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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.