It is the second time the Conservative work and pensions minister, Esther McVey, has been caught out using the same figures to try to justify the coalition’s disability living allowance (DLA) reforms.
The Mail on Sunday this week reported that McVey believed coalition plans to abolish working-age DLA had led to a huge increase in applications by people desperate to claim the benefit before it was replaced by the new personal independence payment (PIP), which will come with a tougher assessment.
The Mail on Sunday article – based on an interview with McVey – stated: “The decision to introduce new tests has produced an extraordinary ‘closing-down sale’ effect, with rocketing claims as people rush to get their hands on unchecked ‘welfare for life’ before McVey’s axe falls on April 8.”
A spokeswoman for McVey told Disability News Service (DNS) that, although she did not use the phrases “closing-down sale” or “welfare for life”, “everything in the article was a fair representation” of the interview.
But the figures referred to by the Mail are the same ones that led to the government being accused last month of “manipulating” its own benefit statistics in a bid to justify scrapping DLA.
An analysis of the DLA figures by DNS showed that the number of claimants aged 16-64 actually fell by more than 1,600 between February and May 2012.
This is important because the reforms and cuts – with an estimated 900,000 fewer people receiving PIP by 2018 than if DLA had not been scrapped – will only affect working-age claimants.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, who has been critical of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) use of statistics, said: “Although the DWP says that the minister did not use the words ‘closing down sale’, she is obviously comfortable with the language, which is insulting to the many disabled people who were applying for the benefit out of need.
“This government has shown no shame in the misleading use of statistics over past months as they sought to stoke up antagonism to disabled people who are claiming benefits.
“Sadly, the minister for disabled people’s statements show that she is party to perpetuating some of the myths.”
McVey’s interview with the Mail on Sunday was one of a series by government ministers attempting to justify a slew of welfare reforms that are being introduced this month, including the introduction of PIP in parts of the north-west and north-east of England.
DWP had used the same DLA figures in February to persuade the Daily Mail and the Sun newspapers to run stories claiming that the rise in claimants proved the need for reform.
After the misleading figures were drawn to his attention, the disabled Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd promised to write to McVey to highlight his concerns about her department’s “massaging of the stats”.
He said this week: “It is tremendously frustrating that the DWP put out these figures in such a way that a fair-minded person might think actually encourages misinterpretation.
“In fact it is quite clear the numbers of disabled people who are of working age and claiming DLA is actually dropping, which begs the question why the usual suspects in the media – the Sun and Mail group – were fed the story in such a way.
“Whatever the rationale, I believe its outcome is detrimental to the whole issue of disability and benefits.
“There is a strong case for more effort and resource to support disabled people into work, and elements of the Work Programme are doing this, but to spin the working-age DLA figures does a disservice, in my view, to what the coalition is trying to achieve.”
Based on the figures, the Sun newspaper claimed in February that the number of DLA claimants was “soaring” at the rate of “one every ten minutes”, and that ministers believed the figures “proved they are right to scrap DLA from April” and replace it with the “tough” new PIP.
The Daily Mail also used the figures to allege that a new DLA claimant was “signing on” every nine minutes, and that “the rush to secure the state payout is thought to be because its replacement will have tougher eligibility tests”.
The Mail story is still on its website – uncorrected – even though DNS drew the misleading figures to its attention more than four weeks ago.
3 April 2013