wherein someone blew the whistle on Iain Duncan Smith’s expenses claim for underwear so he called her into a meeting and reduced her to tears with a show of belligerence. The substantive issue was of no interest to the man we call RTU (Returned To Unit); his only worry was that it should be hidden from the public. The same applies here.
As mentioned at the start: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I won’t be fooled again.
The information is held by the DWP, and could be provided easily enough.
The public interest test cannot be applied to my request as the DWP has not proved that statistics on this issue will be published in due course. For this to apply, a publication date would have to have been provided in the response and none was forthcoming.
Therefore I conclude that the DWP’s response is false and will be appealing to the Information Commissioner again – and to the First-Tier Tribunal if necessary. The tribunal is likely to take a very dim view of this as, after a previous hearing, its members stated that “we have considerable sympathy for the appellant”.
We have to prove that these people are not above the law.
Picture the scene if you can: It’s shortly after 11.35pm on Thursday (June 5) and all my inboxes are suddenly overflowing – with the same message: Iain Duncan Smith will be on Question Time next week.
The implication was that there is an opportunity here – to show the public the homicidal – if not genocidal – nature of the changes to the benefit system this man mockingly describes as “welfare reforms”.
We were given the name of only one other panellist who will be appearing in the June 12 show, broadcast from King’s Lynn: Private Eye editor Ian Hislop. He is certainly the kind of man who should relish a chance to take the politician we call RTU (Returned To Unit) down a peg or two – in fact the Eye has run articles on DWP insanity fairly regularly over the past two decades at least.
Personally I’d like to see him joined by Michael Meacher and Owen Jones, at the very least. A rematch between Smith and Jones would be terrific television (but it is unlikely that the coward IDS would ever agree to it).
All such a panel would need to get started is a question about “welfare reform”. Then they could start at the beginning with the involvement of the criminal US insurance corporation Unum, which has been advising the British government since Peter Lilley was Secretary of State for Social Security. There appears to be a moratorium on even the mention of Unum in the British press so, if this is the first you’ve heard of it, now you know why.
Unum’s version of an unproven strand of psychology known as biopsychosocial theory informs the current work capability assessment, used by the coalition government to evaluate whether a claimant of sickness benefits (Incapacity Benefit/Employment Support Allowance or Disability Living Allowance/Personal Independence Payment) should receive any money. The assessment leans heavily on the psycho part of the theory – seeking to find ways of telling claimants their illnesses are all in the mind and they are fit for work. This is how Unum wormed its way out of paying customers when their health insurance policies matured – and it is also how Unum received its criminal conviction in the States.
Members of the public have tried to use the Freedom of Information Act to pry updated figures from the DWP. I know of one man who was told that the 2011 figures were provided in an ‘ad hoc’ release and there was no plan for a follow-up; the figures are not collected and processed routinely. The last part of this was a lie, meaning the DWP had illegally failed to respond to a legitimate FoI request.
Having seen that individual attempts to use the FoI Act to get the information had failed, I put in a request of my own and suggested others do the same, resulting in (I am told) 23 identical requests to the DWP in June last year. Apparently this is vexatious behaviour and when I took the DWP to a tribunal earlier this year, it won.
But the case brought out useful information, such as a DWP employee’s admission that “the Department does hold, and could provide within the cost limit, some of the information requested”.
Now, why would the Department, and Iain Duncan Smith himself, want to withhold these figures – and lie to the public about having them? It seems to me that the death toll must have increased, year on year. That is the only explanation that makes sense.
The DWP, and its Secretary-in-a-State, have had their attention drawn to the deaths many times, if not in interviews then in Parliament. DWP representatives (if not Mr Duncan Smith himself) have taken pains to say they have been improving the system – but still they won’t say how many deaths have taken place since November 2011.
If it can be proved that DWP ministers were aware of the problem (and we know they are) but did not change the situation enough to slow the death rate (as seems to be the case), then it seems clear that there has been an intention to ignore the fact that people have been dying unnecessarily. This runs against Human Rights legislation, and a strong case could be made for the corporate manslaughter of thousands of people.
