Church leaders demand ministers apologise for "misrepresenting the poor"

An alliance of 11 churches condemns Iain Duncan Smith and Grant Shapps for their misuse of benefit statistics.

As I've regularly noted on The Staggers, rarely a month now passes without one of David Cameron's ministers being rebuked for some act of statistical chicanery (or, indeed, the Prime Minister himself). And it's not just the number crunchers at the UK Statistics Authority who are concerned. An alliance of 11 churches, including the Methodist Church, the Quakers and the Church of Scotland, has written to Cameron demanding "an apology on behalf of the government for misrepresenting the poor."

The leaders, including the Right Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, and the Right Revd Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford, highlight three of the most recent offences: 

- Grant Shapps's claim that "nearly a million people" (878,300) on incapacity benefit dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for its successor, the employment and support allowance.

- Iain Duncan Smith's claim that nearly 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap (for which, as I recently reported, he now faces a grilling from the work and pensions select committee). 

- Duncan Smith's claim (yes, him again) that many people were applying for the Disability Living Allowance before the new Personal Independence Payment was introduced in order to avoid the new medical test.

They write: 

"All three of these statements have drawn on high quality Government statistical data which has then been misused and misinterpreted. All serve to undermine the credibility of benefit claimants. They were all released at the same time as major changes to the benefit system, which will reduce the level of support many families receive. 

"It is disturbing that these three instances conform to an apparent pattern of misleading and sometimes wholly inaccurate information from the Government when dealing with the issue of social security; a practice that has added to the misunderstanding and stigma which continues to pollute the debate around poverty in the UK. We are concerned that these inaccuracies paint some of the most vulnerable in our society in an unfavourable light, stigmatising those who need the support of the benefits system. No political or financial imperative can be given to make this acceptable."

You can read the letter in full below. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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