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This is the email from Wesley Stephenson (senior producer, BBC Current Affairs) to This Writer’s complaint about the segment on Radio 4’s More or Less covering the DWP’s release of statistics relating to deaths of claimants of incapacity benefits – published as promised in a previous article.
Thank you for getting in touch about our piece on ‘Fit for Work deaths’ I have read your complaint and feel that there are some misunderstandings about the programme.
1. Your objection to the comment that ‘thousands of people die after breakfast’ I believe is misguided. This points out the error that can be made with the deaths figure that correlation somehow infers causation. We did not suggest that there is no link just that we don’t know if there is a link and caution should be taken at interpreting the figures otherwise. This was made clear in the piece when I said “We know nothing how or why they died. It could have nothing to do with the fit for work decision; they could be accidents or unrelated illnesses. Or they could be directly related. There is no way of knowing just by looking at the 2,380 deaths figure.”
2. You suggest we do know that people died within two weeks of the decision to declare them fit for work. I believe this is a misreading of the figures that stems from the way the DWP chose to present them. We don’t know whether the 2380 claimants died after being declared ‘fit for work’. The figures do not tell us this information. The ESA claims of 2380 people with a ‘fit for work’ decision didn’t necessarily end because they were declared ‘fit for work’ but they will have also have ended because they died. People will have still been counted as receiving ESA if they had received a FFW decision and had then appealed. We checked this before transmission and you can see a similar clarification close to the bottom of this piece from Fullfact.org. https://fullfact.org/factcheck/economy/fit_for_work_deaths_ESA-47588
3. You say in your complaint that “While the point that we don’t know how these people died is correct – this is because the DWP deliberately fails to record causes of death, which is a contentious matter in its own right – this seems to be making a false claim about my Freedom of Information request. There was nothing in it to suggest that I thought the figure that the DWP provided would prove its responsibility for any deaths that took place. Why was Mr Harford suggesting that there was?” At no point did we mention you or make any suggestions about what you were trying to achieve with the FOI request. The piece was about the way the press and particularly the Guardian had reported it.
4. The question of whether these deaths is ‘bigger than we would expect’ – we made clear here that we didn’t have the ASMRs for this particular set of people and therefore couldn’t make a proper comparison but it was fair to give the figure for the number of people receiving ESA who had died to give a sense of the size of the number that had been reported.
5. Your assertion that it’s false to say that those declared ‘fit for work’ may be more likely to die than the general population is not borne out in the figures. The death rate for the working age population is an average. The ‘fit for work group’ contains a number of people who have an above average chance of dying. Men are more likely to die than the average, people with lower qualifications are more likely to die than average, older people are more likely to die that average these groups are all over-represented in the people who are deemed fit for work. Just because people are deemed fit for work doesn’t mean they should only have an average chance of death.
6. As you say in your complaint you say that these deaths are ‘likely to be the tip of a very large proverbial iceberg’. This is possible although we can’t say that this will be the case however the programme did point out that 2380 certainly wasn’t the total number of people who had died after being declared fit for work as it only took in a subset of those people declared fit for work.
As Ben Goldacre pointed out in his piece (https://storify.com/bengoldacre/how-dwp-has-confused-everyone-by-releasing-the-rig) no matter where we look we haven’t got enough information to know and until the DWP release the ASMR for those people declared fit for work we cannot reach any meaningful conclusions. Also Nick Dilworth (who I spoke to before writing the piece) says that DWP figures are not meaningful http://ilegal.org.uk/thread/9144/death-statistics-idss-obfuscation-answer.
I will publish my response shortly.
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