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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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