Grant Shapps rebuked by UK Statistics Authority for misrepresenting benefit figures

Yet another Conservative politician is caught making it up.

After entering office in 2010, David Cameron promised to lead "the most open and transparent government in the world", but rarely a month now passes without one of his ministers being rebuked for some act of statistical chicanery. Last December, Jeremy Hunt was ordered by the UK Statistics Authority to correct his false claim that spending on the NHS had risen in real terms "in each of the last two years", then in January, Cameron himself was rapped for stating that the coalition "was paying down Britain’s debts" (the national debt has risen from £828.7bn, or 57.1 per cent of GDP, to £1.19trn, or 75.4 per cent of GDP since May 2010) and then earlier this month, Iain Duncan Smith was rebuked for alleging that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap (for which, as I recently revealed on The Staggers, he now faces a grilling from the work and pensions select committee). 

Now, Grant Shapps has joined his fellow Conservatives in the data hall of shame. In March, the Tory chairman claimed that "nearly a million people" (878,300) on incapacity benefit had dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for its successor, the employment and support allowance. The figures, he said, "demonstrate how the welfare system was broken under Labour and why our reforms are so important". The claim was faithfully reported by the Sunday Telegraph but as the UK Statistics Authority has now confirmed in its response to Labour MP Sheila Gilmore (see below), it was entirely fabricated.

In his letter to Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith, UKSA chair Andrew Dilnot writes that the figure conflated "official statistics relating to new claimants of the ESA with official statistics on recipients of the incapacity benefit (IB) who are being migrated across to the ESA". Of the 603,600 incapacity benefit claimants referred for reassessment as part of the introduction of the ESA between March 2011 and May 2012, just 19,700 (somewhat short of Shapps's "nearly a million) abandoned their claims prior to a work capability assessment in the period to May 2012. The figure of 878,300 refers to the total of new claims for the ESA closed before medical assessment from October 2008 to May 2012. Thus, Shapps's suggestion that the 878,300 were pre-existing claimants, who would rather lose their benefits than be exposed as "scroungers", was entirely wrong. 

As significantly, there is no evidence that those who abandoned their claims did so for the reasons ascribed by Shapps. Thousands of people move on and off ESA each month, many for the simple reason that their health improves and/or they return to employment before facing a work capability assessment. To suggest, as Shapps did, that all those who dropped their claims were dodging the doctor is sinister nonsense designed to reinforce the worst prejudices about the welfare system. 

Fortunately, the newly activist UK Statistics Authority appears intent on tracking Shapps and co. all of the way. Ministers may continue to prefer policy-based evidence to evidence-based policy, but they can no longer do so without consequences.

Update: Labour has now responded to the story, with shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne calling on Shapps "to come clean and apologise for trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes". Here's his full statement: 

"This is a Government that doesn’t like to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

"Grant Shapps may know a thing or two about making things up but it really is outrageous that the Tories have been caught yet again misusing statistics for their own ends. People want a Government that deals with the problems facing Britain, with a plan for getting growth and jobs in our economy, not one that repeatedly misleads the public.

"Grant Shapps needs to come clean and apologise for trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes."

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia