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Distortion With Prejudice: Will we get some FACTS from the Department for Work and Pensions this week - or just more spin and spiel?

Distortion With Prejudice: Will we get some FACTS from the Department for Work and Pensions this week – or just more spin and spiel?

The trial of the Department for Work and Pensions will begin on Wednesday, no matter what.

For those of us who are trying to get the Department for Work and Pensions operating in a sensible way, the weekend was one of ups and downs; Iain Duncan Smith will not appear before the Commons Work and Pensions Committee to explain his inaccurate claims until September 4 – but DWP officials will appear at an ‘information session’ on Wednesday.

I have no idea what questions they will face, but I do know what questions I think they should.

Firstly, we need to know the information that ministers were given by DWP officials before each inaccurate statement they have made. Were they made aware of the context in which each statistic was provided and were they told – crucially – what they did NOT mean?

Let’s go through the list in DPAC’s Report into abuse of statistics by the Department for Work and Pensions and UK Government Ministers.

IDS’ claim that “Britain has the highest rate of jobless households in Europe” on October 11, 2010 (we didn’t) – did he get that information from DWP officials? If not then he must be asked in September where he got the information. If he did, then what, exactly, was he told, and why?

His claim that the number of jobs not advertised in Job Centres was around the same amount as advertised every week in them was also untrue. This is an opportunity to nail them on the Job Centre policy of filling local offices with adverts for jobs that have already been filled. Are they aware this takes place? Why does it take place? And will they PLEASE desist at once? On the matter of IDS’ false claim – where did he get the information, on what is it based, and what was he told he COULDN’T say about it?

In November 2010, he said broken homes cost the UK £100 billion (with no factual basis for the claim). What was his “research” basis for saying this? A Centre for Social Justice report (that’s his own thinktank) said it was “impossible to quantify with any accuracy the cost of family breakdown to the Exchequer”. Did DWP officials provide alternative advice? If so, what was it and why was it given?

What about his claim, also in November 2010, that foreign workers took 70 per cent of the jobs created during Labur rule (which was incorrect). Where is the statistical basis for this claim? What advice was he given about it?

He and Grant Shapps claimed in November 2010 that private sector rents had fallen by five per cent, while the amount provided to private landlords by local authorities had risen by three per cent. They claimed the statistics had come from the ONS, but in fact they were from FindaProperty.com – why not from the DWP? Were DWP officials even asked to verify these claims?

In September 2011, IDS said EU migrants were coming to the UK “with the sole purpose of accessing a more generous benefit system”. The DWP – at the time – stated that the department had “no information available”. What information DID the DWP have and did it support the claim? If not, the Secretary of State will have to explain why he made it. Precisely what methodology was used to come up with the figures?

In the same month, to the Conservative Party conference, IDS said “spending on working-age welfare rocketed by 50 per cent in real terms under Labour before the recession”. What is the source of this claim?

In January 2011, IDS falsely claimed that Shelter and the government defined homelessness as children having to share rooms. Shelter immediately denied this, stating that it and the government used the definition in the Housing Act 1996, passed by a Conservative government. Did DWP officials provide this information? If so, on what factual basis?

What about his claim that DLA awards had grown by 30 per cent, and 70 per cent of those were lifetime awards that were never reconsidered?

What about his wild claim that half a million new jobs were posted at Job Centres every week?

What about his claims regarding “a culture of worklessness” and “intergenerational worklessness”? He said his statement was based on personal observation, but anecdotal evidence is NEVER conclusive and should always be supported by statistical fact. Where are the statistical facts? If no existing data source can provide it, then the conclusion must be that he was lying.

The claim that people are better off in work is, of course, hugely controversial, and simply relying on figures that might suggest a person in work takes home more money than a person who is workless will not be enough. How much money do people on the lowest-paid jobs have left, after they have paid all their bills? Reports were flying around last year, stating that the lowest-paid were running out of money, three weeks after being paid their monthly salary, and this meant they were being forced to seek help (if you can call it that) from payday lenders who charge extortionate interest – forcing them into a cycle of debt that is impossible to break. What about the adverse effect on people’s health from working in jobs that do not pay enough – the mental and emotional stress this causes? What about the health effect created by fear of losing one’s (poorly-paid) job? Does the DWP acknowledge that poor pay and poor working conditions make it more likely that a person may end up in poor health and – in fact – claiming a sickness or disability benefit from the state? What about people who have been claiming Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance but, after an Atos assessment, have been pronounced ‘fit for work’ – and then died shortly afterwards? Was being forced into the work marketplace healthy for them? What figures do DWP officials have, showing the number of fatalities under those circumstances since May 2010 (they cannot deny that there is any demand for such information – several Freedom of Information requests have been made since it was revealed that deaths were taking place, and the publicity the responses have received has been widespread, with a large reaction from the public. Press reports about deaths following the ‘fit for work’ finding have proliferated. Yet when officials were asked for the figures in November last year, they waited until June to respond that an original report had been produced on an ‘ad hoc’ basis and was not to be repeated. This is simply inadequate and suggests that the officials aren’t just failing to do their job – they are REFUSING to do it)?

