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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"Do not let us down": Scottish MEP receives standing ovation after begging European Parliament

While Alyn Smith won applause, the Scottish Government moved behind the scenes. 

The Scottish National Party MEP Alyn Smith was not exactly a household name before the EU referendum. 

But his impassioned speech to his fellow MEPs begging them to help Scotland stay in the EU has caught the imagination of many Remain voters.

In a session where UKIP's Nigel Farage told MEPs "virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives, Smith struck a very different tone.

Waving a sheet of paper showing Scottish voters had voted to Remain, he said: "I want my country to be internationalist, co-operative, ecological, fair, European. And the people of Scotland, along with the people of Northern Ireland, and the people of London, and lots of people in Wales and England also, voted to Remain within our family of nations."

He urged MEPs to negotiate with cool heads and warm hearts.

And then, raising his voice, he told MEPs: "Please, remember this. Scotland did not let you down. Please, I beg you, cher colleagues, do not let Scotland down now."

MEPs rose to applaud the heartfelt speech. And meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Holyrood, the Scottish Government had hit the phones.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced she would be meeting European Parliament President Martin Schultz on Wednesday.

Although the SNP's promise of an independent European Scotland was shot down during the Scottish referendum, it seems this time round MEPs are more sympathetic.

Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgium PM, who leads the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe parliamentary group has already tweeted: "It's wrong that Scotland might be taken out of [the] EU."