Daily Mail corrects misleading benefit statistics as DWP prepares for MPs' grilling

The paper admits it was wrong to state that 878,000 people on incapacity benefit dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment.

After repeatedly citing the false Conservative claim that 878,000 people on incapacity benefit dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment, today's Daily Mail finally corrects the record. The paper is "happy to make clear that other important reasons people had for not pursuing ESA claims were that they recovered, returned to work or claimed a more appropriate benefit."

While the Mail references two articles in which the figure appeared (on 4 April and 30 April) it also featured in a leader entitled "Benefits and morality" (1 April) and an op-ed by A.N.Wilson on Mick Philpott (3 April). The other pieces were an editorial unfortunately titled "Welfare: why can't the left understand?" (4 April) and an article by James Slack on "what the Left doesn't want you to know about Britain's £200bn welfare bill" (30 April). 

Tory chairman Grant Shapps and Iain Duncan Smith had already been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority for concocting the 878,000 figure in an attempt to demonstrate "how the welfare system was broken under Labour and why our reforms are so important". As UKSA chair Andrew Dilnot noted in his letter to the pair, they 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 referred 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 was 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. 

The DWP's serial abuse of statistics (Duncan Smith was previously rebuked for alleging that 8,000 people moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap) will come under further scrutiny tomorrow when David Frazer, the department's Head of Information, Governance and Security Directorate and John Shields, its director of communications, are questioned by the work and pensions select committee on "the processes DWP has in place for preparing and releasing statistics; DWP’s role in facilitating media interpretation of statistics; recent UK Statistics Authority investigations into complaints about benefit and the DWP response; and the quality and accessibility of DWP statistics."

A general view of a job centre on April 13, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.