Urgent Question Elicits No Answers

Yesterday I applied for an Urgent Question on the Prime Minister’s refusal to publish data on the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit who have died since November 2011, including those found fit for work. This followed on from his commitment to do so on 24th June and my numerous subsequent questions, letters and Points of Order in the House.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister did not respond to the Urgent Question himself and instead nominated the junior Employment Minister. In her responses to me and colleagues the Minister failed to answer any of the questions put to her and made a vague commitment to publishing the statistics in the ‘autumn’. As ‘autumn’ in Parliamentary terms has been known to stretch until late December (!) the publication date may be some time off.

I have published the question and full debate on it below, so you can see for yourself just how many times the Minister fails to answer my questions and those of colleagues:

DWP Data

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister to make a statement on his commitment of 24 June to publish Department for Work and Pensions data on the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit who have died since November 2011, including those found fit for work.

The Minister for Employment (Priti Patel): The Government intend to publish mortality statistics, but before doing so the statistics need to meet the high standards expected of official statistics. Once we have completed that important work, we will publish them.

Debbie Abrahams: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

I am disappointed that the Prime Minister is not here in person to explain why he has not yet honoured his commitment of 24 June to publish the data. On 30 April, the Information Commissioner ruled that the Department for Work and Pensions should publish data on the number of people in receipt of employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit who have died since November 2011, including those who had been found fit for work. The Government have since appealed the decision, stating in their appeal that the publication would be

“contrary to the public interest”

and that the publication of mortality statistics is “emotive”. To date, more than 240,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Government to publish the data.

As the House will be aware, on 24 June the Prime Minister was asked, at Prime Minister’s questions, by my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) about the publication of the data. He said:

“let me reassure the hon. Lady that the data will be published; they are being prepared for publication as we speak. I think that it is important that we publish data, and this Government have published more data about public spending than any previous Government.”—[Official Report, 24 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 886.]

I have since raised this issue in two points of order, at a Westminster Hall debate on 30 June, by writing directly to the Prime Minister and by tabling a named day written question to him, which his office decided to transfer to the Department for Work and Pensions and to which I received a non-answer yesterday from the Minister for Employment.

I have some specific questions. First, when will we see the data published, including on those who have been found fit for work, given the Prime Minister’s comment of nearly four weeks ago? When are they being prepared for publication? Secondly, will the Minister commit to publishing the actual numbers of deaths, as well as the DWP’s proposed age standardised mortality rates, as they did in 2012 when the actual number of deaths was published?

Thirdly, will the Minister inform the House how much the Secretary of State’s Department has spent on staff and legal fees in the decision to refuse the initial freedom of information request and now to contest the Information Commissioner’s ruling? Fourthly, will the Secretary of State reconsider his decision not to publish the details on any of his Department’s 49 peer reviews into social security claimants who died, including, most importantly, changes his Department has brought forward as a result of them?

Finally, what assessment has been undertaken on the potential impact on the health status of those on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance, given the measures introduced in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill?

Just four weeks ago, the Prime Minister promised urgent action. Now is the time to deliver—to be open, transparent and publish the numbers the public and Parliament are calling for. Without that, this House is brought into disrepute.

Priti Patel: I cannot be clearer than the Prime Minister, who last week set out the position very clearly. The data—[Interruption.] Would Labour Members like to listen to my response before they start chuntering away? I will restate what I said in my initial response: the data will be published and are being prepared for publication as we speak.

Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab): When?

Priti Patel: If the hon. Lady will let me respond, I will tell the House exactly that.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Arrogant.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): You are the Father of the House!

Priti Patel: If I may respond directly—

Mr Speaker: Order. I respect the fact that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is trying to help his Minister, but he should calm down, as should everybody. Let us hear the Minister’s answer.

Priti Patel: The position on data publication has not changed. The data are being finalised and will be published shortly. They will be published very soon, and no later than the autumn.

I say to Labour Members chuntering away and shaking their heads that Labour had 13 years to publish the data and failed to do so. Is it any coincidence that they are now showing some interest in this area?

Dawn Butler indicated dissent.

Priti Patel: I say to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) that we were the first Government to publish ad hoc statistics in this very area. [Interruption.] Labour Members are shaking their heads because they do not like the fact that we have published data previously.

Dawn Butler: Misleading.

Priti Patel: I say to the hon. Lady chuntering away that I am not misleading the House. I am informing the House that data publication will happen. I restate for the benefit of all Members that the data will be published no later than the autumn. We were the first Government to publish ad hoc statistics in this area, and I think this is quite audacious of the Labour party, given that it never published any such information when in government.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I wish to say two things. First, I remind the House that moderation and good humour are underlined in “Erskine May”as being of the essence of good parliamentary proceedings. Secondly, it is important to say at the start that this urgent question is a narrow one, not an opportunity for a general exchange about employment support allowance or incapacity benefit, or the merit or demerit of the Government’s policies on those matters. There have been many such debates. This is an occasion for a narrow focus on the issue of data, upon which the urgent question was focused, so our proceedings will be tightly constrained. I do not intend there to be long exchanges on this matter. Perhaps we can be led, in a statesman-like manner, from the Government Back Benches by Dr Andrew Murrison.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the well-established link between good health, particularly good mental health, and work. Will she ensure that in the long term her Department gathers information that will support or refute that assertion?

Priti Patel: Absolutely; we will be doing exactly that.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): There is huge disquiet among disabled people, as story after story surfaces in the media about disabled people being found fit for work and dying shortly afterwards—last week another story appeared in the Daily Mirror about a disabled man who died two weeks after his assessment. The shenanigans in the DWP around the release of the statistics are concerning—and puzzling, if the Department has nothing to hide. First, the Secretary of State told Parliament that the DWP did not collect the data, in the teeth of the Information Commissioner’s ruling to release them. Within days, he was flatly contradicted by the Prime Minister, and now we hear that the DWP is appealing publication of the data that the Secretary of State first said were not collected.

Will the Minister come clean before the House? She said the data would be published “shortly”, “very soon” and “no later than the autumn”. Why is it taking so long? On what grounds is the DWP appealing publication, and will the data, when eventually published, be timely? It is feared that by the time this procrastination has finally resulted in publication, the data will be so out of date as to be pretty well useless. Will the raw data be published, and what analysis will accompany them to meet the high standards for the publication of Government statistics to which she claims the Department aspires? Finally, will she explain why the Secretary of State first claimed the data were not being collected, when blatantly they were and are, as he now apparently acknowledges?

Priti Patel: I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I think it is fair to say that, as I stated earlier, the Government are going to publish these statistics. Despite the scaremongering and the gross misrepresentation from the Opposition—scaremongering about suicides, I should hasten to add, which is a complete misrepresentation —I should say that Labour introduced the work capability assessment back in 2008, and at that time Labour Members did not say that it was leading to people committing suicide.

When it comes to publication, this is complex statistical information. As the hon. Lady and, I am sure, all Opposition Members will know, we are bound as a Department by the Statistics Authority on the quality of information that is published, so it is very important that we get this right. Let me emphasise that officials are working as we speak to prepare the data, and we will be publishing them very soon. I have said it already and I will say it again: we will publish before the autumn this year, and once the data are published I will be very happy to take questions on the content and any other aspect of the data that the hon. Lady and hon. Members see fit.

Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Will the Minister commit to releasing data pre-2010, from under the previous Labour Government, who introduced work capability assessments, so that we can fully assess the impact that the Labour party’s policy had?

Priti Patel: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. When we publish the data, they will cover all the relevant periods to which he has referred.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) every good fortune in awaiting a reply to a letter to the Prime Minister, in view of the fact that in the last five years I have had exactly one letter from him, and that was after I had received a letter from No. 10 signed by somebody who did not exist.

I say to the junior Minister that she needs to take some lessons from her boss in dealing with questions in this House, because whatever the nature of his replies, he replies with courtesy. She needs to learn about that as well. Let me put it to the junior Minister that yesterday the Government broke a pledge about providing information and conducting consultation, and today we have a further example of the Government breaking a pledge. Will she explain whether this is simply arrogance or incompetence?

