Duncan Smith blames Conservative HQ for statistics abuse

Work and Pensions Secretary says incapacity benefit story was "nothing to do with the department" and adds: "I've tried to get my colleagues at Central Office to check first".

After months of trying, MPs on the work and pensions select committee finally had a chance to question Iain Duncan Smith on the DWP's abuse of statistics and the chaos surrounding Universal Credit today. On the former, Duncan Smith bullishly pointed out that the department had published "over 500" statistical releases and had received just two critical letters from the UK Statistics Authority. He again declared that he "believed" thousands of people had moved into work as a result of the introduction of the benefit cap, despite the UKSA warning that this was "unsupported by the official statistics".

But when he was questioned on the false statement by Conservative chairman Grant Shapps that "nearly a million people" (878,300) on incapacity benefit dropped their claims, rather than face a new medical assessment for the employment and support allowance (which resulted in another reprimand from the Statistics Authority to Duncan Smith and Shapps), he took a strikingly different line. Rather than defending the claim, he replied that it was "nothing to do with the department" and blamed CCHQ for the inaccurate "conflation of data". Speaking from what appeared to most to be a glass house, he added: "I've tried to get my colleagues at Central Office to check first before they put anything out about the areas that the DWP covers because it's complex". One was left with the image of Duncan Smith pleading with Shapps and other Tory apparatchiks not to twist statistics for the purposes of political propaganda but his own record meant he received little sympathy from the committee.

After being challenged on the DWP's demonisation of benefit claimants through its references to "a something for nothing culture", Duncan Smith similarly sought to shift the blame, noting that it was "a minister" from the last government (Liam Byrne) who first referred to "shirkers" and "workers", to which the only appropriate reply is 'two wrongs don't make a right".

On Universal Credit, which was being claimed by just 2,150 people at the end of September, 997,850 short of the original April 2014 target of one million, he defiantly declared "there is no debacle" and denounced the "bogus nonsense" that had been spoken about the scale of IT writedowns. We learned that a mere £40.1m of IT assets had been written off (lower than £140m figure cited by the public accounts committee) but what Duncan Smith didn't mention is that officials expect a further £91m to be "rapidly amortised" (written off) over the next five years.

Challenged on whether he expected his target of moving all claimants onto Universal Credit (with the exception of 700,000 claiming employment and support allowance) by 2017, he could only again reply that he "believed" it would be. But after so many delays, few MPs are now willing to accept his assurances. For now, Duncan Smith can only claim 'success' by permanently shifting the goalposts. As one of his officials put it today, "it works for a limited population at this time."

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith arrives for a cabinet meeting. 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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