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The DWP aims to extend its powers without due process

Ruth F Hunt and John Slater look at secretive Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) plans for a platform where GP medical records of claimants can be shared

An advert placed on the UK digital market has revealed the DWP are looking for “technically viable proposals to integrate DWP requests for information into a new digital service for administering DWP health-related benefits.”

Their aim, they say, is to test whether it’s possible to digitise the current manual process that surrounds information requests between the NHS and DWP. They go on to state that a DWP processing agent requires quick access to verified medical information so they can accurately and effectively determine the right level of support for that claimant.

This verified medical information will be total access to GP medical records passed directly in digital format to the DWP.

Their main reason for this radical yet wholly unethical action is based on the belief that the manual process for requesting additional information from GPs in the ESA113 form is too slow. Yet it is the DWP that designed this system.  

They also believe GPs don’t have details of a claimant’s functionality in terms of their disability or long-term health condition. However, such questions about functionality don’t even appear on the form, so how can they be answered? If they don’t believe GPs have knowledge about functionality is it really going to make any difference giving the DWP access to all of the digitised GP medical records?

The other motivation for this proposal is the assumption from the DWP that claimants don’t know what medical information they should include when completing their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) forms.

If it is true that people do not understand what information is required, then the DWP processes are flawed. If you produce a system that requires specific information, you need to be very clear and make it easy for people to provide it.

This shows the DWP never truly thought about the process as a whole. It only looked at it from its own and its contractor’s perspective. If the DWP had designed and tested the changes to benefits properly, before inflicting them on real claimants, it would have spotted this serious issue and done something about it.

It must be stressed that even when the DWP does have thorough information on the claim form and supporting evidence, it is often said to be ignored. This is most evident during a work capability assessment (WCA).

A patient visits his/her doctor to discuss health concerns in a safe place, knowing their conversation will be confidential

Questions are asked that mismatch the claimant’s actual disability and/or health condition. When the frustrated claimant talks about their actual disability the assessor is left red-faced and speechless due to not having any knowledge of this, despite the evidence being on the ESA50 form in the supporting evidence.

Getting this medial information direct from the GP is unlikely to help. GP notes and reports from specialists require a comprehensive medical background. With DWP healthcare assessors pushed for time and, arguably, motivation, it is unlikely they will be able to sift through this information in an effective way.  If they can’t be bothered, or don’t have the time to read a few pages of supporting evidence, will they really trawl through years of medical notes?

GP notes are written for the GP, not with the knowledge they will be examined by the DWP. Likewise, a patient visits his/her doctor to discuss health concerns in a safe place, knowing their conversation will be confidential. This could involve talking about rape, abuse or other sensitive information, which may have no bearing whatsoever on whether a patient qualifies for a benefit or not.  

Surely, if the medical notes the DWP would receive would contain information that wasn’t required to determine whether a claimant was qualified or not for the award then the DWP doesn’t need this information and shouldn’t be asking for it?

It is this point, the DWP asking for information it doesn’t need, which possibly contravenes the Data Protection Act 2018. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has offered guidance about “data minimisation.” It means if the DWP is taking all of the GP medical records, with no knowledge of what will be contained within them, or what they will need, it is likely not to meet the requirement to minimise the data it is seeking.

In the advert the DWP talk about the “the assumption the citizen will be presented with options to provide data in the application stage.”

However, the DWP has form for misleading people into giving consent. A good example is the “declaration section” in the ESA50.

It contains a paragraph about allowing GPs to be told about the outcome of a WCA. The DWP has no statutory powers to do this without consent and yet there is not an option to say “no” on the form. The view from many is that it is it likely the DWP will just add another paragraph to this declaration form to say it can have access to patients’ medical notes.

The details in this proposal from the DWP should horrify us all.  
Activists know the DWP has a track record for this type of thing, operating under the radar before organisations such as the General Medical Council, British Medical Association and the ICO have had a chance to act.

Despite any of the frankly dubious reasons the DWP have given as to why this will speed up the process of administering benefits or give their “processing agents” access to verified medical notes, it ultimately all comes down to one question — should the DWP have access to a claimant’s medical records? The answer is an obvious “no.”

Ruth F Hunt is a freelance journalist and author; John Slater is a FOIA campaigner.

 

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