Tag: FoI

Secret DWP documents prove they silenced the media from running stories they didn’t approve of – Evolve Politics

Following a 13 month battle, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have finally been forced to release secret documents illustrating the tactics they use to control and manipulate the media.

The documents reveal that the DWP monitors and analyses both mainstream and social media to reduce and manage negative coverage.

And even more worryingly, the documents show the DWP have managed to kill hundreds of stories by making sure that they are not reported on.

Almost every month since March 2014 the DWP communications team has produced “Media Evaluation Reports” detailing the ways and methods that the DWP controls negative stories about them in the media.

The DWP refused to release the reports since the Disability News Service (DNS) originally requested them in September 2015 stating they were “commercially sensitive”. 

Finally after a struggle that took over a year, and a complaint by the DNS to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) the documents have finally been released.

The reports show that on a nearly monthly basis from March 2014 to September 2015 the DWP “spiked” (persuaded journalists not to run) a total of 385 stories.

The highest month for spiked stories was June 2015 when the department managed to successfully kill a massive 46 negative stories.

spiked-june-2014

The second highest was March 2014 when the DWP terminated 44 stories.

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In August 2015 the DWP “proactively briefed” the media about long-awaited statistics which showed the amount of ESA claimants who had died after being found fit for work, and successfully spiked coverage in a range of news outlets.

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The reports confirm that the DWP considers the right-wing press to be supportive of them, and highlights cases where they have used them to “set the record straight” and further government policy.

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The reports show that the DWP closely monitors media output, and compiles a “sentiment of articles” chart every month to make sure that they receive positive coverage.

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The reports give valuable insight into a department that is unhealthily focused on the press coverage they receive.

The fact that they have managed to kill so many stories that they don’t approve of raises serious questions as to how the department is exercising its influence over the free press.

The role of journalism is to bring people the truth behind the DWP’s rhetoric, not to act as the chief mouthpiece for it.

Link : Evolve Politics.

The Department for Work and Pensions don’t know what their ethical and safeguarding guidelines are but still claim they have some

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I have recently written quite extensively about problems with how the government conduct “research,” I’ve also highlighted the many official rebukes the Conservatives have faced because of their tendency to invent statistics to “verify” their ideologically-driven, value-laden “hypotheses.”

Who could ever forget the Department for Work and Pension’s fake testimonials from fake benefit claimants telling us all how fakely beneficial the fakesters had found having their fake lifeline benefits withdrawn for fake non-compliance, leading to fake improvements of behaviour, presumably after a bout of fake starvation and destitution.

The new Work and Health Programme, aimed at reducing the number of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), is currently still at a research and trialing stage. Part of the experimental nudge element of this research entails enlisting GPs to “prescribe” job coaches, and to participate in constructing “a health and work passport to collate employment and health information.”  (See The new Work and Health Programme: the government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work.)

This raised some serious ethical concerns for me, which I addressed in a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). The most important part of the request was:

I should like to ask what ethical guidelines are in place regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants. What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing behaviours of claimants? And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department and by job centres?

I did ask a further three brief and reasonable questions, citing a source of information – The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change quoting from it and explaining the questions.

My request was refused.

The DWP response

I can confirm that we hold information falling within the description specified in your request. However, we estimate that the cost of complying with your request would exceed the appropriate limit for central Government, set by regulations at £600. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.

Under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act the Department is not therefore obliged to comply with your request and we will not be processing it further.

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Firstly, something as fundamentally important as safeguarding and ethical guidelines regarding government behavioural/psychological experimentation should actually be available for public access and scrutiny, not hidden away in a place that allegedly takes so much time, effort and money to locate.

Anyone would think those comments are simply an obstructive tactic, if the DWP can confirm that they have the information, then surely that reduces the cost and time spent retrieving and extracting it to comply with my request. Wouldn’t you think?

Someone who is earning £600 for 3½days work is on a very generous annual salary of around £45K. Unless this person is being paid to be intentionally incompetent and obstructive, their job skills suck, it has to be said. So do the logic and reasoning skills of the person who wrote that response.

I also know from experience that the DWP regularly respond only partially. They had the option of answering some of my request, at least. After all, they claim to have the information, seems a shame not to share some of it.

However, because the ethical considerations of government experiments and trials on people needing welfare support are so very important, I have pursued this request further by taking the option of simplifying it.

I wrote:

Dear DWP CAXTON HOUSE Communications,

You confirm that you have the information that I requested, but then claim that it would exceed the £600 limit to provide that
information which you state is because of the “estimated cost of one person spending 3½ working days in determining whether the Department holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting it.”

