MPs could investigate ministers’ misleading use of benefits stats


theweek120by150An influential Commons committee could be set to investigate the use of misleading statistics on disability benefits by Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers.

Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and his colleague Esther McVey, the minister for disabled people, have been criticised in the last month for using misleading statistics on disability living allowance (DLA) to try to justify their welfare reforms.

They were the latest in a long list of examples of Conservative DWP ministers being criticised for misusing figures about disability benefits.

Now a Labour member of the work and pensions select committee has said enough is enough.

Sheila Gilmore told Disability News Service that the practice “has to stop”.

She said: “This is just the latest example of Tory ministers knowingly misusing figures on benefits that disabled people rely on.

“This is part of a campaign to undermine public trust in the UK’s welfare system, which has afforded the government cover. In its attempts to reduce the deficit, cutting benefits is seen as more of a priority than taxing the richest.

“So we have to fight back. As a member of the work and pensions select committee, I will now push for an inquiry into the misuse of statistics by ministers. This would send a message that this practice has to stop.”

The committee – which is chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg – is due to decide in the next few weeks which new inquiries it plans to tackle.

Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said her organisation would “very much welcome” a decision by the committee to investigate the issue.

She said: “It is ongoing and we think it is contributing to the whole hostile climate against disabled people, as well as misleading the public. We would welcome some scrutiny.”

A written submission to the Leveson inquiry on press standards by disabled people’s organisations including Inclusion London, the UK Disabled People’s Council and the Disability Hate Crime Network, pointed to strong evidence that disabled people were facing an increase in targeted hostility as a result of newspaper stories based on the misuse of benefits figures by DWP ministers.

McVey and Duncan Smith have both been caught this month quoting increases in the overall number of DLA claimants – including older people and children – to try to explain why they need to cut the number of people claiming working-age DLA, at a time when the number of working-age claimants has actually been falling.

Duncan Smith claimed disabled people were scrambling to “get ahead” of the tougher regime that will be introduced alongside the new personal independence payment (PIP), which will replace working-age DLA.

He said they were trying to “get in early, get ahead of it. It’s a case of ‘get your claim in early’.”

But he used numbers showing the total number of DLA claims, which rose by 49,000 over the year, rather than working-age claimants, which fell by 5,650.

The DWP argued that it used the figure for total DLA claims “because this relates to the total benefit spend, which is the figure most quoted by the media”.

DWP ministers have also been accused of making misleading use of employment and support allowance statistics, in an attempt to justify cuts and reforms to incapacity benefit.

In November 2011, a member of the work and pensions committee accused DWP of “pandering to the Daily Mail” over the issue of incapacity benefit reform, after it published a misleading press release about the results of its “fitness for work” tests.

Dame Anne said this week that the repeated use of statistics “in an inappropriate way” by DWP ministers was “worrying, concerning and disappointing”.

She said: “This is not the first time the DWP has misrepresented the numbers of people claiming DLA.”

In August 2011, the government claimed official statistics showed the number of DLA claimants had risen by 30 per cent over eight years, when the growth in the number of working-age DLA claimants – excluding demographic factors – was just 13 per cent.

Dame Anne said: “In arguing for the abolition of DLA, the government said it had increased by 30 per cent.

“However, on closer analysis, it was found that the vast majority of this increase was due to demographics and people living longer and keeping their DLA beyond 65, and only 13 per cent of the increase was among people of working age who will be affected by the reforms.”

She added: “It is worrying if government ministers are suggesting that people are applying for and receiving benefits they have no right to or don’t qualify for when there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.”

18 April 2013