Benefits and Work can reveal that not only have the DWP again refused to release a copy of ‘The uses of health and disability benefits’ report to us, but they have also declined to let the work and pensions committee see a copy under conditions of complete confidentiality. Which leads us to wonder ‘Just how damning is this report?’
Our original freedom of information request for a copy of the report was refused.
We then asked the DWP to review their decision. They have again refused to release it, claiming the report falls within an exemption which “protects the private space within which Ministers and their policy advisers can develop policies without the risk of premature disclosure”.
We have now made a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the next stage in the process.
Meanwhile, however, the work and pensions committee asked the DWP to release a copy of the report to them under ‘reading room’ conditions, so that they could have a better understanding of why they were refusing to publish it.
Reading room conditions mean that members of the committee are provided with access to a hard copy that they cannot take away with them. The chair of the work and pension committee states in his letter:
“I should note that this Committee has never breached confidentiality when the Department and its public bodies have shared material with us in the past.”
Coffey, the DWP minister responded with a terse, two paragraph reply in which she refused the request, saying:
“I do not intend to share this research with the Committee under “reading room” conditions. As you suggest, this would be an atypical arrangement, and as set out in my previous response, it is important to protect the private space within which Ministers and their policy advisers can develop policies.”
All of which leads us to wonder what on earth can be in this report that the DWP are so desperate to keep secret?
The report is not legal or specialist advice and it does not give information about the confidential inner workings of the DWP or the possible effects of a range of different policy decisions from which the minister must make a choice.
In fact, 120 claimants were interviewed for the report simply to examine “the experiences, spending decisions and spending behaviours of health and disability claimants to understand how their needs are met.”
The original bid pack stated that the successful bidder would have to create: “A final report of the research findings for publication” and “a one-page summary of the research for the DWP website”.
So, on the face of it, there is nothing in the slightest bit confidential in this report that a minister would need to keep secret from the public. On the contrary, there is a strong public interest in knowing whether the billions of pounds being spent on disability benefits is actually providing the support for vulnerable claimants that is its intended purpose.
It seems very possible that many of the claimants interviewed for the report will have talked about how hard it is to claim benefits and some may have said that the stress of claiming and maintaining a claim had affected their health.
It also seems likely that many of the claimants will have said that benefits that were supposed to help with the additional costs of disability are in fact being spent on meeting the shortfall in their housing costs and paying basic food and heating bills.
But none of this would have come as any surprise. These are all issues that have been written about and talked about many, many times in the past and the DWP must have known they would get these kind of responses when they commissioned the research.
So, is there something else in the report?
Or are the responses from the claimants so overwhelmingly negative that the DWP’s claims to be in any way meeting the needs of disabled claimants would be utterly undermined.
Clearly, we don’t know the answer. But we will keep on pushing as long and as hard as we can to get this report into the public domain.