British minister accused of trying to hide reports on impact of Tory welfare reforms | Advantages

Ministers have been accused of deliberately trying to conceal the impact of the government’s sweeping welfare reforms by concealing a series of official benefit reports.

Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said she would not release five reports or research on the benefit cap, benefit claimant deaths, the impact of Universal Credit (UC) and penalties for benefits, and that she had no plans to publish two further reports on unpaid carers and work capacity assessments.

His Conservative predecessors as Secretary of State had promised to publish several of these reports.

MP Stephen Timms, chairman of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said ‘trust’ had been lost because the reports had not been published. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

“Therese Coffey has set out to downplay the evidence released by the department and as a result public confidence in the department has been seriously damaged,” said Stephen Timms, chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. “You understand why ministers are inclined to do this as it saves them from having to answer potentially embarrassing or difficult questions. But avoiding that short-term pain has a long-term impact, I think, severely undermining trust in the department.

Ken Butler, policy adviser at Disability Rights UK, said: “We are not talking about one report and one issue. We are talking about a whole series of reports on important aspects of the system. The DWP operates behind a wall of secrecy.

Coffey stated his refusal to publish the information in a letter to the select committee. The reports are as follows. First, an assessment of the reduction in the benefit cap, which has been at the same pace since 2016 and ranges from £13,400 for individuals outside London to £23,000 for families in the capital. About 1.3 million children in the cap have parents struggling to buy basic necessities such as food and diapers.

Second, monthly reports on the accessibility of Department for Work and Pensions websites and apps. These are used to apply for and receive benefits – accessibility is a major issue for some people with disabilities.

Third, internal reports on the deaths of benefit claimants. The DWP has initiated 140 internal process reviews since July 2019 regarding claimants whose deaths may be related to benefits. In 2018, Errol Graham died of starvation after benefits were cut.

Fourth, the firm’s research on the effectiveness of supporting vulnerable Universal Credit applicants. Charities are concerned that people who switch to UC from other forms of benefits such as disability benefits could lose out.

Fifth, a DWP report assessing the impact of benefit sanctions in persuading people to work. Academic research suggests the sanctions only make people sick and have been described as a “war on families”.

Coffey added that the DWP had not decided whether it would publish “Experiences of claiming and receiving Carer’s Allowance”, which examines how and why unpaid carers face additional barriers to finding employment.

Coffey said she “does not commit” to releasing statistics on work capacity assessments for UC, which are used to determine whether people who are ill or disabled can work. Statistics on past benefits such as personal independence payments are published: around 327,000 people are deprived of payments due to delays of up to five months.

“We’re being told it’s not a priority at the moment and being rejected,” Butler said. “When you move two million people with disabilities to a new benefit, all of these issues are really relevant.

“Even the DWP recognized that people with disabilities did not trust the DWP. Although they say they want to improve trust and improve transparency, they actually do not release information that is likely to be scrutinized and of deep concern.

In January, the select committee took the unusual step of writing to NatCen Social Research, Britain’s largest independent social researcher, using parliamentary powers to order it to provide a copy of a report commissioned by the DWP on disability benefits.

The report “has given rise to some potentially sensitive questions for ministers to answer, although frankly if you read the report they were rather subdued,” Timms said.

“But that was not practical. So they decided to avoid the review and not publish it. But since then we have come across a whole host of other reports, the publication of which had previously been promised or who clearly should be.

The DWP did not comment, although it did reference a passage from Coffey’s letter where she states, “We have made it clear that where requests are for research that informs ongoing policy development, the department reserves the right to retain them. It is important that ministers consider research and its publication on a case-by-case basis.

“I understand the committee’s particular interest in research that informs policy, but it is not the case that we are committed to publishing all research commissioned by a secretary of state, including research commissioned by my predecessors.”

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