The Telegraph and Mail should stop buying DWP briefings hook, line and sinker

People leave housing benefit all the time, but the DWP managed to turn no news into good news

This morning the Telegraph and Mail ran stories claiming the the government’s benefit cap was already proving a success nine months before it comes into effect. According to the Telegraph

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is due to release figures which show that 1,700 people who would have been affected by the £26,000-a-year limit have taken up work since being warned about next year’s cap ...

"These figures show the benefit cap is already a success and is actively encouraging people back to work," Mr Duncan Smith said. "We need a welfare state that acts as a safety net and encourages people back to work." Mr Duncan Smith said that the figures would embarrass Labour, which had opposed the cap.

The statistics on which the stories were based were released by DWP this morning after the press stories had appeared, a form of sharp practice for which they have already been ticked off by the UK Statistics Authority. Even had Labour opposed the benefit cap (unfortunately, they didn’t), there would be little for them to worry about in today’s figures, which should rather be an embarrassment to the government and to the gullible journalists who faithfully wrote up what they had been briefed. In fact, the data shows roughly the opposite of what Mr Duncan Smith claims.

The figures are based on contact made by JobcentrePLus with 58,000 claimants who it was believed would be affected by the cap when it comes into effect, assuming they were still claiming at that point. Over the two month period since letters were sent to affected claimants warning them of the policy change, 1,700 are said to have moved into work. That’s 2.9 per cent of the total.

But the obvious question seems not to have been asked: how many would have moved into work in any case?

We can get an idea from data on benefit flows. These are a lot higher than is usually realised: even in this period of weak labour demand, 89 per cent of claims for Jobseekers' Allowance and 73 per cent of claims for Employment Support Allowance end within a year (pdf). But surely claimants receiving payments high enough to hit the cap spend longer on benefit? In fact, there’s no evidence for this, as the table shows.

Duration on benefit as percentage of caseload All out of work Subject to cap
Total:    
Up to six months 23 19
Six months up to one year 11 12
One year and up to two years 11 14
Two years and up to five years 16 23
Five years and over 40 32

 

Source: Nomis and Commons Hansard

 

The main contribution to benefit entitlement exceeding the cap level of £26,000 a year pro rata is high housing benefit payments. The average monthly off-flow rate from housing benefit over the last year was 2 per cent. If we take this as a proxy for people moving into employment, then over a two month period, other things being equal, we would have expected about 2,300 out of 58,000 people (4 per cent) to have taken up work. So an off-flow into employment of 1,700 is no indication whatsoever that the cap is affecting behaviour. The government is claiming this figure as a "success", when all it shows is that people receiving high housing benefit payments sometimes move into employment. Who knew?

I don’t think Duncan Smith is being disingenuous here. I fear it is much worse than that: he is genuinely self-deceived. If he thinks that an off-flow of this scale offers any evidence of the effect of policy, it is because he and his government are fixated on long-term benefit claimants, largely for ideological reasons.

Thus the fact that people actually leave benefits in very large numbers every month without being forced is routinely airbrushed out of the presentation of government policy, while ministers make ludicrous claims about "families where nobody has worked for three generations" (a misleading claim addressed by Lindsey Macmillan and Paul Gregg).

So I suspect that the ideological message has been so profoundly internalised that the Secretary of State simply cannot conceive that anyone on this level of benefits could move into work other than in response to the threat of compulsion from his department, so any off-flow must count as evidence that the policy is succeeding.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Duncan Smith is being disingenuous after all and knew exactly what he was doing when he sold the Telegraph and Mail this particular pup. That might even be less disturbing than the thought that he really believes this stuff.

A row of houses in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

Photo: Getty
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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue