The benefits numbers that just don’t add up

Today I’ve written for Third Force News about the use of statistics on benefits by Ministers and the press. I’ve reproduced the article in full below.

SINCE the coalition government took office in 2010 I’ve become increasingly concerned about the misuse of figures on benefits by ministers and the press. In recent months this has become particularly pronounced, with a number of striking examples of statistical foul play.

Take a recent story from the Sunday Telegraph as an example. The headline read “900,000 choose to come off sickness benefit ahead of tests” and the copy was punctuated with quotes from Tory chairman Grant Shapps. The implication was clearly that people receiving such benefits aren’t really ill or disabled and are, in some way, playing the system.

But a quick fact check reveals that this simply isn’t the case.

The benefit in question is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). People have been able to make new claims for ESA since October 2008, but those in receipt of the benefits it replaced – Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, and Income Support on the grounds of disability – only started migrating across in April 2011. It was this latter group that the article implied were dropping their claim rather than go through a face to face assessment.

However this figure of 900,000 actually refers to all those who have made new claims for ESA since its introduction over four years ago, but who have since withdrawn their application before undergoing a face to face assessment. These people weren’t claiming the benefit before and generally drop out the system for perfectly innocent reasons – often they become ill, apply as a precaution, but withdraw when they get better.

Of the 600,000 people who have been migrated from Incapacity Benefit over the past two years, only 19,700 had dropped their claim. This far less significant figure is the one that should have featured in the headline.

Once I realised this I complained to the Press Complaints Commission, and the paper have subsequently published a letter from me and noted my concerns on their website.

While this is welcome, I’m afraid it won’t stop the continual stream of stories that appear in the right wing press. Just recently we had Iain Duncan Smith in the Mail and the Express referring to one million workshy benefit claimants, when in reality, one third have been certified as medically unable to work for the time being (although this may change in the future) and another third are single parents looking after children of school age.

That’s why earlier this month I called for the Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I am a member – to hold an inquiry into this issue.

Persuading the Tories on my committee wasn’t easy. Firstly the Government that they support relies on this practice of misusing statistics to give it political cover. In its attempts to reduce the deficit, cutting welfare is seen as more of a priority than taxing the richest. That’s why at the same time that disabled people are being hit by the Bedroom Tax, 13,000 millionaires are getting a tax cut of over £100,000. Secondly Conservative Central Office have clearly decided that, as the Government has failed so spectacularly on the economy, welfare is now their only hope of getting the public back on side.

As my Select Committee colleagues were under pressure not to give ground, we were only able to agree to a more limited look at the issue in the context of the our regular examination of the DWP’s annual report and accounts. However this should allow us to speak to both the UK Statistics Authority and DWP ministers. And once an initial assessment of the problem has been made, this might prompt a broader piece of work.

I should stress that my work on this issue isn’t for Labour’s political advantage.

It’s for people like my constituent John, who uses a wheelchair. He stands to lose his DLA and specially adapted car, forcing him to give up his job.

It’s for people like my constituent Marjorie, who worked hard all her life, took early retirement in her late 50s, but is now being asked to find an extra £14 per week in rent.

If ministers and the press continue to use misleading figures unchallenged, then when the time comes, the Government will be able to make further cuts to benefits, and more people like John and Marjorie will suffer.