If you confirm you have the information, then surely that reduces the cost and time spent retrieving and extracting it to comply with my request.

I will however simplify my request. Most people would expect that ethical guidelines, safeguards and the important matter of client consent to participating in Government trials and experiments on people needing welfare support is something that the DWP would have to hand – easy to retrieve and very important information that one would expect to be in the public domain in any case. But I can’t find it.

I refer again to the The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change –
https://gcn.civilservice.gov.uk/wp-conte…

In particular, I refer to page 5: “Behavioural theory is a powerful
tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”

I should like to ask:

  • What ethical guidelines are in place regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants?
  • What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing the behaviours of claimants?
  • And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department for Work and Pensions and by job centres?

Yours sincerely,

Susan Jones

Link to the request

Here is the FoI request and response in full: Use of behavioural theory to change behaviours of people claiming benefits.

Under Section 16 of the FoI Act the DWP should assist me in helping to narrow my request so that it may fall beneath the cost limit. I have narrowed my request and submitted a shorter, simplified version, focussing on the ethical issues only. It is reasonable to expect the DWP, whose remit includes face to face work with some of our most vulnerable citizens, to have ethical and safeguarding guidelines and consent forms to hand without having to pay someone hundreds of pounds for days of work to “find and retrieve” information that ought to be in the public domain anyway. 

In the event of that request being refused, I will be pursuing this further via the Internal Review Mechanism, and if need be, I shall be contacting the Information Commissioner’s Office.

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I wonder if the response was influenced by this

Update

My second amended request has been refused. I have therefore asked for an Internal Review. I said:

Dear DWP CAXTON HOUSE Communications,

I refer to your first response: “Under section 16 of the Act we
should assist you in helping you narrow your request so that it may fall beneath the cost limit. It may help to reduce the number of questions by refocusing it to only a few elements of the presently broad request. We will consider a fresh any revised request however we cannot guarantee that any revised request will fall within the cost limit.”

I subsequently submitted a narrowed and focussed request in
response, with just 3 basic questions from the initial FOI request. You responded by refering to my original request, and completely ignored my amended and narrowed down, shorter request.

I am therefore making a formal complaint that you did not address the reduced, simplified and narrowed down request. I am asking for an internal review.

I wrote:

“I should like to ask what ethical guidelines are in place
regarding the use of behavioural theory on claimants.

What guidelines are in place to protect claimants from any
potential adverse effects of trials and experiments using methods aimed at changing the behaviours of claimants?

And what method of gaining claimant consent (to be used as a
subject in trials and experiments ) is used by the Department for Work and Pensions and by job centres?”

You have stated that you do have this information. As I have
considerably narrowed down the request to 3 very basic questions, the costs involved in retrieving and providing it ought to be quite minimal. It’s also a very reasonable request. The DWP works with some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is especially important that in light of the current experimental nature of behavioural theories, and the current trialing of the new government health and work programme, that there are ethical guidelines and safeguards in place to protect vulnerable clients, and also, that there is a mechanism for gaining informed consent from clients who are subjects of trials and experiments.

These are issues that researchers within the medical sciences and social sciences have to consider every day. Using behavioural modification (“behavioural change theory”) methods on citizens without their consent and without engaging their deliberative processes has enormous ethical implications.

The British Psychological Society , for example, has strict code of
conduct and human research ethics –
http://www.bps.org.uk/sites/default/file…

And I refer to the Helsinki Declaration regarding medical research http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles…

The Geneva Declaration – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaratio…

And the the Nuremberg code includes such principles as informed consent and absence of coercion; properly formulated scientific experimentation; and beneficence towards experiment participants – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_…

These are just a few examples of codes of ethics regarding human research.

There are a wide range of legal and Human Rights implications
connected with experimentation and research trials conducted on social groups and human subjects. My request for clarification that there are ethical guidelines, safeguards and protections for subjects and basic consent mechanisms in place and the details of what they are is therefore a very reasonable one.

Yours sincerely,

Susan Jones

Link to this

I also added that Section 16 of the FoI Act places a duty on public authorities to provide reasonable advice and assistance to applicants. I was not provided with “advice or assistance.” I was not asked if I prefer to narrow my request in an alternative way to reduce costs (this is a breach of the section 16 duty to advise and assist). Nonetheless I did narrow my request, and that was completely ignored, the second response I received was related entirely to the initial request. In fact it was exactly the same response. I also challenged the DWP’s estimate of the costs of meeting my request. The rest of the grounds for my request for an Internal Review may be viewed here.

