Ministers have been accused of deliberately attempting to hide the impact of the government’s wide-ranging welfare reforms by concealing a range of official reports on benefits.
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said she would not publish five reports or research on the benefit cap, deaths of benefits claimants, the impact of universal credit (UC), and benefit sanctions, and that she had no plans to publish two further reports on unpaid carers and work capability assessments.
Her Conservative predecessors as secretary of state had promised to publish several of the reports.
“Thérèse Coffey has set out to minimise the evidence published by the department and a consequence of this is that public trust in the department has been badly damaged,” said Stephen Timms, the chairman of the Commons work and pensions select committee. “You understand why ministers are inclined to do this because it avoids them having to answer potentially embarrassing or difficult questions. But avoiding that short-term pain has a long-term impact, I think, badly undermining confidence in the department.”
Ken Butler, a policy adviser at Disability Rights UK, said: “We’re not talking about just one report and one subject. We’re talking about a whole swathe of reports about important aspects of the system. The DWP are operating behind a wall of secrecy.”
Coffey laid out her refusal to publish the information in a letter to the select committee. The reports are as follows. First, an evaluation of the reduction in the benefit cap, which has been at the same rate 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 who struggle to buy basics such as food and nappies.
Second, monthly reports on how accessible the Department for Work and Pensions websites and apps are. These are used for claiming and receiving benefits – accessibility is a major issue for some disabled people.
Third, internal reports on the deaths of benefit claimants. The DWP has started 140 internal process reviews since July 2019 into claimants whose deaths may be linked to benefits. In 2018, Errol Graham died of starvation after benefits were cut off.
Fourth, cabinet office research into the effectiveness of support for vulnerable claimants of universal credit. Charities are concerned that people moving on to UC from other forms of benefit such as disability benefits may lose out.
Fifth, a DWP report evaluating the impact of benefit sanctions in persuading people into work. Academic research suggests that sanctions only make people ill and has been described as a “war on families”.
Coffey added that the DWP had not decided if it would publish “Experiences of claiming and receiving Carer’s Allowance”, which examines how and why unpaid carers face extra hurdles in getting jobs.
Coffey said she was “not committing” to publishing statistics on work capability assessments for UC, which are used to establish if ill or disabled people can work. Statistics on previous benefits such as personal independence payments are published: about 327,000 people are missing out on payments due to delays of up to five months.
“We’re being told this isn’t a priority at the moment and basically being dismissed,” Butler said. “When you’re moving two million disabled people on to a new benefit all these issues are really relevant.
“Even the DWP has acknowledged that disabled people have a lack of trust in the DWP. Although they say they want to improve trust and improve transparency, they are actually not publishing information that’s open to scrutiny and that is deeply concerning.”
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 into disability benefits.
The report “gave rise to some potentially awkward questions for ministers to have to answer, although, frankly, if you read the report, they were pretty mild”, Timms said.
“But it was inconvenient. So they decided they were going to avoid scrutiny and not publish it. But since then, we’ve become aware of a whole range of other reports, which either had previously been promised to be published, or clearly ought to be published.”
The DWP did not comment, although it referred to a passage in Coffey’s letter where she states: “We have been clear that where requests relate to research that is informing ongoing policy development, the department reserves the right to withhold it. It is important that ministers consider research and its publication on a case-by-case basis.
“I do understand the close interest of the committee in research that informs policy, but it is not the case that we committed to publish all research commissioned by a secretary of state, including research commissioned by my predecessors.”