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.

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Theresa May can play big fish with devolved nations - in the EU she's already a nobody

The PM may have more time for domestic meetings in future. 

Theresa May is sitting down with representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Monday to hear their concerns about Brexit. 

For the devolved nations, it is the first chance since the seismic vote in June to sit down at a table and talk to the Prime Minister together. 

May has reportedly offered them a "direct line" to Brexit secretary David Davis. It must be a nice change for her to be the big fish in the small pond, rather than the small fish in the big pond that everyone's already sick of. 

Because, when it comes to the EU, the roles of Westminster and other nations is reversed. 

Brexit was small potatoes on the menu of Theresa May’s first European Council summit. It may hurt British pride but the other 27 heads of state and government had far more pressing issues on their plate to worry about.

So, it was an awkward debut Council evening meal of lamb and figs for Prime Minister Theresa May and dinner was served with a large reality check.

As May was later asked at her press conference, why would anyone listen to someone who already has one foot out the door?

Britain is in limbo until it triggers article 50, the legal process taking it out of the EU. Until that happens, it will be largely and politiely ignored.

May’s moment to shine didn’t come until 1am. She spoke on Brexit for “five minutes maximum” and said “nothing revolutionary”, EU sources briefed later.

May basically did that break-up talk. The one where someone says they are leaving but “we can still be friends”. The one where you get a divorce but refuse to leave the house. 

It was greeted in the way such moments often are – with stony silence. Brexit won’t be seriously discussed until article 50 is triggered, and then the negotiations will be overseen by the European Commission, not the member states.

As became rapidly clear after the vote to leave and in sharp contrast to the UK government, the EU-27 was coordinated and prepared in its response to Brexit. That unity, as yet, shows no sign of cracking.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel later damned May with faint praise. She hadn’t said anything new but it was nice to hear it in person, she told reporters.

Merkel, as she often does, had a successful summit. She needed Council conclusions on migration that would reassure her skittish voters that the doors to Germany are no longer thrown wide open to migrants. Germany is one of the member states to have temporarily reintroduced border checks in the passport-free Schengen zone

The conclusions said that part of returning to Schengen as normal was “adjusting the temporary border controls to reflect the current needs”.

This code allows Merkel and her Danish allies to claim victory back home, while allowing Slovakia, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, enough of an excuse to insist it has not overseen the effective end of Schengen.

But Merkel’s migration worries did not provide hope for the British push for immigration controls with access to the single market. The Chancellor, and EU chiefs, have consistently said single market access is conditional on the free movement of people. So far this is a red line.

Everyone had discussed the EU’s latest responses to the migration crisis at a summit in Bratislava. Everyone apart from May. She was not invited to the post-Brexit meeting of the EU-27.

She tried to set down a marker, telling her counterparts that the UK wouldn’t just rubberstamp everything the EU-27 cooked up.

This was greeted with a polite, friendly silence. The EU-27 will continue to meet without Britain.

Francois Hollande told reporters that if May wanted a hard Brexit, she should expect hard negotiations.

Just the day before Alain Juppe, his likely rival in next year’s presidential election, had called for the UK border to be moved from Calais to Kent.

Hollande had to respond in kind and the Brussels summit gave him the handy platform to do so. But once inside the inner sanctum of the Justus Lipsius building, it was Syria he cared about. He’s enjoyed far more foreign than domestic policy success.

May had called for a “unified European response” to the Russian bombing of Aleppo. It was a break in style from David Cameron, who is not fondly remembered in Brussels for his habit of boasting to the news cameras he was ready to fight all night for Britain and striding purposefully into the European Council. 

Once safely behind closed doors, he would be far more conciliatory, before later claiming another triumph over the Eurocrats at a pumped-up press conference.

May could point to Council conclusions saying that all measures, including sanctions, were on the table if the Russian outrages continue. But her victory over countries such as Italy and Greece was only achieved thanks to support from France and Germany. 

The national success was also somewhat undermined by the news Russian warships were in the Channel, and that the Brexit talks might be in French.

But even warships couldn’t stop the British being upstaged by the Belgian French-speaking region of Wallonia. Its parliament had wielded an effective veto on Ceta, the EU-Canada trade deal.

Everyone had skin in this game. All the leaders, including May, had backed CETA, arguing the removal of almost all custom duties would boost trade the economy. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was forced to tell exasperated leaders he could not force one of Belgium’s seven parliaments to back CETA, or stop it wrecking seven years of painstaking work.

As the news broke that Canada’s trade minister Chrystia Freeland had burst into tears as she declared the deal dead, everyone – not the first time during the summit – completely forgot about Britain and its referendum.

Even as the British PM may be enjoying a power trip in her own domestic union of nations, on the international stage, she is increasingly becoming irrelevant. 

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.