Documents obtained by Benefits and Work show that either participants in a now secret disability benefits report were deliberately misled or secretary of state Therese Coffey is not telling the truth to MPs. Meanwhile, Disability News Service has been told by a whistle blower that the original report was significantly watered down to reduce the references to claimants’ unmet needs.
The DWP have refused to give Benefits and Work a copy of a research report the department commissioned into disability benefits entitled ‘The uses of health and disability benefits’. They have also declined to let the work and pensions committee see a copy under conditions of complete confidentiality.
Further documents obtained by Benefits and Work give more details of exactly what it is that claimants were being asked to talk about in the course of the research.
Potential participants were told they would be asked:
- How your disability or health condition(s) affect you day-to-day
- Whether you receive help or support from friends, family or others
- Your benefits, other income and financial circumstances
- How you use your health and disability benefits to meet your needs
- And your experience of receiving health and disability benefits.
Participants were also given an assurance of anonymity which means that the DWP cannot refuse to publish the report on the grounds that the contents are confidential. Participants were told:
“We will write a report about the main issues that people have talked about. We will not name any names and it will not be possible to identify any participants in the report. We will make sure all responses are anonymised.”
The documents also show that either participants were knowingly misled about whether the research would be published or the Secretary of state is being untruthful.
In a letter to the chair of the work and pensions committee dated 25 October 2021, secretary of state Therese Coffey claims, when asked when the decision was made not to publish the research:
“Publication decisions are always taken upon completion of research.”
This claim is repeated again in the letter.
Yet a leaflet sent to potential participants in the research, whose contents will have been agreed with the DWP in advance, states:
Can I see the research findings?
DWP publish their research on the following website: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-work-pensions/about/research
This gives a very clear impression that the report will be published.
And a thank you letter sent to people who had taken part, and whose content was also agreed with the DWP, makes this absolutely explicit:
When will the report be published?
As mentioned, we will be writing a report for DWP based on what people have said in the interviews. The study will be published by the Department for Work and Pensions on their website: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-work-pensions/about/research#research-and-analysis-publications
If decisions about publication are ‘always taken upon completion of research’ then both these statements are knowingly misleading.
Yet NatCen, the organisation which carried out the research have done a huge number of research projects for government departments, including the DWP. For example, in July to September last year they carried out research on telephone assessments for PIP, ESA and UC.
The details about the telephone assessment survey that were published in advance about the telephone assessments project contain very similar wording to the details published in advance about the secret research project.
And the results of the telephone assessment survey were, as normal, published online by the DWP.
So, either the DWP misled participants in this research about whether it would be published or the minister not telling the truth when she says that publication decisions are always taken upon completion of research.
Meanwhile, Disability News Service is reporting that a whistleblower close to the team that produced the report has told them that after being shown the first draft of the report, DWP told NatCen to reduce the number of references to “unmet needs” and to delete some of its analysis.
However, even this allegedly watered-down version of the report seems to be too damning for the DWP to risk it seeing the light of day.
The whistle blower told DNS:
“I have read the report and concluded that the government’s argument that it is not in the public interest to publish it is entirely spurious.
“The indication is clearly that some of the findings do not support government policy and so DWP have blatantly suppressed them, dishonestly hiding behind the Freedom of Information Act.”
Benefits and Work has now made a Freedom of Information Act request to see a copy of the original draft of the report. We have no expectation that this request will be granted.
And, unfortunately, we have now heard from the Information Commissioner’s Office that they are taking up to six months to even begin work on new cases, so this is likely to be a long and protracted battle.
But it’s not one we’re walking away from.