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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder