DWP accused of ‘reprehensible’ breach of the regulation over DNS data battle – Incapacity Information Service
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been accused by senior lawyers of “extraordinary and reprehensible violation of the law” for failing to comply with its legal obligations to publish information about the editor of the Disability News Service, John Pring.
Pring has been trying to get details about emails and other information written about him by DWP’s communications department for the past two years.
But while the Information Commissioner’s office agreed that DWP’s failure to provide the information was a clear breach of data protection laws, the department has repeatedly refused to release the information.
Now Mishcon de Reya’s legal information rights experts have agreed to act free of charge for the editor of the Disability News Service (DNS) in its fight to secure DWP’s information.
You wrote to DWP about Pring’s last attempt to back up the information in January 2020.
The letter stated that the agency’s behavior was “unfair and illegal” and that it had 21 days to comply with its legal obligations.
Pring had asked to see copies of emails mentioning him that were sent or received in 2019 by members of the disability section of DWP’s communications department.
DWP should have provided the information within a month, and certainly within three months, but has repeatedly failed to respond or provide the information to emails related to the request.
In her letter, Mishcon de Reya said that DWP had “completely failed” to respond under the General Data Protection Regulation and that this failure was “an exceptional and reprehensible violation of law”.
It indicates that DWP also ignored instructions from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last year to provide the information to Pring “as soon as possible”.
In his letter, Mishcon de Reya told DWP: “Our client is a distinguished journalist – the founder and editor of Disability News Service, a highly regarded public interest news publication that fills the void created by the lack of in-depth coverage in both the specialist field – as well as in the mainstream media on issues affecting the lives of people with disabilities.
“Our client has a compelling interest in understanding what personal data you are processing about him, in his capacity as a journalist and activist on matters of high public interest.
“And he has a right to the data and related information: your disregard of his rights – and a grave violation of your legal obligations – is horribly reflected on you as a government agency.”
Mishcon de Reya also points out that Pring was forced to take legal action because ICO refused to use its own powers to ensure that DWP relayed the information.
Jon Baines, Senior Data Protection Specialist at Mishcon de Reya, said, “Mr. Pring should never have been put in this situation.
“Having access to its data within a certain timeframe is a basic human right, yet DWP has chosen to evade its obligations in this regard while the ICO has simply stepped down and refused to take meaningful action.
“It cannot be right that a data subject – and especially one who has such an important public interest role as Mr Pring – is forced to consult lawyers just to get a government agency to comply with the law.”
DNS was originally contacted with Mishcon de Reya earlier this year by the Campaign for Freedom of Information (CFOI).
Katherine Gundersen, Assistant Director of the CFOI said, “We are deeply concerned that a government agency has been able to disregard its legal obligations for so long and the ICO has allowed it to do so.
“We understand that the ICO cannot enforce every request for access to the topic that it receives a complaint about, but it needs to show that it is willing to do so if necessary.
“In this case, the DWP discriminates against a journalist whose reporting on disability issues it apparently considered disruptive and ignored an instruction from the supervisory authority to provide him with the data stored about him.”
An ICO spokesman said: “The Department of Labor and Pensions has informed us that it has fully responded to the request for access in question. We’re reopening the case now.
“Our role as an independent regulator is to act in the public interest and our approach has always been to be a pragmatic and proportionate regulator as outlined in our Regulatory Policy.”
A DWP spokesman said the department will not add to its previous written responses on the subject of access requests.
Meanwhile, DWP and the government’s Disability Department appear to continue to treat the DNS and its disabled editor less fairly than other journalists and publications.
After DNS was informed last week by a non-governmental source of the impending launch of the National Strategy for People with Disabilities, Pring asked the cabinet press office – where the unit for people with disabilities is based – to submit a copy of the report with an embargo .
There was no response to this request from the Cabinet Office, and while other journalists across the country were able to read the strategy hours before it was published, DNS did not.
DNS was also not invited to a briefing on strategy by Justin Tomlinson, Minister for the Disabled, with journalists from other national publications.
Last week the DWP press office did not send any press releases to DNS about the new Green Paper on Disability Benefits.
Although DNS subsequently asked a DWP press officer to ensure that it received all of the department’s press releases, no press release or copy of the disability strategy was sent last week, other than a press release on the transport elements of the Department of Transport’s strategy.
The Cabinet Office refused to comment on the failure to provide DNS with an embargoed copy of the National Strategy for People with Disabilities.
A DWP spokesperson also declined to comment on the failure to provide DNS with an embargoed copy of the strategy.
He said he sent DNS a copy of the strategy and press release upon request, but only in response to a complaint from DNS and after the strategy was published and posted on the DWP website.
He said he was on annual vacation the previous week and was unaware that DNS had asked for all future DWP press releases to be sent.
He said, “I apologize that this was not sent to you sooner.”
He said the media briefing was only held with the “national press” and “that was in no way a humiliation against you”.
In recent years, DNS has had to repeatedly ask the DWP press office to provide it with press releases from the departments because it has repeatedly failed to do so.
And last year, DWP stopped providing meaningful responses to DNS messages until it was publicly embarrassed for changing its policies.
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and enable it to continue producing independent, carefully researched news that focuses on the lives and rights of people with disabilities and their user-run organizations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford it, and be aware that DNS is not a charity. It is operated and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been in existence since its inception in April 2009.
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