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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Taxation without benefits: how our tax system increases inequality

We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Tax may not be the burning issue on everyone’s minds over the next month, but the Panama Papers leak has proven that the thorny issues of who pays what, and what level of tax is fair, are ones that are never too far away from the public consciousness.

One of the most important annual publications on tax is the Office for National Statistics’ Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. Published today, it shows, among other things, the proportion of income paid in tax by people at different points on the income spectrum. This may sound like the natural domain of the data nerd, but it actually tells us some rather interesting facts about our system of taxes and benefits.

First, the good news. Our much maligned welfare system is in fact a beacon of progressiveness, drastically reducing the level of income inequality we see in this country. In fact, overall, taxes and benefits are quite substantially redistributive. Without them, the income of the richest 20 per cent of households would be 14 times higher than the poorest 20 per cent. With them, that gap falls to only four times.

The benefit system as a whole decreases the Gini coefficient, the most frequently used measure of inequality, by 14 percentage points. For anyone who sees taxes and benefits as a key component in reducing economic inequality, or boosting the incomes of the poorest, or, frankly, tackling social injustice, this is rather welcome news.

But now for the bad news.

While our welfare system is undoubtedly progressive, the same cannot be said of our tax system when looked at in isolation. The poorest face a disproportionately heavy tax burden compared to the richest, paying 47 per cent of their income in tax, compared to just 34 per cent for the richest. Last year (2013/14) this difference was 45 per cent – 35 per cent, and the year before (2012/13) the gap was 43 per cent – 35 per cent. So while the proportion of income paid in tax has fallen slightly for the richest, it has increased for the poorest.

While some taxes like income tax are substantially progressive, those such as VAT and Council Tax are not. Even after adjusting for rebates and Council Tax Benefit, the poorest 10 per cent pay 7.1 per cent of their income in council tax while the richest 10 per cent pay only 1.5 per cent.

Should this matter, if our system of benefits continues to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Well, yes, not least because that system is under severe pressure from further cuts. But there are other good reasons to focus on the tax system in isolation from the benefit system.

Polling by Ipsos MORI has shown that the public believes that the tax system by itself reduces inequality, and it is often spoken of by politicians as if that is the case. We often hear the progressive income tax used as a proxy for all tax, for example, when it actually accounts for just over a quarter of the tax take.

Understanding why the tax system does not by itself reduce inequality is therefore important for both thinking about how tax revenues could be better raised, and for understanding the importance of the benefit system in narrowing the gap between the richest and the poorest.

John Hood is Acting Director of the Equality Trust