Look at this, from Samuel Miller’s letter to Iain Duncan Smith: “I must confess that while I have been very patient and reasonable regarding this matter over a period of many months, I am succumbing to the belief that your department is resorting to petty obstructionism — even a full-fledged cover-up — because the mortality of the sick and disabled has become too politicized for the Tories to cope with.” Is this factually accurate?

I put in a FOI request two weeks ago, asking for the full numbers of IB and ESA claimants who have died in 2012, broken down into those who were in the assessment phase; those found fit for work; those placed in the work-related activity group of ESA; those placed in the support group of ESA; and those who have an appeal pending. Among those found fit for work, I requested the figures be split between former ESA/IB claimants who were put onto Jobseekers’ Allowance; and former ESA/IB claimants who were taken off-benefit but put onto no other means of support. I have since been given (unverified) information that suggests the number of deaths per week has risen from 32 in early 2012 to 182. That’s a rise of nearly 600 per cent. While some, like Mark Hoban (as we’ll see in a moment) might call the use of this figure “scaremongering”, where is the DWP’s accurate breakdown of the facts and why are they not being publicised on a regular basis?

What about Mark Hoban’s claim, in February, that criticism of the Atos assessment system for ESA was “scaremongering”? He said: “Independent reviews have found no fundamental reforms are needed to the current process because of changes we’re making.” Clearly these reviews were mistaken because the number of appeals against decisions, during the three-month, January-to-March, period including the date in which he was speaking, had more than doubled in comparison to the same period in the previous year. Among those appeals, the number that were successful rose to 43 per cent of the total – a real-terms number, therefore, similar to 86 per cent – or more – of the total the previous year. Do the DWP officials agree that Mr Hoban’s claim is, therefore, inaccurate and carries no factual weight?

Statistics on child poverty must be explored. After the DWP released its latest statistics, last month, I wrote: “Child poverty is calculated in relation to median incomes – the average income earned by people in the UK. If incomes drop, so does the number of children deemed to be in poverty, even though – in fact – more families are struggling to make ends meet with less money to do so. This is why the Department for Work and Pensions has been able to trumpet an announcement that child poverty in workless families has dropped, even though we can all see that this is nonsense. As average incomes drop, the amount received by workless families – taken as an average of what’s left – appears to rise, even though, as we know, the increase is not even keeping up with inflation any more.” What was the poverty line in 2008, before incomes started dropping? Adjusting for inflation, what would that figure be today? And how many families would be in poverty, today, according to that figure? Even this would not be an accurate reflection of child poverty today, because the criteria used to define it are so inadequate to the task. Do DWP officials agree with this statement?

What about the DWP officials’ documentary proof that IDS’ work programme regime, and the sanctions imposed on those who refuse to take part, do more harm than good and are not in the national interest? Will the officials be bringing those documents with them? IDS should explain why he decided to ignore this information and go ahead with the policy when he appears before the committee in September.

The benefit cap. Isn’t it true that the actual amount an average (as defined by the DWP) working family takes home as income is in fact more than £600 per week, rather than the £500 suggested by IDS and the DWP? Isn’t it true that the amount such a family receives in state benefits was ignored because a cap at the higher level would harm so few families that it would hardly be worth inflicting on the nation?

Let’s look at the claim that kicked off this process – IDS’ claim that 8,000 people who would have been affected by the benefit cap had moved into jobs instead. We have already seen the DWP report which explicitly states that the figures are “not intended to show the additional numbers entering work as a direct result of the contact’. IDS was therefore claiming they show something that they do not. That’s a lie – right? Let’s hear it from these officials.

In every case, the officials will have to provide proof of their statements – otherwise their claims will carry no weight.

Besides these specific issues, we can all look forward to information about recent UK Statistics Authority investigations into complaints about benefit statistics and the DWP’s response, the quality and accessibility of the department’s statistics, its processes for preparing and releasing statistics, and its role in helping the media interpret those statistics.

And the officials involved had better be sure of their facts. Any statement that they “do not have that information” or “those figures aren’t available” will be taken as an admission that they – and their ministers – have been cooking the books.

So, even though the principle villain in this affair will not be appearing, the Department for Work and Pensions will go on trial on Wednesday, July 10. The officials appearing before the Work and Pensions Committee need to be word-perfect with their facts.

Any failure to supply information; any omission; any claim that a particular point should not be answered will be an admission of guilt.