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The price we pay for a Conservative-led Department for Work and Pensions: While ministers stall demands for information, the death toll increases.

The price we pay for a Conservative-led Department for Work and Pensions: While ministers stall demands for information, the death toll increases. [Image: Eric Hart]

This will be no surprise to anyone:

The Department for Work and Pensions has stuck to its boneheaded reason for refusing to say how many people have died because of its policies.

Readers may remember (it is now a long time ago!) that Vox Political submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department, back in June, asking for details of the number of Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants who have died in 2012 – including deaths of those who had been thrown off-benefit altogether, if such information was held.

This request was refused on the specious grounds that it was “vexatious”. The DWP officer making the refusal cited as his reason, not any part of the request itself, but the last line of the blog entry about it, stating “I strongly urge you to do the same. There is strength in numbers”.

The DWP decision-maker used this to claim that the request “is designed to harass DWP in the belief that encouraging others to repeat a request which they know has already been raised will affect the outcome of that request” and stated very clearly that this was “the stated aim of the exercise”.

In other words, the Department decided to squirm out of its responsibility by making a false claim about something that was not even part of the request.

A demand for reconsideration was soon wending its way on electric wings to the DWP, pointing out a few home truths from the Information Commissioner’s guidance notes on “Dealing with vexatious requests”, refuting the position the Department had chosen to take.

The guidance states that a public authority must have reason to believe that several different requesters are “acting in concert as part of a campaign to disrupt the organisation”. In this instance, “acting in concert” does not cover a sentence at the end of a blog entry suggesting that people who feel the same way about an issue might like to do something about it. That is perverse.

The guidance also states that “it is important to bear in mind that sometimes a large number of individuals will independently ask for information on the same subject because an issue is of media or local interest”. Media interest must include mention in a blog that is read up to 100,000 times a month, and the DWP decision-maker had clearly failed to recognise that people can only take action on a issue when they know it exists and have been told there is something they can do!

The reconsideration demand also quotes examples of evidence an authority might cite in support of its case that a request is vexatious, such as whether other requesters have been copied in or mentioned in email correspondence – in other words, can it be proved that these co-conspirators are working together? Nobody involved with Vox Political knows of any other request made “in concert” with our own, and the direct question to the DWP, “Have you received such correspondence?” went unanswered. We must therefore assume they have not.

ICO guidance also states that a website must make an explicit reference to a campaign. Vox Political did not.

The only logical conclusion is that the request – and any others that followed it – were “genuinely directed at gathering information” – according to ICO guidance. In that circumstance, the only reason the DWP could legally use to refuse the request is that it would “cause a disproportionate and unjustified level of disruption, irritation or distress” – which it cannot prove as the information is available to it, and would only have to be collated once. After that, distribution to anyone requesting it would be easy, via email.

The response that arrived today was written by someone “of a senior grade to the person who dealt with your request previously” but who appears to be so ashamed of their own response that they have failed to legitimise it with their own name.

This person stated: “The guidance on vexatious requests encompasses a range of activities including requestors [sic] acting in concert to repeatedly request the same information. Thus I uphold the original decision.”

No information was provided to support this claim, therefore it is irrelevant and the DWP is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act.

The matter will now go to the Information Commissioner who will, in time, make mincemeat of the DWP arguments.

But it will take time.

This is what the Department wants, of course – time. Time to continue with its dangerous policies, which are deeply harmful to the unemployed, the sick and the disabled and have caused many, many thousands of deaths. It seems clear that ministers want this… ‘social cleansing’, you could call it… to continue for as long as possible and do as much harm as possible.

Curiously, the Director of Public Prosecutions may have just shot them in the foot.

The DPP, Keir Starmer QC, has declared that anyone found to be cheating on benefits in England and Wales could face longer jail terms of up to 10 years, after he issued guidance that they should be prosecuted under the Fraud Act rather than social security laws.

He clearly hasn’t considered the possible advantages of this for people who would otherwise face an uncertain future of destitution, worsening health and even imminent death if their benefits are refused. To them, a term in jail might seem like absolute luxury.

What greater incentive could there be for someone to lie extravagantly about their situation on a benefit form than the possibiity of losing everything, including their life, if they don’t get the money? If the alternatives were imprisonment or death, what do you think a person on the danger line would take?

This blog therefore predicts an increase in the UK prison intake due to benefit fraud.

And here’s the funny part: Mr Starmer said it was time for a “tough stance” because the cost of benefit fraud to the nation is £1.9 billion (he was wrong; in fact it’s only £1.2 billion, unless new figures have been released).

One year’s ESA costs the state around £5772, while a year’s imprisonment costs £37,163 – in other words, prison costs the taxpayer six times as much as the benefit. At that price, the DPP could imprison only 51,126 people before the cost of imprisoning them exceeds the cost of fraud – according to his own figures.

Of the 2.5 million people claiming ESA, the DWP is busy throwing 70 per cent off-benefit – that’s 1.7 million people who could justifiably be accused of benefit fraud and imprisoned. Total cost to the taxpayer: £63,177,100,000 per year.

Meanwhile, £12 billion in benefits goes unclaimed every year.

It seems this Conservative-led Coa-lamity of a government can’t even get its sums right.