And that’s just ESA!
When we come to PIP, there’s the issue of the thousands of claimants who have been parked – without assessment – for months at a time, waiting to find out if they’ll receive any money.
Universal Credit currently has no budget, it seems, but the DWP is clearly still wasting millions of pounds on a project that will never work as it is currently conceived.
It would be nice to think that at least one member of Thursday’s panel might read this article and consider standing up for the people, but it’s a long shot.
Possibly a million-to-one chance, in fact.
According to Terry Pratchett, that makes it an absolute certainty!
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.
It is with a heavy heart that I must report that a tribunal has upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision that my Freedom of Information request, seeking an update on the number of sickness benefit claimants who have died, was vexatious.
The tribunal agreed unanimously that my blog article, to which I appended a single line suggesting other readers should also submit FoI requests to demonstrate that there are many people who want the latest figures released, was an abuse of the system.
If you are unaware of the situation or your memory needs to be refreshed, you can read the article here.
But judge Chris Ryan criticised both the Information Commissioner and the Department for Work and Pensions for every other excuse they invented to prevent the death figures from being made public.
This was not a glowing endorsement of the Information Commissioner’s – and the DWP’s – stance; in fact, as you will see, the wording of the decision suggests the exact opposite.
The very first line of the decision notice states that my request “was in itself innocuous”, meaning that there would have been no reason for the DWP to have refused it if not for the effect of the blog article.
But you know, dear reader, that I wrote my request after at least two previous requests – one of which must have been equally “innocuous” as I based the wording of my own on it – had been rejected by the Department. That was why I appealed for public support in the first place.
“The combination of the importance of the statistics in their own right and the appellant’s belief, rightly or wrongly, that the Department had no intention of publishing updated figures, led him to take the steps for which he has been criticised by the Department,” wrote Mr Ryan in his decision notice.
He then proceeded to trash – comprehensively – all the IC’s (and DWP’s) other reasons for suggesting that it could not answer my request.
“The Information Commissioner accepted that the request had a serious purpose,” he wrote. [All italics and boldings in the quoted sections are mine]
“In terms of the burden the request imposed, the appellant drew attention to statements made by members of the Department’s staff to the Information Commissioner during his investigation, in which it was confirmed that the requested information was held and that it could be located and released without exceeding the relatively modest maximum cost permitted for responding to an information request… we do not believe that any great weight should be attributed to it [the burden on the DWP] in our determination.”
Turning to motive, Mr Ryan stated that the Information Commissioner had claimed that the request, viewed in isolation, may not have been intended to disrupt the DWP’s main function – but, taking account of the requests that were apparently generated by the blog, this purpose was altered to a stage where it was intended to disrupt the Department’s functions.
But his judgement was this: “The appellant was motivated by a determination to ensure that the Department took the request seriously.”
(You should note that I dispute the claim that 23 ‘lookalike’ requests were generated by my blog. I have only ever seen seven of these, with no proof that the other 16 exist at all; of the seven, only one makes any reference to me, while the person responsible for another posted a comment on the blog that ties it to me as well. That’s three messages – not enough to justify any claim of vexatiousness.)
The Information Commissioner had also tried to bolster his decision by claiming that my article, and its comment column, could cause harassment and distress to DWP staff, but Mr Ryan wrote: “We do not think that there is much strength in the Information Commissioner’s argument.
“The request itself is expressed in sensible and balanced terms and, although some of the messages published on the appellant’s blog adopted a more strident tone, we saw nothing that a reasonably robust employee should not have been able to contemplate without distress, assuming (which is not certain) that it was drawn to his or her attention… Little weight ought to be attributed to the risk of staff members feeling harassed or distressed.
“The accumulated effect on the Department, in terms of administrative burden and impact on staff, was therefore relatively light.”
