Are ratios the evasive politician’s new favourite tool?

You may be aware that This Writer made his writing debut in the national news media today (June 25), discussing the struggle to get the DWP to update its statistics on the number of people who have died while claiming incapacity benefits.

It was appropriate that this should happen today, because it is the second anniversary of the launch of my first Freedom of Information request on the subject – you know, the vexatious one.

The article that appeared was, in fact, the second piece I sent in to The Independent. The first was considered – rightly – to be a little too involved for the casual reader, so I pulled back a little and wrote a new version.

Here’s what I originally wrote:


If percentages are the evasive politician’s favourite tool, what does this make ratios?

Ministers love to use percentages if the numbers don’t add up too well – but the Department for Work and Pensions has introduced an entirely new level of evasion.

In response to my Freedom of Information request for an updated number of deaths among sickness-related benefit claimants, the DWP has said it wants to publish the details as ‘Age-Standardised Mortality Rates’ (ASMRs) – as a ratio compared with the population as a whole.

Apparently the DWP has been working on this for no less than two years – it was first mentioned in a refusal to honour a similar request in 2013.
At the time, we were told: “We can confirm that we do intend to publish further statistics on this topic and these will answer a majority of your questions. As the statistics are intended for future publication this information is exempt from disclosure.”

Not according to the Information Commissioner!

His guidance states that any details withheld by a public authority must either have a planned publication date or a deadline for publication. Alternatively, if an information-gathering exercise is under way or there are related matters, publication may be delayed.

None of those conditions apply. I have an email from the DWP, stating that the Department has most of the requested information and could publish it within cost limits.

When I appealed against the DWP, the Information Commissioner supported me. But the DWP is taking the matter to a tribunal because it insists on holding back the information – until it can be fudged in the form of ASMRs.

That is not what I wanted when I made my latest FoI request in May 2014 – nor is it wanted by more than 225,000 people who have signed a petition in support of my request.

We want to know how many people have died, to compare with what we were told in a DWP release from July 2012 stating that, between January and November 2011, 10,600 ESA claimants had lost their lives.

Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has labelled this demand “disgraceful”.

Challenged about his refusal to publish the figures by Labour MP Marie Rimmer on Monday, he said, “Opposition Members deliberately try to misrepresent what happens… I find it disgraceful that she is going round making such allegations.”

He added, “The Department does not collate numbers on people in that circumstance” – a lie. Labour’s Debbie Abrahams raised a point of order about it on Wednesday and the DWP has yet to respond.

It seems clear that any “disgraceful” behaviour is being carried out by Iain Duncan Smith and his department.

These are time-sensitive figures; they should be published regularly, so that policies may be modified – particularly if many people are dying. This means figures need to be published in a way that makes them easily comparable – which is exactly what Iain Duncan Smith is trying to avoid.

And how does the DWP justify its bid to fudge the figures? “Taken in isolation, the statistics… were likely to be misinterpreted. Specifically, incorrect conclusions were likely to be drawn as to causal links between assessment outcomes and mortality.”

Perhaps the DWP’s £49,000+ per year lawyer failed to notice that Freedom of Information requests are “motive-blind” – it does not matter why I or anyone else want the information, or why DWP representatives think we want it; all that matters is whether the DWP has it and can publish it within cost limits.

It does, and it can.

Let’s have it.

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  1. Nick June 25, 2015 at 11:18 pm - Reply

    At the end of the day mike all of the deaths of the sick and disabled that have come about through welfare reform are listed here

    To just even go through the list takes many hours and to put all these deaths in an A to Z would take months and even then the list does not take into account those that died with no press release as they had no family members for that to be reported

    Also not all family members would have gone to the press as that would have been to invasive for them to handle

    No one has compiled the full listings of all have died despite many like myself with good intentions making a start but the list just goes on and on and with regret I gave up

    I do believe thou that someone will compile the full list of the sick and disabled at some point with their faces and yes it may take a couple of years to surface but surface it will

    • Mike Sivier June 26, 2015 at 9:37 am - Reply

      No – all the deaths are not listed there – for reasons you list in your comment.

      • Nick June 26, 2015 at 9:56 am - Reply

        indeed mike and additional people that have died without any press release will never be known they will be like those who die in war like the Korean War (the forgotten ones)

  2. M de Mowbray June 26, 2015 at 6:33 am - Reply

    Whenever bureaucrats start using verbose descriptions like “Age-Standardised Mortality Rates, with acronyms like ASMRs to describe new ways of presenting statistics, then I know that they are not “presenting” statistics, but MASSAGING statistics. “There are lies, there are damned lies and there are statistics.” And now we have not only the Massaged DWP statistics, but also the knowledge that Iain Duncan Smith and his merry chums at DWP have been using their time and pay (paid for by the public) for TWO YEARS to conceive convoluted new ways to present statistics.

  3. Rupert Mitchell (@rupert_rrl) June 26, 2015 at 7:01 am - Reply

    When we have MPs like IDS, I feel ashamed to be British.

  4. Claire Smith June 26, 2015 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Since it is NOT considered illegal for ministers to lie they will continue to do so to justify their actions, or indeed, inactions.

    • Tony Dean June 26, 2015 at 10:42 am - Reply

      It is a serious matter for a government minister to lie at the despatch box.

  5. amnesiaclinic June 26, 2015 at 9:32 am - Reply

    Well done, Mike!

    To make it to the msm is quite an achievement.

    Tomorrow I will be doing the second day of my ‘strike’ against the government in not using any power at all. If enough of us do it once a month it will make a real impact.

    • Mike Sivier June 26, 2015 at 10:32 am - Reply

      Yes! It’s June 27 tomorrow and you’re absolutely right – it’s time for the second monthly power strike. I must write an article.

  6. Timro June 26, 2015 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Everybody ought to know that welfare benefits are not going to be frozen but given a zero-percent increase over the next couple of years. And there we were thinking that working-age social security wasn’t going to be uprated with inflation!

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