15 May 2014

Doubts over disability figures

A vision for radical reform – built on hard facts. That’s the promise of Iain Duncan Smiths’ ambitious reworking of the welfare state.

And it all comes down to facts and figures – how many people are on benefit, who’s getting it that shouldn’t, how many are moving back in to work?

The numbers matter.

But it’s clear that the figures – or at least how the secretary of state for work and pensions and his department present them, have been controversial.

Iain Duncan Smith himself has already been brought to task over claims made last year that the benefit cap had seen 8,000 people move into work.

The UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) upheld a complaint about Mr Duncan Smith’s proud boast with the rather blunt phrase , “unsupported by the official statistics.”

It’s not the only time the authority has taken issue with the way the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is using figures about benefits.

Complaint upheld

We can reveal the latest complaint put to the authority about DWP figures has been upheld.

This time it was to do with a key claim underpinning Mr Duncan Smith’s decision to abolish Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and replace it with a new benefit, the Personal Independence Payment.

The DWP literature – and minsters in interview – argued that “more than 50 per cent of decisions for Disability Living Allowance were made simply on the basis of a claim form alone, without any additional medical evidence.”

Implicit – and sometimes made explicit – was the notion that people were getting the benefit too easily – that “something for nothing” culture the government often talks about.

But the campaign group, Parkinson’s UK , said they knew – from the department’s own statistics funnily enough – that the 50 per cent figure was wrong.

They complained to the statistics authority and their complaint was upheld.

The UKSA said the claim was “ambiguous” and that a more accurate statement would be that that only 10 per cent of claimants  had received DLA on the basis of a claim form alone.

Donna O’Brien, who submitted the complaint on behalf of Parkinson’s UK said: “The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system, and it’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“People with Parkinson’s who claimed DLA have told us supporting medical evidence was crucial due to a woeful knowledge of the condition amongst assessors, and it is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

This is not a recent blip.

As far back as 2011, the work and pensions select committee warned the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) needed to take more care when releasing and commenting on benefit statistics, to make sure media stories were “accurate”.

Three years on, and the question being asked is whether the problems with statistics are down to incompetence or wilful attempts to mislead?

The chair of the work and pensions select committee, Dame Anne Begg, told me it was a bit of both perhaps. She added that the department and ministers still had work to do to make sure the way statistics on benefits were presented didn’t end up adding to an already febrile debate – with too many of the recipients left feeling like scroungers.

The DWP told us tonight that it leads the way on “openness and transparency.” The Statistics Authority have only written to them on a small number of occasions and they have taken on board their suggestions.


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