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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.