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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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