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Let’s get something straight from the outset: By Parliamentary convention, if a government minister lies to MPs – or is found to have told falsehoods and does not then correct the inaccuracies, that is a resignation matter.
Until the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came into power, this convention was observed by all parties. The fact that the current administration – which, let’s remember, did not win any elections to get into office – does not observe this convention is yet another indication that it is an outlaw government.
Iain Duncan Smith is a classic case of the Coalition attitude. He has told so many porkies to Parliament and the public that he is to be dragged before the Commons Work and Pensions committee to account for them. The trouble is, even if he is forced to admit knowingly misleading us all, there is no reason to expect him to do the decent thing and fall on his sword. He’ll damn our impertinence for having the cheek to question him.
Probably the best way forward with him would be for the Work and Pensions committee to take his case to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the committee on Standards and Privileges, as this seems to be the correct route to take, in order to expel an MP.* If he won’t go willingly, he’ll have to be pushed.
Of course Mr… Smith might decide to claim he cannot answer some of the more involved questions, if he hasn’t had prior notice of them; he could say he hasn’t been able to put the facts together. Then, instead of admitting he is dishonest, he’ll just be admitting incompetence. No Coalition minister has yet been sacked for that.
One of his fellows who’ll have no such excuse is Mark Hoban, due to face questioning by Sheila Gilmore MP – who also sits on the Work and Pensions committee – in an adjournment debate on the audio recording of Atos work capability assessments at 7pm today (Wednesday, June 12).
Why not? Because she has sent him advance notice of all the questions she will be asking, in her speech, which she has published here for everyone to see.
Firstly, she attacks the government’s assertion – made by Hoban’s fellow truth-bender Chris Grayling, when he was in Hoban’s job – that there is a lack of demand for audio recording of assessments. He said a pilot scheme to test whether audio recording assessments improved their quality had produced a negative result: “We decided not to implement universal recording because, based on the trial experience, people did not want it.”
This is – to nobody’s surprise – untrue.
The Atos pilot concluded, “68% of customers agreed to the recording when contacted by telephone prior to the appointment.”
This total dropped to 46 per cent due to some claimants not taking the assessment. This is most likely caused by the phenomenon of ‘churn’, as discussed on this blog, and others, in previous articles – a fairly consistent number of claimants stop their claim before taking the assessment because they either get better, find a job that can accommodate their disability, or die.
As far as Atos were concerned, the result was beyond doubt: “Our recommendation would be that recording should become routine as it is in a call centre or for example – NHS direct.”
This is the recommendation of the company running the much-criticised assessment scheme, remember. Even Atos wants better accountability and an improved quality of assessment that this may bring.
Ms Gilmore goes on to attack the government’s claim that the number of claimants requesting a copy of their recording is just one per cent. This cannot be regarded as an accurate assessment of the number who would like a copy, for two reasons, she tells us.
Firstly, the assessors used handheld devices to make their recordings, meaning they would have to be transferred to computer and burnt to CD afterwards, preventing claimants from taking recordings away with them on the day. Instead they had to make a further request – in writing. “Unsurprisingly this suppressed uptake,” Ms Gilmore’s speech states.
Secondly, claimants were warned off applying for copies by assessors who told them recordings would only be useful to them if they appealed. The report that stated only one per cent of claimants persisted in their request was completed only days after the pilot study ended, meaning most of those involved had not received a decision on their claim and therefore did not know whether they needed to appeal. Demand may well have been higher, had the measurement been taken after a reasonable time.
This is just one example of the DWP timing processes in order to get its way. We’ll return to that topic in a moment.
Chris Grayling also stated that the DWP would offer “everyone who wants it” the opportunity to have their assessment recorded. In practice, this seems an empty promise, as Atos had around 50 audio recording machines on May 22 this year, but undertakes more than 11,000 assessments every week.
Also, the option to request recordings is not offered in any official DWP communications to claimants. As Arthur Dent points out in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s not like they’ve gone out of their way, “like actually telling anyone or anything!”
What we’re seeing is a series of attempts to distort information and skew the facts, to create a story that supports DWP ministers’ intentions, rather than the evidence. That’s bad for the country, because it means decisions are taken on the basis of fantasy, diverting attention and effort away from where it is needed.
“Today I have taken the unusual step of emailing a copy of my speech for an upcoming debate to Mark Hoban, the Minister due to speak for the Government,” said Ms Gilmore. “Now he can have no excuse for not answering the important questions I intend to put to him…. I want to ensure the Minister can’t ignore these points, and that’s why I’ve take this action today.”
Whatever happens this evening, it seems unlikely that anything can be done about the DWP’s latest misuse of statistics – actually withholding performance data about the Work Programme (as reported previously in Vox Political) and the Youth Contract until the day after the government’s comprehensive spending review.
This means decisions are likely to be made on ministers’ recommendations, rather than on the basis of fact – and we now know that we cannot trust those recommendations at all.
The Telegraph, reporting the delay, stated that the figures – when they arrive – “are expected to be very disappointing.
“It is hardly unreasonable to say that the Government would sooner Labour did not have these to throw at it when George Osborne gives details of the Comprehensive Spending Review in Parliament on June 26.”
Columnist Tim Wigmore concludes – and this is in the Torygraph, remember: “The Government only has itself to blame if it’s getting harder to give it the benefit of the doubt.”
That time is long gone.
There must be no dishonesty in Parliament.
If Mark Hoban fails to give full and frank answers to the questions Sheila Gilmore has put to him, but resorts to distortions of the figures or outright falsehoods, then he must be expelled from his job, not just as a minister but as an MP.
That goes for his boss, Iain Duncan Smith. It goes for Grant Shapps, Michael Gove (mentioned in the Telegraph article) and, above all, it also goes for David Cameron.
*If any MP is reading this and able to provide details of the correct procedure, please get in touch.