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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.