Priti Patel: With courtesy to the Father of the House, I would re-emphasise that the data will be published, and when they are published, he can review them.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that any death is of course a tragedy, but that individual tragedies should not simply be rolled into a set of statistics and then plucked out by people who obviously have a political agenda to push?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend raises a very valid point. When it comes to deaths, these are personal and individual tragedies, in circumstances—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order.

Priti Patel: These are personal and individual tragedies that affect both the individual and, obviously, their families as well. It is absolutely wrong for any political party to engage in handwringing and scaremongering to the extent that we have seen in this House.

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): May I also thank the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) for tabling this urgent question and assure her that I am also getting the same answers to written questions as she is?

Too often, we hear stories in the media about people who have died having been found fit for work or who have been driven to their deaths by the Government’s pernicious benefits sanctions regime. We have heard from the Department for Work and Pensions that it currently investigates all deaths of benefit claimants

“where suicide is associated with DWP activity”,

and in other cases where the death of a vulnerable benefit claimant is brought to its attention, through a system of internal peer reviews. A freedom of information disclosure shows that, since 2012, the Department for Work and Pensions has carried out 49 peer reviews following the death of a benefit claimant and that 10 of the peer reviewed claimants were sanctioned.

Is the Department for Work and Pensions still pursuing an appeal against the Information Commissioner’s ruling, or is it abandoning it in the light of the data being published? If the Department is going to publish that information, can we be given a clear timetable for the publication of the data, not just “very soon” and “the autumn”, because they are complete opposites?

Lastly, the Minister will be aware that, last June, the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee called for an urgent review of the benefits sanctions and conditionality regime, and in March the Work and Pensions Committee in this place published a report calling for a full independent review of the benefits sanctions process. Having been asked by two cross-party Committees in two Parliaments, will the Government now go ahead with an independent review at the earliest possible opportunity?

Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. It is right that the Department reviews complex individual cases, including those in which claimants have died, to ensure that all processes have been followed correctly. As I have said on previous occasions to Scottish National party Members, I am happy to look at specific cases. On the point about sanctions, unemployment benefits have always been conditional, and benefits sanctions have been part of the system for the last four decades, as is right and proper. As regards the appeal and the publication of the data, I have already said that we will, as requested, publish all aspects of the data in the right format as is required of the Department.

Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s pledge to publish the data in the autumn. Does she agree that, if we are to form a judgment, it is very important that comparative data are published, not least longitudinal data for the cohorts involved, to see whether the situation is improving, and perhaps some international comparisons?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we will publish all the relevant data in this area.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): Does not the Minister accept that although of course each case is a personal and individual tragedy, we aggregate and analyse data to see whether a pattern emerges? Does she accept that as long as she drags her feet on this issue, people will conclude that the Government may have something to hide?

Priti Patel: On the contrary, I find that question astonishing. I take no lessons in transparency or the publication of data from the Labour party. The last Government were more open and transparent in data publication than any other. In the wider context of statistics, I have said it once and will say it again and again that we intend to meet the high standards expected of official statistics when publishing these data, and that is what we will concentrate on doing.

Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and I sat on the Work and Pensions Committee in the last Parliament and took part in its inquiry into benefits sanctions, which reported just before Parliament dissolved. She will be aware also that we called for the publication of these data, but that we made a more subtle point, which is that the data are meaningful only if they include information about each individual’s experiences before contact with the benefits system. To publish the data in raw form would overlook the integration that they may have with the health service, mental health services and any other public agencies involved before the individual encountered the DWP. Will the Minister ensure that that information is included?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend, from his time on the Select Committee, knows the significance of such information. He is absolutely right, and we should not make assumptions about such data.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Does the Minister recognise that accusing Opposition Members of scaremongering is hugely insulting to those constituents who have contacted us because they are deeply worried about this matter? Does she recognise that, to them, it looks as though the Government are hiding this information, reinforcing concerns that this is a punitive regime designed to hurt people who are disabled? The Government have already rushed out 17 written ministerial statements today, the last day that the House sits before the recess. Why will the Minister not add a statement on this matter?

