It is said that you can get the measure of a man, not from his words, but from his actions. Iain Duncan Smith brought bodyguards to the Commons Work and Pensions Committee yesterday. (Monday)
Why did he need the muscle? Probably because he knew how his behaviour would be received. This is a man who is absolutely not going to accept criticism, in any form at all.
The man whose benefit reforms were mocked by Ed Balls last week as “In Deep Sh…ambles” batted away concerns about inaccurate statistics as somebody else’s fault and, when confronted with a whistleblower’s claim that jobseekers were being sanctioned indiscriminately, said he wanted to see the evidence.
That’s a bit much, coming from the man who is still withholding the mortality statistics of people going through the assessment regime for Employment and Support Allowance. Where is that evidence?
Our evidence that he had a bodyguard comes from Paula Peters on Facebook, who attended the meeting. She wrote: “The police, and they were armed, hustled him into the room. He had a bodyguard in the room with him! What the hell for? We are entitled to watch proceedings and follow due process.”
Dame Anne Begg, chairing the meeting, pointed out that the UK Statistics Authority has received more complaints about the Department of Work and Pensions’ use of statistics than any other government department.
His response: “Yes, but I’ve had two letters. One was about two years ago, concerning something about the use of them on immigration, but they let that one sit – and the last one was where we had a discussion on the use of where I referred to those going back to work on the back of the benefit cap. They said that … I should not make the link. I believed it to be the case – that those people were going back to work due to the fact of reducing the cap; that’s my belief. They said it should not remain as a flat statistic, which we’ve accepted.”
So in that one respect, he admitted that he was wrong.
But he also said: “We have published, over the period that I have been there, over 500 statistical releases. We’ve also started the innovation of ‘ad hoc’ releases – which, actually, we were congratulated for by UKSA… We try and publish as regularly as possible… We try to sell a positive message, and I know there have been issues around negativity with regard to disability benefits.”
Pressed on the fact that Grant Shapps had claimed nearly 900,000 people shuffled off ESA because they weren’t willing to take the work capability assessment, the Secretary of State denied responsibility: “We didn’t actually – and have never – given them that idea about those figures. It was something that they put together and released themselves. I wasn’t even aware that they were going out with that comment at the time… I have had conversations with him and others about being careful to check with the department.”
Committee member Debbie Abrahams wanted to know about the claim by a whistleblower in Job Centre Plus, that JSA claimants were deliberately being set up to fail, contrary to the Civil Service code, with ploys including making appointments without telling the claimant, in order to create an easy opportunity for a sanction and thereby distorting statistics – not after they had been collected but in the collection itself.
She said the whistleblower had tried to raise the issue with managers at all levels, but had been rebuffed each time.
“Well, I’m not aware of that,” drawled Mr Duncan Smith, “and I have to say that I would like to see his evidence for that. With respect, he is making an allegation about some of the incredibly hard work that job advisors do. There’s always one or two people who have a different view about operating in an organisation. I happen to believe that, unless it is proved to the contrary, people in Job Centres do a very good job, work very hard, and they apply sanctions within the rules.”
Challenged on this by Dame Anne, he started to claim that sanctions are always issued because of failure to comply with the strictures imposed on claimants, provoking an interruption from Debbie Abrahams that caused his mask to slip momentarily. “I have listened a lot to what has been said – and moaning about this… You’ve had a fair crack at this.”
So there you have it. Statistical errors are nothing to do with Iain Duncan Smith. Sanctions are always applied fairly and never to distort the statistics.
And anyone who thinks otherwise is “moaning”.
Paula Peters, in her Facebook post, said that disability minister Mike Penning met people from organisations representing the disabled. She reported his words as follows:
“Our disabilities are our fault.
“Diabetes is a lifestyle choice.
“Everyone who claims benefits is frauding the system.
“Everyone who uses the access to work programme is frauding it.”
The public verdict on the meeting has been universally negative. Nicola Clubb (again on Facebook) summed it up well: “I have just watched an hour’s worth of IDS and the DWP evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee and they let him and his three cronies off the hook.
“They did not push him him to explain his use of dodgy stats, they just asked him about a couple of pieces of data released by people.”
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