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MPs win fight to make disability benefits research public after DWP refusal

MPs will obtain a copy of the report – which the government received in 2020 – directly from researchers and publish it themselves.

universal credit and benefits

Work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey. Image: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office/Flickr

MPs are forcing the publication of research on disabled people’s experiences of the benefits system which the government had refused to make public.

The Work and Pensions Committee has repeatedly asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to publish the evidence – which it received in September 2020 – but Thérèse Coffey said she had “no intention” of doing so because she was “protecting a private space for policy development”.

Now the group of MPs is obtaining a copy of the report directly from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) – commissioned by the DWP in 2019 to carry out the research – and will publish it themselves.

Stephen Timms, Labour MP and chair of the committee, accused work and pensions secretary Coffey of “repeated obstruction” to keep the research “from public view”.

The report falls into the government’s own protocol for publication, he added, which is why the House of Commons has given the committee power to circumvent the DWP.

The report is expected to include evidence on disabled people’s views of the widely-condemned health assessment system, as well as their experiences of current benefits rates.

“We have reached the end of the road,” Timms said.

“We would have much rather the DWP had done the right thing and published the report itself, so it is with regret that we must now take the highly unusual step of using our parliamentary powers to obtain a copy from NatCen and publish it ourselves.

“We have been forced to do this to ensure that the reality of disabled people’s experiences of the benefits system can see the light of day.”

NatCen researchers interviewed 120 disabled people about navigating the universal credit, employment and support allowance and personal independence payment systems as part of the project.

Hearing oral evidence from Coffey last month, the committee – which is Labour-chaired but consists of a Conservative majority – highlighted that all 120 people had received letters saying the research would be published once completed.

The minister said: “I don’t know who in the department cleared that letter. It wasn’t me.” 

She then refused to say if the research had been used in the development of the disability green paper, published in July 2021, which experts said showed too little ambition to improve the experiences of disabled people in the benefits system.

The work and pensions committee last wrote to Coffey asking her to reconsider on December 15, outlining its plans to obtain the final report themselves if the DWP did not make it public.

Coffey responded on January 10. She wrote: “As I have written to the committee before and re-stated at the committee hearing last month, my department is currently considering a range of policy options, drawing on wide evidence, research and analysis, and protecting a private space for policy development is important.

“I have no intention to publish this research at present.”

The committee has now ordered NatCen to provide a copy of the report no later than January 27.

Boris Johnson said the government would publish the research “as soon as [they] can” during this week’s fiery PMQs.

Ella Abraham, policy and campaigns officer for Z2K and campaigns co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, told The Big Issue: “120 disabled people took part in this research and were assured the report outlining the findings would be published.

“Yet the DWP’s shameful decision to refuse to publish this report is another example of why disabled people have little trust in the DWP. We are glad to see the work and pensions select committee using parliamentary powers to publish it.”

Ministers have already been taken to court over the treatment of disabled people who rely on so-called legacy benefits, after refusing to extend the £20 universal credit uplift to them during the pandemic.

The news comes as the Parliamentary Health Services Ombudsman accuses the DWP of inflicting “unremedied injustice” on disabled claimants after administrative errors meant 118,000 people did not receive the payments they were entitled to. Most claimants were paid arrears but could not claim compensation despite having missed out on related benefits such as discounts on energy bills.

“Disabled people and people with long term health conditions are facing a Tory cost of living crisis with heating bills going up, prices rising and support cut,” said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary.

“But the truth is that many thousands of people continue to suffer as a result of a decade old government failure that left many people without the money for basic food and living costs.

“It’s scandalous that government incompetence has left thousands of disabled people without the support they were rightly owed. This is a damning verdict from the Ombudsman and Thérèse Coffey must come to the Commons immediately to explain how she intends to right this wrong for 118,000 disabled people.”

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