The Department for Work and Pensions’ repeated failure to publicise research could erode trust in the department, MPs have warned.
Sir Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, has written to secretary of state Thérèse Coffey to raise concerns about the department’s numerous failures to release research and information “despite expectations or previous commitments to do so”.
“The committee is concerned that the department’s lack of transparency could undermine the trust [of] the public, parliament and the department,” Timms said.
In January the committee used House of Commons powers to order NatCen Social Research to provide a copy of a report it carried out for DWP, The Uses of Health and Disability Benefits, after the department repeatedly refused to publish the research.
“We would have preferred this research to have been published by the department, as was originally envisaged when it was commissioned, and we did not accept your response that the research was kept privately to allow ministers space to develop policies,” Timms said in the letter.
Timms said several organisations and individuals had been in touch with the committee about research and information that has not been published by the department, “despite expectations or previous commitments to do so”.
This includes an evaluation of the impact of the benefit cap, which the department said it would publish in spring 2019. The department is yet to provide any clarity on when the report will be published.
Another report, into the effect that carer’s allowance has on people’s ability to work, was planned for publication in summer 2020, but has not yet been released almost two years later. Responding to a parliamentary question asking why the report had not been published in March 2021, then-minister for disabled people, health and work Justin Tomlinson said the department was undertaking research that would touch on carers’ employment and potential barriers to them working.
The government has also refused to publish research on the effectiveness of support for vulnerable claimants of Universal Credit dating back to June 2019. It said this would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. But Timms said: “It is our view that it is in the interest of the public and parliament that this report is published.”
Another report due to be released more than two years ago, looking into whether the sanctions regime within Universal Credit is effective at supporting claimants to search for work, also looks set to go unpublished. The department had commited to publish it in spring 2020, but a DWP spokesperson told the Guardian in January that the department could not publish the report because it did not present a comprehensive picture of sanctions.
Timms accused the DWP of having a “culture of secrecy” in March over a related case, where the department failed to hand over data to researchers looking into the health impact of sanctions imposed on benefits claimants.
The government has also refused to publish research on the effectiveness of support for vulnerable claimants of Universal Credit dating back to June 2019. It said this would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs. Timms said: “It is our view that it is in the interest of the public and parliament that this report is published.”
Other information the DWP has failed to release includes:
- Freedom of Information requests seeking internal reports on inaccessible digital services and internal process reports on deaths of benefits claimants.
- Statistics on claimants who have had a work capability assessment through Universal Credit. For Personal Independence Payment and Employment and Support Allowance, WCA statistics are published and the government has promised the same for Universal Credit since 2017, according to Timms.
Timms has asked for updates on when research and information will be released or for explanations for why they will not be released. He has asked Coffey to respond to the letter by 15 July.
The committee will get an opportunity before then to demand answers, when Coffey gives evidence to the MPs on 29 June.
Timms said the committee would “look forward” to discussing the department’s approach to publishing documents and research at the meeting later this month.
A DWP spokesperson said the department would respond "in due course".