One of those ‘shouting at the radio’ moments today as Good Morning Scotland in its newspaper review covered the ‘news’ that it had been ‘revealed’ that more than 900,000 people had been receiving ‘sickness’ benefits for more than 10 years.
This seems to have been based on a Daily Mail article which in turn has been drawn from regular statistics published by the DWP.
But even BBC Scotland in covering this used the word ‘Revealed’. Constant use of this word is one of my pet media hates. Reveal has a connotation of something becoming known which was hidden before. At a masked ball a mask will be taken off to ‘reveal’ the person behind. Journalists may be using the word as an alternative to simply saying that a report ‘says’ or ‘states’. However it immediately sets up a feeling in the reader or listener that someone (generally Government) has been hiding something.
There is nothing new or ‘news’ in the information. In the Sun on Sunday there was a similarly toned story about DLA. Despite the ‘exclusive’ tag in the Sun these are regularly produced statistics which were more or less at this level two years ago when the Coalition Government used them to argue for its planned reforms of Disability Living Allowance. So not some piece of investigative journalism by the Sun but a piece inspired by the DWP, who provided a quote from a ‘Whitehall source’:
It’s staggering the number of people receiving DLA payments continues to rise so rapidly.
Well not so ‘staggering’ given that the ‘old’ system the Government plans to change is still in existence. Even if you fully accept the Government’s interpretation of the problems with DLA, you can hardly expect change before the new system begins. Not a very ‘professional’ Whitehall opinion! The cross-party Work & Pensions Select Committee has criticised the DWP and Government Ministers several times for the tone of press releases and information provided. But they are clearly still at it. Turns out that the ‘shocking headlines’ were largely there to provide some background for a ‘My View’ piece from Iain Duncan Smith.
As ever with these articles exaggerated statements about people ‘never’ being re-assessed. This will come as a surprise to many of my constituents currently going through reassessments. Also repeated is a regular figure given by Ministers about £600m of the annual DLA bill being ‘overpaid’ each year. This estimate came from a 2005 Review of DLA (since when the number of reassessments has been increased) and the detail of the report makes it clear that these are people whose needs have changed so gradually that it would be ‘unreasonable’ to expect them to pay back because they could not know at what point they should have reported a change. The same report estimated that around £190m could be due to people whose conditions had worsened and were therefore underclaiming.
The Government likes to use these figures to imply that all they are trying to do is make sure that no-one gets benefit who shouldn’t. However in January 2012 Polly Curtis of the Guardian pointed out that even if the processes of the new benefit to replace PIP achieved a full saving of these sums there was still a large amount of saving to be achieved from people currently entitled to DLA. ‘If you assume net savings based on those 2005 estimates of overpayments because people haven’t been reassessed, which was £410m after underpayments are corrected, the government is still nearly £1bn short of the target savings for 2015-16.’
In other words the new benefit is going to be tougher.
Just another thought – were these newspaper reports rehashing old issues in any way related to the fact that apparently both tonight’s Panorama and Channel 4‘s Despatches are going to be critical of ATOS the company which carries out the Work Capability Assessment for the Employment & Support Allowance. It wouldn’t be the first time that Coalition Ministers get in negative ‘disability’ stories to counter critics. Happened this time last year when the Work and Pensions Select Committee published a critical report!