Department for Work and Pensions officials admit to using fake claimant’s comments to justify benefit sanctions

From the Welfare Weekly site.


Government officials have admitted that claimant’s comments used in an official benefit sanctions information leaflet were “for illustrative purposes only”.

The revelation comes in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from Welfare Weekly, in which the site authors questioned whether the comments used in the leaflet were of a genuine or fake nature.

Welfare Weekly asked the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to provide any evidence or information to prove that the comments used in the publication were from “genuine” claimants.

Within days of submitting their request to the DWP, the original information leaflet suddenly disappeared from the government’s website without explanation.

However, Welfare Weekly had already downloaded a copy of the leaflet (pdf) in anticipation of the response to our FOI request.

That leaflet included comments from two sickness benefit claimants who had supposedly been affected by benefit sanctions, Zac and Sarah.

Source: DWP
Source: DWP

According to the leaflet, Zac had said:

“I let my work coach know in advance that I couldn’t go to our meeting because I had a hospital appointment.

I had a good reason for not going to the meeting and proof of the appointment. My benefit payment hasn’t changed and we booked another meeting I could get to.”

While Susan had allegedly said:

“I didn’t think a CV would help me but my work coach told me that all employers need one. I didn’t have a good reason for not doing it and I was told I’d lose some of my payment. I decided to complete the CV and told my work coach.

I got a letter to say my benefit would go down for two weeks. I was told it was longer than a week because I missed a meeting with my work coach back in March.

My benefit is back to normal now and I’m really pleased with how my CV looks. It’s going to help me when I’m ready to go back to work.”

However, Welfare Weekly have revealed that neither of these comments came from genuine Employment and Support Allowance claimants.

Both comment’s were completely made up and included to “help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions”, according to the DWP.

The response to Welfare Weekly’s Freedom of Information request reads:

“The photos used are stock photos and along with the names do not belong to real claimants.

The stories are for illustrative purposes only.

We want to help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions. Using practical examples can help us achieve this.

We have temporarily changed the pictures to silhouettes and added a note to make it more clear that these are illustrative examples only.

We will test both versions of the factsheet with claimants and external stakeholders to further improve it in the future. This will include working with external organisations.”

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The DWP have used comments and accounts that are untrue in a blatant attempt to justify the use of cruel and punitive welfare sanctions, and to invalidate the experiences of genuine claimants in distress and material hardship because of sanctions. The revelation is particularly controversial because the sanctions system is causing extreme hardship,  sometimes, death, and is being operated in an unfair and arbitrary way.

 Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the PCS union, said:

“It’s disgraceful and sinister that the DWP has been trying to trick people into believing claimants are happy to have their benefits stopped or threatened. Sanctions are unnecessarily punitive and counterproductive, and should be scrapped.”

The institute that is responsible for regulating the behaviour of organisations producing public relations material – the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) – has launched an investigation into whether any of its members were involved in producing the document of lies.

CIPR president Sarah Pinch said:

“Falsely creating the impression of independent, popular support is a naive and opaque technique which blatantly disregards the CIPR’s standards of ethical conduct. It is deeply disappointing if public relations professionals allowed it to be published.”

I’ve written at length about the adverse consequences of increased benefit conditionality and sanctioning elsewhere on this site. See Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England?  This is a blatant attempt to normalise an exceptionally punitive political approach to “supporting people into work” using social norming techniques, amongst others.

I’ve also written about the fact that we have a government formulating policy that does not address economic, structural and political causes of poverty, instead the aim is to bring about “behavioural changes” within the population – particularly amongst the poorest and the most vulnerable social groups – to suit the anti-welfare ideology of New Right Conservatism, ministers seem to have forgotten that democratically elected governments are meant to address the needs of a population, rather than the converse being true. This despicable tactic was aimed at hiding the truth: sanctions have a devastating impact on people’s lives, as the benefit being removed is calculated at a rate to meet only basic needs, such as food, fuel and shelter in the first place.

In a democratic, rights-based society, we ought to expect that the public are not stigmatised and “acted upon,” using techniques of persuasion ordinarily reserved for the advertising and marketing industry, and by the deployment of propaganda and outright lies by the government, in order to fulfil purely ideological directives. Governments serve the public, in first-world Liberal democracies.

We call a political system where the public are expected and directed to accommodate the government’s needs “totalitarianism.”

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Are you willing to share your experience of benefit sanctions? 38 Degrees are asking people to share their sanction stories, if you would be happy for it to be used publicly. 38 degrees will ensure all contributions are published using first names only.  Please click here to participate in the Speak Out survey and campaign.

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Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the image.