The civil servants responsible for the press releases and statistics that come out of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were grilled this week by MPs investigating the repeated, misleading use of disability benefits figures by the government.
MPs such as Labour’s Sheila Gilmore have tried to find out who was responsible for a string of stories that have appeared in the media over the last three years in which DWP statistics have been used to try to justify the coalition’s welfare reforms.
Many disabled activists say such stories have led to increased levels of disability hate crime.
The work and pensions select committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, is holding a short inquiry into DWP’s misleading use of benefit statistics, a decision that was prompted by Gilmore.
Committee members have already received a private briefing from Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA).
This week’s session saw the questioning of John Shields, DWP’s director of communications, and David Frazer, director of its information, governance and security directorate.
The Labour MP Glenda Jackson said the problematic media coverage was caused not by the statistics themselves, but by the way they were released by DWP, and the “commentary” on those figures.
She said: “We are talking about a series of policies that are bringing about the most fundamental changes in the benefits system this country has ever seen, and obviously it is the duty and responsibility of ministers and the department to sell that to the country.
“And looking at it from a completely non-political view, they have been very successful in that.
“I could argue, and I would, that that is because – and I don’t mean statisticians, and I’m not accusing the press office – statistics have been deliberately placed in certain ways so that the minister’s story… plays, and it’s positive.”
Asked by Dame Anne if the press office had ever put out a press release after Frazer had warned them the information within it was not accurate, Shields said: “I don’t think it does happen. I am struggling to think of an instance when we have put out something from the department which was heavily contested or disputed.”
Dame Anne told Shields: “We are not suggesting that you are doing the spinning, we are just trying to find out who is doing the spinning and if the spinning has got out of control.”
She added: “It always seems to be disability benefits that seem to cause the most controversy.”
She pointed to a series of “quite bland” press releases which had all been interpreted in the same unexpected way by tabloids including the Express, the Daily Mail and the Sun, and she asked Shields how that had happened.
He insisted that DWP press officers worked “within the confines” of the press release and the advice they receive from DWP statisticians.
He said: “We put every effort into putting out information that is fair and providing information about how the government is doing on the delivery of its policies. What I can’t control is how that appears in every single newspaper.”
Dame Anne finished the session by telling the two DWP officials that she was “not sure we have quite got to grips with where a lot of this stuff comes from”.
She said: “I think that’s the difficulty for us. Things appear in the newspapers and everyone puts their hands up in horror and says, ‘Nothing to do with us.’ But it must have come from somewhere.”
In September, in the inquiry’s key session, members of the committee will question the Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
10 July 2013