Lies, Damn Lies, and Department for Work and Pensions Statistics

So much of what Iain Duncan Smith and his department is doing is based on empirical sand.

 

Things have come to a pretty pass when the Economist - not a publication renowned for its strident radicalism - is moved to describe the statistical output of a Government department with a simile that contains the words “raw sewerage”. But then hell hath no fury like a centrist (in this case, Daniel Knowles) frustrated by the misuse of statistical evidence.

The claim which sparked his reaction came from the Department for Work and Pensions: “Around one million people have been stuck on a working-age benefit for at least three out of the past four years.”

Knowles was, of course, too polite to say so in such terms, but this is all but a barefaced lie: “[the] one million includes single mothers who have children too young to go to school, people who are seriously ill but may eventually get better, and people who may be ill, but have yet to be tested.” His piece goes on to question the figures in a number of other DWP press releases, including the claim that the benefits cap has encouraged 8,000 people to get jobs, and the 878,000 people who apparently dropped their claims for disability benefits when faced with a test.

And at risk of reproducing all of the post, his argument as to why we should take issue with these dubious statistics was unimprovable: "the whole point about government statistics is that they are meant to be at least sort of objective. Ministers can quote the ones which support their case — but they shouldn’t manipulate them and distort them to tell stories that aren’t actually true. There is plenty of evidence to support welfare reform without resorting to such disgraceful abuse of numbers.”

Look, like Knowles, I’m broad-minded. I can live with the idea of benefit reform. Maybe I can even live with the really ugly stuff - the misery, the bailiffs champing at the bit to cash in - actually I can’t, but anyway: the real problem is that I think there’s even more to this issue than he highlighted.

For a start, as this blog shows, these were actually two of three misleading claims in the space of four weeks: in a Daily Mail article on Personal Independence Payments, we hear: “The decision to introduce new tests has produced an extraordinary ‘closing-down sale’ effect, with rocketing claims as people rush to get their hands on unchecked ‘welfare for life’ [by claiming Disability Living Allowance] before [Esther] McVey’s axe falls on April 8.” True? Well, you can find out more about the veracity of this claim here. Yet despite the lack of credibility, Iain Duncan Smith repeated it on 8 April, in all the major newspapers.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning - about five or six years ago. Back when the Tories were in opposition I became - and I type these words while pummelling myself viciously about the face with a rolled up copy of the Spectator - a believer in Iain Duncan Smith. I read about the research he was doing in Easterhouse in Glasgow with some approval. Here’s a 2002 report on a visit which crept somewhat under the radar. Duncan Smith’s rhetoric chimed with many of the things I was discovering at the time about crime and poverty - and indeed his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), would later produce a report on gangs which contained barely a word with which I could find fault.

The trouble was that as the years went by, the more it seemed like the by-now-minister’s beliefs were based on nothing more than my own: gut instinct and a few statistics that appeared to back them up. Now journalists, by the nature of their trade, generally have little more than this with which to work. But Government departments? Policy-makers? Surely they need a little more. And that’s why I worry about the DWP. Because it strikes me that so much of what it’s doing is based on empirical sand.

When the left complain about the cruelty of Duncan Smith’s various reforms, his usual reaction to get particularly angry about how unjust the “benefits trap” is for those families trapped in it in the long term: a symptom of the left’s own peculiar brand of cruelty; one that echoes down the generations. Common sense dictates there’s some truth to the claim. But the question is, how many families are are in this situation? Given that one of us is a government minister enacting reforms with evangelical zeal and the other a semi-sober hack at a keyboard shrugging his shoulders, I find it concerning to think he’d know no more than I do.

Consider, then, the CSJ’s response to a report by a number of churches entitled “The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty”. The idea is to fisk these ecclesiastical do-gooders right up their cassocks and prove that these myths are, in fact, not myths. So. “On intergenerational worklessness, the [Church] report argues that there is ‘no credible evidence that such families actually exist’. The report is right to highlight that the Government does not collect data on this, but this does not mean that the problem itself does not exist. The CSJ frequently speaks with poverty-fighting charities who comment that they come across it regularly.”

Well, that’s put the lie to bed hasn’t it? I mean, might it not be worth mentioning one of the few studies of intergenerational worklessness - this one - and note the researchers’ findings that “even two generations of complete worklessness in the same family was a very rare phenomenon, which is consistent with recent quantitative surveys of this issue”? Was there no space to mention Bristol University’s study of Labour Force Survey figures which found only only 0.3 per cent of UK households have two generations that have never worked? I guess if you “frequently speak to charities” you don’t need to draw on such things.

And so it goes on - the churches rightly argue that the level of benefit claimants on the fiddle is lower than people think - the CSJ responds: “The report argues that the level of benefit fraud is low. Yet it fails to mention that the level of error is very high... However, rather than blame claimants for the levels of fraud and error, the CSJ places much of the blame with our complex benefits system.”

To clarify, since the CSJ doesn’t:: 0.7 per cent, or £1.2bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud - 0.9 per cent, or £1.4bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to claimant error, and this is offset by £1.3bn underpaid due to error. So when the CSJ doesn’t blame claimants, that’s because it’s bloody right not to.

What it should say is: “Agreed: the overwhelming majority people on benefits aren’t on the fiddle, according to the statistics.” But that wouldn’t fit with the pledges to go after the “bogus disabled”, would it? Instead the best we can manage is this patronising, come one come all rhetoric farted out on a weekly basis, the weasel words that imply that this could only ever be about helping people to help themselves.

I’m not going to go through every point of this response. Needless to say, there’s a huge elephant in the corner, one unacknowledged by either of our main political parties, nor the yammering baked-wind merchants who belch this stuff out on their behalf. They have singularly failed to find an answer to the problem of low wages. It’s impossible to make this point any clearer: six out of ten benefits claimants are in work. You want to get angry? Forget the scrounging folk demons - get angry at our supine political class.

And speaking of the jobs market, there’s a whole other dimension to the DWP's statistical horseplay worthy of contemplation. The most recent Private Eye used a FOI request to reveal that ministers attempted to massage the results of the Work Programme, by pushing for “simple” figures to be publicised instead of the official statistics. Mark Hoban apparently told Kirsty McHugh, head of the Employment Related Services Association, that he was keen on the ERSA’s figure of “200,000 Job entries”, which would be “more understandable to the media/public than discussion around Job Outcomes.” As the magazine reported: “Baldly stating that 200,000 people started jobs means little without counting the far larger official number who did not start or hold on to a job.”

In the end it didn’t help - the DWP’s press release avoided mention of minimum performance failure, but it was still the dominant headline. How indicative a little tale this is. To some it might suggest a department floundering, frantically spinning, its beliefs and its practises founded on the shakiest of statistical foundations. If this is the soil upon which our political right wants to plant its flag then fine. I wish it luck. But It shouldn’t be surprised if it suddenly sinks out of sight.

David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith visiting A4e in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.