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.

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition