Minister caught misleading government’s benefits advisors


newslatestA work and pensions minister has been caught giving misleading information to the government’s own benefits advice body about the possibility of assessing the overall impact on disabled people of its sweeping welfare cuts and reforms.

Lord Freud, minister for welfare reform, is just the latest in a line of Conservative ministers to be embarrassed by the coalition’s increasingly frantic attempts to defend its refusal to carry out a cumulative impact assessment (CIA).

In a letter to the social security advisory committee (SSAC), Lord Freud insisted that it was not possible to carry out a CIA for disabled people, and claimed that this was a view “shared by the authoritative Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS)”.

Ministers have repeatedly made this claim. But earlier this month, the IFS published research which included a CIA looking at the impact of 35 benefit and tax changes on disabled people in Wales.

The IFS insisted that such cumulative assessments were possible, and told Disability News Service (DNS) that it was unclear where the government’s view about the IFS position on CIAs had come from.

Paul Gray, the SSAC’s chair, told DNS: “The committee has made clear its position that an inability to produce a perfect study on the cumulative impact of the government’s welfare reforms should not prevent the highest priority being given to produce the best possible combined analysis as the reforms are progressively implemented.

“I would strongly encourage the government to explore with the IFS – and Landman Economics and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, whose report on cumulative impact was published today – what might be possible in this respect.”

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: “We believe that the arguments in the letter to the SSAC are valid, with the reference to the Institute of Fiscal Studies being made in good faith.

“We will continue to look at this issue, drawing on IFS expertise and analysis where appropriate.”

But she has been unable to explain why ministers kept saying IFS agreed with their position on CIAs when it did not.

And she declined to say whether Lord Freud would apologise for misleading the SSAC.

But she said that ministers still believed such an assessment was not possible, because survey data was “limited”, while there were “a number of overlapping reforms coming in at different points up to 2017-18”, and benefit caseloads were “dynamic”.

She added: “The real cumulative impact of our welfare reforms is to make work pay and for those who can’t work [to]target support at those in need.”

Disabled activists and other campaigners have been demanding since at least 2011 that DWP carries out a CIA. They say ministers fear that such research will show clearly how disabled people have borne the brunt of the coalition’s spending cuts.

Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, which began calling for a CIA in 2011, said: “Lord Freud has never believed a CIA to be possible and we have said before that he doesn’t give a damn.

“Perhaps he might now listen to advisors such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, [the Labour peer]Baroness Hollis, [the disabled Labour MP]Dame Anne Begg and the social security advisory committee, and many more, including disabled people and carers themselves.

“Listening to those at the sharp end of these cuts might have prevented him from offering intentionally misleading responses. But now he must act to ensure that the worst impacts of his reforms stop here.”

Blogger and campaigner Sue Marsh said Lord Freud had “lied at every stage and every debate in the House of Lords”, so it was “very important to me that his lies are seen, even if nothing changes”.

Lord Freud joins three other Tory work and pensions ministers who have previously ridiculed the idea of a CIA.

Mark Hoban, at the time the Conservative minister for employment, said last July that a CIA would be “so complex and subject to so many variables that it would be meaningless”.

Esther McVey also dismissed the idea, telling DNS that the information gathered would be “incoherent and inconsistent”.

And Mike Penning, her successor as minister for disabled people, told MPs that a CIA was not possible because there were “no real results that can be broken down and are reliable enough to show the effect on disabled people”.

31 July 2014