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.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.