More drivel, less fact from the BBC on incapacity benefit deaths

Mark Wood: He died of starvation several months after his ESA was stopped without warning by the DWP. The BBC's More or Less report ignores the fate of people like Mr Wood - their deaths are considered to be of no interest when evaluating the performance of the Conservative Government.

Mark Wood: He died of starvation several months after his ESA was stopped without warning by the DWP. The BBC’s More or Less report ignores the fate of people like Mr Wood – their deaths are considered to be of no interest when evaluating the performance of the Conservative Government.

If its reports on the deaths of state benefit claimants are any yardstick, nobody should trust the BBC’s More or Less programme as anything other than a propaganda wing of the Conservative Government.

“Tim Harford explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life”, states the blurb on the radio programme’s web page. But More or Less has form for broadcasting drivel and, sadly, the reality of last Friday’s report on the DWP’s recent statistical releases fell far short of acceptable journalistic standards.

Mr Harford started by saying the programme’s inbox “nearly exploded” after The Guardian announced that thousands had died after being found fit for work – then set the tone for the whole report by saying “thousands of people die after breakfast but that doesn’t mean that breakfast is to blame”.

This is a false argument – a bad analogy. People die all the time, for any number of reasons; it is whether they became more likely to die after being wrongly classified as fit for work that concerned the people who so overburdened the More or Less inbox.

“But The Guardian clearly thought it was on to something here,” continued Mr Harford, implying that it wasn’t. Who pays this man’s wages?

Quoting the lower-bound statistic of 2,380 people being found fit for work, and mentioning that the story had been picked up by many newspapers and websites, Mr Harford turned to Wesley Stephenson for an expert opinion. I’m not sure what credentials Mr Stephenson has for doing so – they don’t seem to have been mentioned in the piece.

This gentleman admitted that the facts were correct – as provided by the DWP in response to my now-infamous FoI request of May 2014 – adding that being found fit for work disqualifies a claimant from Employment and Support Allowance.

Mr Harford tried to fog the issue by relating it to a previous report in which people were said to have died after being kicked off-benefit when in fact (in fact? It was a claim by the DWP that was not supported by factual evidence) they had died and their claim had ended. But to his credit, Mr Stephenson said, “In this case, these 2,380 people were declared fit for work, and then they died.”

Now the report goes off-track. Mr Harford asked: “Did they die shortly after being declared fit for work, because that’s what The Guardian said?”

The response – “We don’t know” – is entirely wrong. Stephenson continued: “Originally The Guardian said these people died within two weeks of assessment but it has since published a correction. The DWP release, having looked at that, it doesn’t contain that information.”

He was making a mistake. The DWP release states quite clearly that 2,380 people with a WCA decision of “fit for work” flowed off-benefit with a date of death at the same time, meaning (if one checks the small print) “those whose date of death is up to 14 days after the claim end date for ESA”. We have already established that claims are ended when people are found “fit for work”, and it seems unlikely that anyone would argue that any time within two weeks of that isn’t “shortly after”. Therefore they did, indeed, die shortly after being declared fit for work.

Mr Harford then goes into what he describes as a “subtext” that the claim is unfair – “that the people who are being tested and then pronounced fit to work are either so ill that they promptly die or perhaps the strain of being forced into work has hastened their deaths”. Forced into work? Sloppy reporting; they were being forced to seek work that, the evidence indicates, they weren’t fit enough to carry out.

“Do we know anything about why these people died?”

While the answer is correct: “No… It could have nothing to do with the fit for work decision. They could be accidents, they could be unrelated illnesses – or they could be directly related, but there is no way of knowing, just by looking at the 2,380 deaths figure,” 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.

However, the fact that these people had been claiming a state benefit on the grounds that they were too ill to work and then died shortly after being refused that benefit, coupled with the fact that the DWP tried to hide the fact of these deaths for more than three years after the start of the period they cover, indicates that ministers have serious questions to answer regarding the causes of these deaths. Doesn’t it?

Mr Harford moved on to what he calls “the first rule of More or Less: Is 2,380 people a big number – bigger than we would expect?”

“Well, maybe, but it’s far from obvious. Over the same period, 80,000 people died while they were still on incapacity benefits, and in England and Wales as a whole, about a million people died.” This is another bad analogy – they’re deliberately not comparing like-for-like. Many of the people who died while they were still on benefits were likely to die because – of course – they were seriously ill. They cannot be compared with people who had been refused benefit and then died because – by the DWP’s standards – they were not in the same situation.

If these reporters had looked at the work-related activity group – ESA claimants who are expected to recover enough to return to work within a year of claiming, the number of people in that group over the calendar years 2012-13 rose by nine per cent, from 545,000-596,000 people, but the number of deaths in that group rose by 24 per cent, from 2,990 to 3,720. These were people who were supposed to be getting better, remember. Over the period covered by the FoI request, these 6,710 were joined by another 490 to total 7,200.

Looking at the population as a whole, the chance of anybody dying within the years covered was 0.19 per cent so, to take the work-related activity group in 2013 as an example, of 596,010 people, the expected death rate would be 1,081. In fact it was 3,720. That’s a statistically significant amount that the presenter of More or Less was trying to hide.

Even more to-the-point is the fact that the 2,380 deaths only includes those who passed away within the DWP’s two-week ‘scan’ period after their benefit claim was closed and ignores anyone who died even one day after the end of that period. Mark Wood, for example, died of starvation several months after the DWP stopped his ESA claim. How many more died in similar circumstances? It seems likely that the 2,380 known deaths may be just the tip of a very large proverbial iceberg.

As it happens, my FoI request posed exactly this question; it asked for the number of people who had died after being found fit for work between the beginning of December 2011 and the end of May 2014 – the whole period, not just two weeks around the closure of their claim. As the DWP has now withdrawn its objection to my request, it now stands liable to provide the full figures or be in contempt of court.

Moving on, Mr Harford asked whether people who had been found fit for work have been dying at a higher rate than the rest of the working-age population, “ooh – or even better, if these data were standardised to take account of people’s age and sex”. What a crawler. He knows the DWP has put out Age-Standardised Mortality Rates covering incapacity benefit claimants and he wanted to make it clear that he thinks they are a good idea, even though the rest of us know that they were only put together in order to make it seem that fewer deaths have been happening, when in fact they have been increasing.

“That would be absolutely marvellous, wouldn’t it?” enthused Mr Stephenson slimily, before going on to mention the DWP’s ASMR release, along with the fact that such figures have not been prepared for the group under discussion. This is hardly surprising – the ASMR release was created to convince people of a lie that deaths are decreasing, while ASMRs for people found fit for work would require the DWP to tell us the full number of deaths that have taken place, rather than just those that happened within a couple of weeks of the fit for work decision.

Stephenson did mention that the death rate for people on every type of incapacity benefit was four times higher than the rate among the population at large, but qualified his comment by saying: “That’s not really surprising, because these people are too ill or too disabled to work.” Does this lack of surprise include those in the work-related activity group, who are expected to get better? Does it include people in the assessment phase, many of whom may be denied the benefit or put into the WRAG? Does it include those in the mysterious ‘Unknown’ phase of ESA – for people who are only receiving NI credits – where the death rate has skyrocketed while the population has plummeted? Perhaps it’s more surprising than he – or the programme’s makers – want us to believe!

At least he had the decency to admit that “we don’t have the data we need to say whether something alarming is happening to people who are seeking some kind of disability assistance and then get declared fit for work.”

He also, rightly, admits that part of the reason for this is that the death figure doesn’t include people who have been moved onto, for example, Jobseekers’ Allowance.

But he said: “Even if we could, we would expect the ‘fit for work’ group to have a higher death rate than the working population, even if the government’s test is scrupulously fair and accurate. These people have other characteristics that are correlated with a higher mortality rate – they’re older, more likely to have low qualifications, more likely to be men, and more likely to have had low-paid jobs in the past, and of course, they’re making a claim for assistance, so even if they are fit for work, that doesn’t mean they’re in perfect health.”

There is so much wrong with this that it seems likely he was reading from a DWP press statement. Why would we expect somebody marked ‘fit for work’ to be more likely to die? The government has said they should be grouped with the wider population that has a much lower average death rate – that’s the whole thrust of the report up until this point. The claim that their other characteristics make them more likely to die is utterly unfounded for the reason that had just been reported: The DWP has not provided any information on the characteristics of that group.

Take, for example, the claim that they are more likely to die because they are more likely to be men. The average age at which a male UK citizen dies is in his seventies – not while he is working-age at all. Similarly, the comment that they are making a claim for assistance, and therefore aren’t likely to be in perfect health, also runs against a narrative we’ve been hearing from the government and its supporters for the past five years or more – that people who claim these benefits but fail are shirkers and skivers who are perfectly fit and healthy but just want something for nothing. Remember when the Tories were tubthumping about ending the “something for nothing” culture?

Now we’re being told that these skivers are actually more likely to die because they’re ill – in which case they should be on benefit after all. Which is it, DWP?

All those involved in this mockery of a report should apologise ashamedly for this travesty; this attempt to cover up the facts – not just to those of us who had to listen to their tripe but also to the many thousands of people who have died while claiming, or having been cut off from, social security benefits. Reports such as this are an insult to their memory.

The BBC may expect a strongly-worded complaint from me in the very near future. If you wish to do the same, the More or Less website provides a feedback form here.

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  1. mohandeer September 7, 2015 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    Letter to BBC as suggested Mike. Best I could mange in my fury.
    What a wonderful propagandist tool for the Tory government. Not only were facts deliberately misinterpreted and misrepresented but insulting not only to those who have died as a consequence of having their lifeline social security benefit removed but all those currently suffering under Tory “austerity”. The aforementioned “austerity” only affecting the poorest and most vulnerable in the country. If the BBC intends to further promote the Tory government agenda at least try not to insult our diminished intelligence by purporting to offer unbiased reporting, which it is most definitely not.

  2. HomerJS September 7, 2015 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    I don’t know if you can answer this Mike, but I always wonder whether when they compare death rates of groups like this with the general population if they actually are able to extract the people in said groups out of the general population?
    Obviously if those found fit for work are also included in the general population figures then their higher mortality rates would push the general population rate higher.

  3. John. September 7, 2015 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    I declare Mr. Harford unfit to broadcast.

    • iwgmoncrieff September 7, 2015 at 4:19 pm - Reply

      “More or less crap” then. The BBC was once world renowned for its independence, the skill of its reporters(think Julian Pettifer, John Simpson and Kate Adie for starters) and its ability and courage in rebuffing political interference. Bunch of Tory lackeys on the Board and craven management have led to its position as the world’s most trusted broadcaster now pretty much ignored. Wall to wall “reality” programmes and Attenborough repeats are where they are headed.

  4. Paul Hanlon September 7, 2015 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    I’m in over my head here a bit re the statistics. I dont understand how the population as a whole has a 0.19% per annum death rate. If people live on average for example to 100 shouldn’t the chance of dying be 1% per annum? Secondly, can we (while retaining rigour) apply the same 0.19% to the 2380 dying within 2 weeks ie would the expected deaths within that group be somewhere around 2380 x 0.19% x 26(fortnights per year)? Or is that not even close?

