Lies, Damn Lies, and Department for Work and Pensions Statistics

So much of what Iain Duncan Smith and his department is doing is based on empirical sand.

 

Things have come to a pretty pass when the Economist - not a publication renowned for its strident radicalism - is moved to describe the statistical output of a Government department with a simile that contains the words “raw sewerage”. But then hell hath no fury like a centrist (in this case, Daniel Knowles) frustrated by the misuse of statistical evidence.

The claim which sparked his reaction came from the Department for Work and Pensions: “Around one million people have been stuck on a working-age benefit for at least three out of the past four years.”

Knowles was, of course, too polite to say so in such terms, but this is all but a barefaced lie: “[the] one million includes single mothers who have children too young to go to school, people who are seriously ill but may eventually get better, and people who may be ill, but have yet to be tested.” His piece goes on to question the figures in a number of other DWP press releases, including the claim that the benefits cap has encouraged 8,000 people to get jobs, and the 878,000 people who apparently dropped their claims for disability benefits when faced with a test.

And at risk of reproducing all of the post, his argument as to why we should take issue with these dubious statistics was unimprovable: "the whole point about government statistics is that they are meant to be at least sort of objective. Ministers can quote the ones which support their case — but they shouldn’t manipulate them and distort them to tell stories that aren’t actually true. There is plenty of evidence to support welfare reform without resorting to such disgraceful abuse of numbers.”

Look, like Knowles, I’m broad-minded. I can live with the idea of benefit reform. Maybe I can even live with the really ugly stuff - the misery, the bailiffs champing at the bit to cash in - actually I can’t, but anyway: the real problem is that I think there’s even more to this issue than he highlighted.

For a start, as this blog shows, these were actually two of three misleading claims in the space of four weeks: in a Daily Mail article on Personal Independence Payments, we hear: “The decision to introduce new tests has produced an extraordinary ‘closing-down sale’ effect, with rocketing claims as people rush to get their hands on unchecked ‘welfare for life’ [by claiming Disability Living Allowance] before [Esther] McVey’s axe falls on April 8.” True? Well, you can find out more about the veracity of this claim here. Yet despite the lack of credibility, Iain Duncan Smith repeated it on 8 April, in all the major newspapers.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning - about five or six years ago. Back when the Tories were in opposition I became - and I type these words while pummelling myself viciously about the face with a rolled up copy of the Spectator - a believer in Iain Duncan Smith. I read about the research he was doing in Easterhouse in Glasgow with some approval. Here’s a 2002 report on a visit which crept somewhat under the radar. Duncan Smith’s rhetoric chimed with many of the things I was discovering at the time about crime and poverty - and indeed his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), would later produce a report on gangs which contained barely a word with which I could find fault.

The trouble was that as the years went by, the more it seemed like the by-now-minister’s beliefs were based on nothing more than my own: gut instinct and a few statistics that appeared to back them up. Now journalists, by the nature of their trade, generally have little more than this with which to work. But Government departments? Policy-makers? Surely they need a little more. And that’s why I worry about the DWP. Because it strikes me that so much of what it’s doing is based on empirical sand.

When the left complain about the cruelty of Duncan Smith’s various reforms, his usual reaction to get particularly angry about how unjust the “benefits trap” is for those families trapped in it in the long term: a symptom of the left’s own peculiar brand of cruelty; one that echoes down the generations. Common sense dictates there’s some truth to the claim. But the question is, how many families are are in this situation? Given that one of us is a government minister enacting reforms with evangelical zeal and the other a semi-sober hack at a keyboard shrugging his shoulders, I find it concerning to think he’d know no more than I do.

Consider, then, the CSJ’s response to a report by a number of churches entitled “The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty”. The idea is to fisk these ecclesiastical do-gooders right up their cassocks and prove that these myths are, in fact, not myths. So. “On intergenerational worklessness, the [Church] report argues that there is ‘no credible evidence that such families actually exist’. The report is right to highlight that the Government does not collect data on this, but this does not mean that the problem itself does not exist. The CSJ frequently speaks with poverty-fighting charities who comment that they come across it regularly.”

Well, that’s put the lie to bed hasn’t it? I mean, might it not be worth mentioning one of the few studies of intergenerational worklessness - this one - and note the researchers’ findings that “even two generations of complete worklessness in the same family was a very rare phenomenon, which is consistent with recent quantitative surveys of this issue”? Was there no space to mention Bristol University’s study of Labour Force Survey figures which found only only 0.3 per cent of UK households have two generations that have never worked? I guess if you “frequently speak to charities” you don’t need to draw on such things.

And so it goes on - the churches rightly argue that the level of benefit claimants on the fiddle is lower than people think - the CSJ responds: “The report argues that the level of benefit fraud is low. Yet it fails to mention that the level of error is very high... However, rather than blame claimants for the levels of fraud and error, the CSJ places much of the blame with our complex benefits system.”

To clarify, since the CSJ doesn’t:: 0.7 per cent, or £1.2bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud - 0.9 per cent, or £1.4bn, of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to claimant error, and this is offset by £1.3bn underpaid due to error. So when the CSJ doesn’t blame claimants, that’s because it’s bloody right not to.

What it should say is: “Agreed: the overwhelming majority people on benefits aren’t on the fiddle, according to the statistics.” But that wouldn’t fit with the pledges to go after the “bogus disabled”, would it? Instead the best we can manage is this patronising, come one come all rhetoric farted out on a weekly basis, the weasel words that imply that this could only ever be about helping people to help themselves.

I’m not going to go through every point of this response. Needless to say, there’s a huge elephant in the corner, one unacknowledged by either of our main political parties, nor the yammering baked-wind merchants who belch this stuff out on their behalf. They have singularly failed to find an answer to the problem of low wages. It’s impossible to make this point any clearer: six out of ten benefits claimants are in work. You want to get angry? Forget the scrounging folk demons - get angry at our supine political class.

And speaking of the jobs market, there’s a whole other dimension to the DWP's statistical horseplay worthy of contemplation. The most recent Private Eye used a FOI request to reveal that ministers attempted to massage the results of the Work Programme, by pushing for “simple” figures to be publicised instead of the official statistics. Mark Hoban apparently told Kirsty McHugh, head of the Employment Related Services Association, that he was keen on the ERSA’s figure of “200,000 Job entries”, which would be “more understandable to the media/public than discussion around Job Outcomes.” As the magazine reported: “Baldly stating that 200,000 people started jobs means little without counting the far larger official number who did not start or hold on to a job.”

In the end it didn’t help - the DWP’s press release avoided mention of minimum performance failure, but it was still the dominant headline. How indicative a little tale this is. To some it might suggest a department floundering, frantically spinning, its beliefs and its practises founded on the shakiest of statistical foundations. If this is the soil upon which our political right wants to plant its flag then fine. I wish it luck. But It shouldn’t be surprised if it suddenly sinks out of sight.

David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith visiting A4e in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

CREDIT: GETTY
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Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge