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Disability rights campaigners win appeal against government’s refusal to publicise investigations into alleged suicides.

The Department for Work and Pensions may be forced to disclose details of secret investigations into the suicides and other deaths of benefit claimants, after a successful tribunal appeal.

Disability rights campaigners, mental health charities and the families of claimants who have killed themselves or died after cuts to benefits have argued that 49 DWP secret investigations or “peer reviews” into the deaths of claimants should be published. A peer review is triggered when a suicide or alleged suicide is “associated with a DWP activity”, according to its internal guidance.

The Disability News Service (DNS), which first disclosed that the DWP had conducted 60 reviews into the deaths of benefit claimants after a freedom of information request in 2014, won its appeal against the DWP’s subsequent refusal to publish any information from them and the decision of the information commissioner’s office (ICO), last September, to uphold the government’s refusal.

The DWP later corrected its own figures on the number of investigations “following the death of a customer” from 60 to 49. Forty of them were carried out after a suicide or alleged suicide.

The decision by the first-tier information rights tribunal last week will mean that, pending any appeal by the DWP or the ICO, the government will be forced to hand over details of the investigations that do not directly relate to those who died. The DWP and DNS have been given five weeks to resolve the matter.

John Pring, of the Disability News Service, said the data was crucial in order to hold the DWP to account over deaths linked to the withdrawal or non-payment of benefits and fit-for-work tests, and to whether it has implemented changes to its procedures to avoid such deaths happening again.

“It is good news and hopefully will allow us to hold DWP to account for actions they have taken with regard to benefit deaths,” said Pring. “We are hoping we will be able to draw strong conclusions.”

But he said it was unclear what the records would look like, because any findings or lessons to be learned relating to “a particular person” in the reviews is exempt under the Social Security Administrations Act.

The panel ruled that the information commissioner had made an error in law by agreeing with the DWP that releasing any of the information was unauthorised under the act.

Andrew Bartlett, QC, the tribunal judge who led the three-person tribunal panel, said in the ruling: “We express the hope that DWP will revisit Mr Pring’s information request in the light of our decision to allow the appeal and set aside the [information commissioner’s] decision notice and, under the oversight of the commissioner, disclose what should have been disclosed in answer to his request.”

The information the DWP may be forced to release will not include details of the circumstances of the death or even the summaries of the findings, but is expected to provide most of the recommendations.

Linda Cooksey, who battled for two years to get information from the DWP in the case of her partially sighted brother, Tim Salter, who killed himself after being found fit for work, welcomed the news.

Cooksey said: “It’s been a very long, drawn-out process to get any information at all. You have to keep going, to keep pushing, to keep writing letters.”

She received an apology from the DWP this year after a health service ombudsman partially upheld her complaint over the case of her brother, who died in September 2013.

Cooksey said she has still not seen her brother’s peer review, but believes all 49 secret investigations should be published, so that lessons could be learned and other families helped to come to terms with what had happened.

“It could help other families and stop it happening again,” she said.

Last year, a coroner warned the government that further action was needed to prevent further deaths, after ruling that a man’s suicide in 2013 was triggered by a fit-for-work test. The DWP have said improvements have been made since then.

Anita Bellows, of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “The department’s culture of secrecy means that mistakes were and are covered up, and not rectified. DWP always maintained that these peer reviews only dealt with DWP procedures compliance and were not a forensic examination of what went wrong. Therefore they are unlikely to have led to major improvements in the way claimants are treated, but they can offer us a very useful insight into the way the DWP works, or not.”

The DWP said it had conducted 49 reviews of deaths between February 2012 and the autumn of 2014. Twenty-two of them occurred in 2012/13. There were 16 in 2013/14 and 11 in 2014/15.

Asked by the Guardian if they would appeal the decision, both the DWP and the ICO said they were still considering the decision.

A DWP spokesman said: “We have received the tribunal’s decision and are considering the judgment.”

An ICO spokeswoman said: “The commissioner is reviewing the tribunal’s decision and can make no further comment at this stage.”

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