Priti Patel: Contrary to the hon. Lady’s point, we will be the first to publish this information. I say again for the record—not for the second, third or even the fourth time—the data are coming. They will be published, and we have nothing to hide.

Dr Tania Mathias (Twickenham) (Con): I agree that transparency is important, but where data are sensitive, their interpretation and the human stories behind them are important too. I have had amazing help from the Minister and the Secretary of State, who have visited my constituency and met individuals with complex needs. I am very grateful for the troubleshooting and assistance being given, and I look forward to that continuing over the summer. While data are important, people’s ongoing needs are important too.

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend will know from her background as a doctor in her constituency that people have different needs, and individual cases are very complex. She is right to say that we can make no assumptions just by looking at data; it is about putting people first and understanding their needs.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): Just over a year ago, 130,000 people signed a petition and there was a debate in the House calling for a cumulative impact assessment by the Government of the welfare changes on people with disabilities. These data are just one element of that. The House decided without opposition that the Government should undertake that exercise. Are they giving any consideration to conducting a cumulative impact assessment?

Priti Patel: The last Labour Government never published a cumulative impact statement, and our focus right now is on publishing this set of data, as we have committed to do.

Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement that the data will be published soon. Does she agree that, when they appear, it is important that they are analysed and that any lessons are learned, because data are pretty useless if we do not do that?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend is right. As I have said, data are complex and we should not simply read them and make assumptions; they need analysis.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South West) (Lab): I entirely agree that one should not make assumptions and that the last Government had a better record on transparency of statistics than some previous Governments, albeit the Office for National Statistics repeatedly criticised Ministers in the last Government for misusing statistics. The Minister accuses Opposition Members of scare- mongering and hand-wringing, but how can she know—I do not—unless she already has the statistics?

Priti Patel: As I have said, the statistics will be published, and the hon. Gentleman can then make his own informed decision.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): As the Minister stated, unemployment benefits have always been conditional. Will she tell the House how often these statistics were published by the Labour party when it was in government?

Priti Patel: It is a very short answer—never.

Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are appealing against the decision on publishing the data, what costs have been incurred and why the Secretary of State did not make the House of Commons aware of the appeal in the first instance, instead of stating that the figures were not being collated?

Priti Patel: We will publish the data, and Opposition Members can then make their own judgment.

Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if inaccurate or rushed data were published, she would then be accused, including by Opposition Members, of gross carelessness, given the sensitivity of those data?

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. It is hugely ironic to hear the remarks of Labour Members, whose Government never published any information or data in this area. We are expected to meet the high standards required for the official publication of statistics, and that is exactly what this Government will do.

Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP): Will all due respect to the Minister, she has not answered the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) and the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer). Will she appeal the Information Commissioner’s decision? Will the data be backdated to November 2011? Given that 200,000 people, including many of my constituents, have signed a petition calling for the data to be published, will there be parliamentary time to scrutinise it?

Priti Patel: The data will be published. The urgent question is specifically about the publication of mortality statistics.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s announcement that she will provide the data requested and will look at it analytically, in the way that other Members have suggested. Does she share my slight concern that the phrasing of the urgent question, particularly the inclusion of the words “found fit for work”, implies something sinister? We all know of people not only found fit for work but actually working and fit while working who have died in sad circumstances, including former Members of the House. This issue should be handled very sensitively when the data emerge.

Priti Patel: My hon. Friend has made a valid point. I think it is fair to say that the fit for work assessment was introduced by the Labour Government. Our focus now is on the fact that—I remind the House—those data are coming, and will be published before the autumn.

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): DWP Ministers tried to sit on information from internally generated data which suggested that one in five deaths of benefit claimants had been linked to sanctions. Perhaps we can be forgiven our scepticism about the Minister’s definition of autumn: after all, this Government publish their autumn statements in December.

More important, what steps will the Minister take to look into cases that have led from morbidity to mortality? In my constituency, the failure of Atos to pay home visits to severely ill people on some occasions has caused real health problems. A constituent of mine had motor neurone disease, but failed the assessment for employment and support allowance.

Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Atos. We, of course, terminated that contract. [Interruption.] It was part of the Labour legacy that we were there to clear up. As for the data, they will be published, and they will be published before the autumn.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I do not intend these questions to last longer than half an hour in total, so there is pressure on colleagues to be brief. I call Mr Skinner.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I think the Minister should tell us whether there is to be an appeal. She has been asked that several times, and she has not answered. I am thinking of the family of David Cowpe, who lived in my area, and whose case I raised with the Prime Minister more than two years ago. He lost his sight, he lost his hearing, and then cancer took his life when he had been waiting 11 months for an appeal. A lot of promises have been made, but nothing seems to be forthcoming. I have to say that this delay almost emanates from the Secretary of State, whom I call the Minister for Delay, and it has gone on for too long. I think it is high time that this matter was resolved. I say to the Minister, “Stand up at that Dispatch Box and say that you are not going to appeal, and that you are going to get on with it.”

Priti Patel: The hon. Gentleman has raised the tragic case of his constituent, but he has also raised the need to resolve this matter by publishing data, which is exactly what the Government will be doing.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): This sorry story underlines the immense importance of the role of the Information Commissioner. Can the Minister give us an absolute assurance that, notwithstanding what is in the review, she will not make her Department take any action or demand any changes that restrict the availability of information and data?

Priti Patel: Not only will we publish the data, but we will publish all aspects of the data that we have been asked to publish.

Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Given that autumn lasts from the September equinox until the December solstice, will the Minister spell out exactly what work her civil servants will be doing? She must have some idea of what is needed, because otherwise she would not have specified that timescale. What will those civil servants be doing during the intervening weeks and, possibly, months?

Priti Patel: We will be doing all that is relevant. This is complex statistical information, so it is important that we get it right, and that is precisely what my officials are doing.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Exactly how much have the prevarication and delays cost the British taxpayer?

Priti Patel: There is no prevarication or delay. We have been very clear—[Interruption.] I hear sniggers on the Opposition Benches, but we were the first Government to publish data in this area, and I think it shameful that the Labour party has not done so. This Government now intend to publish the statistics, and that is exactly what we will do.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Each month the Department for Work and Pensions publishes vast amounts of information on employment figures, wages and benefits. It has always done so, and, by the way, Ministers never seem to be shy about placing their own interpretation on those data. Should it really be so difficult for them to tell us whether people are alive or dead?

Priti Patel: We do not place our interpretation on data that my Department publishes, because we are bound by the UK Statistics Authority when it comes to how they are presented. As I have said, these data will be published. Let me also reiterate once again that ours is one of the most transparent Governments ever, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s Government.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The Minister has said that the data will be robust, but I simply do not accept the Government’s narrative that some people in receipt of employment and support allowance or incapacity benefit are not ill, because those are good epidemiological considerations when it comes to public health indicators. Why will the Minister not do the decent thing and publish the data in full today?

Priti Patel: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was disappointed by my response, but the data will be published. He should remember, when he criticises these schemes, that his Government set them up prior to 2010, and that it is we who are reforming the mess that we inherited.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): How many meetings and discussions have taken place between Ministers and officials over the past 12 months about the compilation and presentation of the data?

Priti Patel: I have already said that we will publish the data. [Interruption.] We were the first Government ever to publish such information, which we did back in 2012. This is work in progress: my officials are now working on the publication of the data.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I think the public will be appalled that the Government have adopted the tone that we heard in the Minister’s response today. May I pursue the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson)? The Minister said that we would have the data by the autumn. Having looked it up, I have established that autumn will begin on 21 September. Can the Minister confirm that she will come to the House during the two weeks following our return in September, make a statement, and hear our responses to it?

Priti Patel: As I have said, the data will be published. Once they have been published, I shall be happy to take questions about them from Labour Members and, indeed, all other Members.

Natalie McGarry (Glasgow East) (SNP): Given some of the Minister’s replies today, it is clear that she likes repetition, and now I am going to copy her. Will she please answer the question that has been asked by my hon. Friends, and tell us whether she will appeal against the decision?

Priti Patel: Let me say again, for the record, that we will publish the data—[Interruption]—and that, before the autumn, we will publish all the aspects of those data that we have been asked to publish.

21 July 2015 : Column 1382

Leave a Reply