The DWP have refused a Freedom of Information request by Benefits and Work for a copy of the draft version of the previously secret report on the unmet needs of disabled claimants.
‘The uses of health and disability benefits’ report was finally published last month. Although it was damning in itself of the failure to pay disabled claimants enough to meet their basic needs, there was evidence that it had in fact been watered down.
The Disability News Service was told by a whistleblower that the original version of the report was sent back to the authors by the DWP with instructions to reduce the number of references to “unmet needs” and to delete some of its analysis.
Although the DWP have admitted they do have a copy of an earlier draft of the report they are refusing to release it to us.
The DWP are claiming that two exemptions under the Freedom of Information act apply to the report: regulations 36(2)(b) and 36(2)(c)
Regulation 36(2)(b) applies where the release of the information would inhibit
i) the free and frank provision of advice, or
(ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation,
Regulation 36(2)(c) applies where release:
(c) would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs.
The DWP claim that “The information contained includes details that would not be designed, in any shape or form to be released with the final version.”
But we would argue that the authors absolutely did intend the report to be published in that form, it was simply that the DWP found the information embarrassing or contrary to the image of welfare benefits that they wished to promote.
The DWP also argue that: “The Government Social Research protocol states that the agreed final draft is the product for publication.”
Yet the DWP entirely ignored this protocol when they refused repeatedly to publish the report. In the end it was the Commons work and pensions committee who obtained a copy from the authors and published it on their website.
So, we would argue that the DWP cannot now rely on that protocol when they have failed to follow it themselves.
The DWP also argue that: “If we had to always release draft reports, there is a chance that the overall consultation, research and report stages of any such work would become poorer. The reason for this is that people would be less inclined to comment or have their opinions recorded, meaning that the development of these reports would suffer.”
But we are not asking for every draft report to be published or for a decision that would set any sort of precedent for other cases.
We are simply arguing that, in this specific case, there is an overwhelming public interest in knowing in what ways the DWP altered the findings of the report.
It is possible that by giving a misleading impression of how difficult disabled claimants find it to meet their basic needs, the DWP are paving the way for benefits changes that could be life-threatening for some claimants.
Given the seriousness of the issue and the fact that the DWP have chosen not to follow government protocols in this specific case, there are good grounds for publishing the draft report.
This is the case that we have now put to the DWP, who will no doubt still refuse to release the draft. It is also the case we will then put to the Information Commissioner’s Office.