By Tony Collins
The DWP is continuing its protracted legal fight to stop publication of four reports on the Universal Credit programme.
The department this week asked the upper tribunal for leave to appeal a decision of the first-tier information tribunal that the four reports be published. The first-tier tribunal had refused the DWP leave to appeal.
As expected, the DWP is doing everything possible within the FOI Act to stop the UC programme reports being published. This is despite MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee saying there is a “lack of transparency” on the Universal Credit programme.
The reports in question are more than two years old but they would show how much ministers knew about UC programme problems at a time when the DWP was issuing regular press releases claiming the scheme was on time and to budget.
By law the DWP has to deal with every FOI request individually but in practice the department has rejected every FOI request for reviews and assessments of its major IT-enabled projects and programmes including Universal Credit.
The four reports in question are:
– A project assessment review on the state of the UC programme in November 2011, as assessed by the Cabinet Office’s Major Projects Authority.
– A risk register of possible risks to the development or eventual operation of UC as perceived by those involved.
– An issues register of problems that have materialised, why and how they can be minimised or eliminated.
– A milestone schedule of progress and times by which activities should be completed.
In his request to the upper tribunal for leave to appeal the first-tier tribunal’s decision, the DWP’s lawyer argues that the first-tier tribunal wholly misunderstood the nature of any “chilling effect” that publishing the reports would have on the frankness of civil servants contributing to them.
He said that the tribunal’s finding that disclosure of the reports would have no chilling effect was “perverse”, and that the tribunal failed to give due weight to the evidence of a senior civil servant Sarah Cox on the chilling effect.
He said that “many ex-ministers and others have spoken of the chilling effect of disclosure as an observable phenomenon within government” though he provided no evidence of this in his submission.
He added that the first-tier tribunal’s reasoning was “defective” in a number of respects. The tribunal had made a fundamental error of law, he said.
The tribunal’s “factual conclusion that disclosure of the disputed information would have no chilling effect whatsoever was one which no reasonable tribunal, properly directing itself as to the relevant legal principles, could have reached,” said the DWP’s lawyer.