    • Mike Sivier September 7, 2015 at 11:56 pm - Reply

      The percentage-per-year death rate is the number of people who die every year compared with the size of the population. According to the DWP, in 2013 the working-age population totalled 38,715,150 people and 74,590 deaths took place. That’s 0.19 per cent of the total population. See?
      We can’t apply the 0.19 per cent figure to the 2,380 deaths because 2,380 is likely to be only a fraction of the total number of people who have died after being assessed as fit for work over the period in question – the others having died outside the DWP’s self-imposed ‘scan’ period. Even according to the stats the DWP has released, 2,380 is the lowest possible number of deaths – it could be anything up to 4,010. Also, we don’t know how many people were assessed as being fit for work during the period in question, because the DWP has chosen not to supply that detail.

  5. Nick September 7, 2015 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    however the deaths came about that will take years of an investigation. the bottom line is they died shortly afterwords that they were fit for work in which they never were

    There deaths were caused by medical negligence by all who saw them and that is the only conclusion a judge would make

  6. Paul Hanlon September 7, 2015 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    Oh, I meant the group size x 0.19% x 26

  7. stephen brophy September 7, 2015 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    I here that the BBC are left wing! Complete rubbish!!!

  8. Ian September 7, 2015 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    Quelle surprise. Anyone remember the BBC’s reporting of the 60,000 strong march against NHS privatisation? A march that *went right past the Tory party confernce*? No? That’s because the BBC didn’t report it.

    The BBC is shocking, these days. I noticed a pro-government bias during the last Labour government but this is something else entirely. I have written and complained about bias (and bias by omission) many times and the arrogance with which they reply is beyond belief; basically ‘go away, pleb. We’re right. you’re wrong. Suck it up’.

    If you push this further Mike, be prepared for frustrating times. The BBC are bomb proof.

  9. Liz Ellis September 7, 2015 at 6:36 pm - Reply

    Wesley Stephenson is a BBC journalist who seems to have a byline in pulling stats apart. Not sure if he has any formal training in stats, can’t seem to find anything (and I did have a dig).

    I’m not a statistician, but from reading what stats wonks seem to have said about the figures, the suggestion is that the figures are incomplete. I thought this was interesting: which is pretty evenhanded in its breakdown of the figures and seems to conclude the assessment process is flawed.

  10. Jenny Hambidge September 7, 2015 at 6:48 pm - Reply

    They say they can’t post my comment. Perhaps too many comments? Whats that all about?

  11. fathomie September 7, 2015 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    The BBC is nothing more than a Tory propaganda channel. I’m currently in a war of words with them over inaccurate, slanted and cynically misleading information they provided in an article on fracking on the BBC website.They refuse to accept in any way this is the case despite my giving them information contrary to the Conservative govt and energy companies line.The controversial and ‘inaccurate’ source? The EIA,the US govts energy information agency…

  12. hilary772013 September 7, 2015 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    I have sent my letter to them but whether it will do any good remains to be seen as I have written to the BBC on many occasions to complain about them being biased, We do not have a free press anymore but a state controlled one.
    If only the TV networks would start reporting these issues, then the people who do not use social media or have access to the internet would surely be up in arms, I think the lack of empathy is due to ignorance.

    Keep up the good works Mike, you deserve a medal for your persistence in forcing the government to release the death figures but unless it receives air time I think it will be to no avail because if people only hear one side (the governments) they believe the rhetoric. I DESPAIR because I honestly thought this revelation would definitely get reported on national television.

    Please keep fighting Mike, you are our knight in shining amour..

    thank you!

  13. Jeff Featherstone September 8, 2015 at 8:54 pm - Reply

    More or Less is consistently a fine example of objectively analysing statistics. The fact that this results in inconvenient truths that do not suit some people’s political perceptions does not make the programme a tool of the Tory government. It simply makes them objective analysts.

    • Mike Sivier September 8, 2015 at 10:56 pm - Reply

      The analysis you consider to be objective was wrong. That, of course, means it wasn’t objective.
      I assume you’ve read the article, so I note that you have no counter-arguments to set against what I have written.
      Therefore we may safely conclude that your comment has no value.

  14. mrmarcpc September 18, 2015 at 3:18 pm - Reply

    The BBC are a bunch of b*****ds like all rest of the news networks and newspapers in this country!

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