But this did not excuse me from my principle crime, which appears to have been encouraging the rest of you to get involved: “It was in… seeking to bolster his statutory rights with the persuasive power that comes from communal action, that the appellant converted an unexceptional request, on a matter causing justifiable public concern, into one that constituted misuse of the freedom of information regime and could therefore properly be refused on the basis that it was vexatious for the purpose of FOIA section 14.”
That was very discouraging to read!
But look at this: “We have considerable sympathy for the appellant.
“We do not know if he was justified in suspecting that the Department had deliberately concealed statistics about those who died while receiving, or being assessed for, state benefits.
“However, the request did seem, on its face and in context, to be one which might well have resulted in disclosure of the information requested.”
Now, you know, and I know – and the tribunal also knows – that the DWP rejected at least two other FoI requests that were phrased along either identical or similar lines as my own, but those last few comments, along with the others strung throughout the decision, make it clear that the tribunal’s view is that there was no reason to reject any of them.
Therefore the only reasonable reading of this decision is that the DWP was wrong to reject those previous requests.
I must now consider options for the future. The tribunal’s decision seems to clear the way for a request made in exactly the same way as mine (but without the appeal for others to add their voices to it) to receive a full response.
But we are dealing, here, with the Department for Work and Pensions under Iain Duncan Smith. It seems more likely that the tribunal’s decision will be ignored and the same excuses will be trotted out, including a now-invalid claim that the Secretary of State is considering how best to publish the figures.
For that excuse to work, he would have had to publish them very quickly and it is now nine months since the claim was first made. As the figures are time-sensitive – that is, for them to be useful in considering changes to the system, they should be released as soon as they are known – it makes no sense to delay and the DWP’s claim that doing so is “in the public interest” is disproved.
If I do submit another request, the wording of it will have to be carefully considered, to include all the information that the tribunal provided in support of it. Obviously I cannot ask any readers to take any action in this matter at all.
In summary, this is a setback but not a defeat. The tribunal has come to a finding based on its reading of the law, but has made it perfectly clear that it was made with reference to events that happened in connection with my request, and not because of my request itself. The tribunal’s opinion was that there was nothing wrong with the request.
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.
Vox Political may seem a little quiet over the next 30 hours or so. This is because the site’s owner, Mike Sivier (that’s me), will be travelling to Cardiff to take the Information Commissioner and the Department for Work and Pensions to a tribunal.
The aim is to secure the release of mortality figures – death statistics – covering people who were claiming Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance during 2012.
Figures for later dates were not part of the Freedom of Information request that forms the basis of this action (submitted back in June 2013, nearly a year ago), so it is unlikely that these will be forthcoming. The hope is that the tribunal will judge in favour of the information being released, ensuring that further requests cannot be blocked by the DWP.
The government’s claim is that a single-sentence, off-the-cuff line at the end of a Vox Political article about the FoI request constitutes a co-ordinated, protracted and obsessive campaign of harassment against the DWP, and for that reason the request is vexatious.
It is utterly ridiculous. It brings the DWP and the Freedom of Information Act into disrepute. Yet it is enough to prevent this valuable information from being published.
It is important to have the data in the public domain, as a yardstick by which the government’s so-called ‘reforms’ to the benefit system may be judged. Between January and November 2011, 73 deaths were recorded every week, just among people in the work-related activity group of ESA and those going through the assessment process. The government does not monitor the progress of people it has marked ‘fit for work’ and thrown off-benefit altogether, and this group is four times as large as the WRAG, meaning the death toll could be anything up to five times larger than we understand at the moment.
The government has claimed that it has been implementing changes designed to make ESA serve its claimants better. An increased death rate will disprove that. Of course, a lowered death rate would support the government’s position but, if this were the case, it is logical to expect the government to have publicised it widely without any prompting.
This is why tomorrow’s tribunal is important.
People are dying every day and nothing will be done to stop it unless the severity of the situation is made clear.
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