Striking a balance

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 is starting to have some impact
on the secrecy that often surrounds benefit decisions and
administration. It was used recently to get the Department for Work
and Pensions’s Disability Handbook made public and the
DWP’s Personal Information Policy (PIP) is also now available
on-line, following its disclosure as a result of a Freedom of
Information Act request by an advice organisation.

Using PIP should make it easier for you to advocate on your
clients’ behalf. It provides DWP staff with an overview of the
principles to be considered before disclosing information about a
claimant to a third party such as social workers or advice workers.

The DWP often has a tricky balancing act when it comes to
third-party intervention. On the one hand, it must protect privacy
and confidentiality. On the other, it shouldn’t unnecessarily
obstruct people acting on behalf of often vulnerable clients. As
PIP says: “We need to strike a balance between the duties placed
upon us all to protect customer information and to disclose that
information where it is appropriate to do so. This policy document
sets out the principles underpinning any decision to disclose
personal information and will enable you to strike that balance.

“Following these principles will help protect you from making
unlawful disclosures, as well as ensuring that the department
adequately protects the vast amounts of personal information it

The document warns DWP staff that the caller may not be who they
say they are. Unscrupulous debt collectors, for example, have been
known to pose as social workers to get relevant personal
information about a person in debt. So “calling-back” is encouraged
– but is that effective when most of us have direct lines and

Once you have established who you are, the next hurdle is proving
you have the client’s consent to obtaininformation. That consent
could be explicit such as an authorisation letter or implicit
because of who you work for. DWP staff are told that they can
disclose information without the client’s consent if the person
concerned is a danger to themselves or others, or a child or adult
is at risk (appendix 1, para 5.2).

Appendix 3 of PIP is the most relevant to representatives because
it covers “implicit” consent: “Information should not be disclosed
to an enquirer just because they work for an advice or welfare

But consent can be established by accepting that there is implicit
consent: “Where a representative is able to quote details of a
particular benefit application and asks for the reasons why a
decision was made, it will usually be quite clear that the customer
has given them details of the claim and that they are acting on the
customer’s behalf”.

In other words, verbal or written authorisation is not always
required. The guidance even says clearly: “Offices should not apply
blanket policies in disclosing to representatives [that is always
insisting on faxed or written authority from the customer]”.

So there you have it. With a bit of negotiating skill, you ought to
be able to represent your clients effectively and honestly without
going outside of the DWP’s policies on disclosure, even if you
haven’t got a written authorisation from the client.

Gary Vaux is head of money advice, Hertfordshire Council.
He is unable to answer queries by post or telephone. If you have a
question to be answered please write to him c/o Community

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.