Conservative party boss Grant Shapps has been “rebuked” by the statistics watchdog, after becoming the latest senior figure to try to use misleading figures about disability benefits to justify the government’s welfare reforms.
A Conservative party press release – issued in March – claimed that nearly 900,000 existing incapacity benefit (IB) claimants had dropped their claim for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) rather than face the controversial and much-criticised work capability assessment.
Shapps, who chairs the Conservative party, then told The Sunday Telegraph: “This is a new figure, nearly a million people have come off incapacity benefit… before going for the test. They’ve taken themselves off.”
He also repeated the 900,000 figure in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live on the day the article was published, Easter Sunday.
Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, a member of the Commons work and pensions select committee, lodged a complaint with the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) about the press release and the Telegraph article, which appeared on 30 March.
In a letter to Gilmore, published this week, UKSA’s chair, Andrew Dilnot, says the statements “appear to conflate official statistics relating to new claimants of the ESA with official statistics on recipients of the incapacity benefit (IB) who are being migrated across to the ESA”.
He says that official Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that 603,600 IB recipients were referred for testing between the start of the three-year reassessment programme in March 2011 and May 2012, with only 19,700 claims closed before a WCA could take place.
He says in the letter that the 900,000 figure appears to refer to the 878,300 new claims for ESA which were closed before a WCA could take place, in the period from October 2008 to May 2012.
Dilnot also points out in the letter that DWP research suggests that an important reason why claims were being withdrawn before a WCA could take place was “because the person recovered and either returned to work, or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation”.
Gilmore said the UKSA letter confirms that Shapps “deliberately misused” the statistics, and that UKSA had “rebuked” him.
She said: “The Sunday Telegraph claimed that 900,000 people on IB had dropped their claim rather than undergo a medical assessment for the new ESA, implying that they were never really ill in the first place and had been playing the system.
“In reality, the true figure was a mere 19,000.”
She said the release and story were “part of a campaign by the Conservatives to undermine public trust in welfare”, which would allow them to “prioritise cutting benefits ahead of taxing the richest in their attempts to reduce the deficit”.
The disabled activist and blogger Lisa Egan (@lisybabe), who questioned the use of the figures on BBC Radio 5 Live on 31 March, just before Shapps was interviewed, said it was a “slight welcome relief to hear that someone has finally challenged him on the nonsense he was spouting”.
But she said: “Unfortunately there were probably more people listening to 5 Live at 7am on Easter Sunday morning than there are reading letters from statistics watchdogs; so ultimately there’s probably more people out there that have been taken in by his lies than have been made aware of his telling off.”
The work and pensions select committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, has already decided to hold a one-off evidence session to question one of the work and pensions ministers about the department’s own “misleading” use of benefit statistics, a decision that was prompted by Gilmore.
Conservative ministers including work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey, the minister for disabled people, have faced repeated criticism over their use of official figures – particularly on disability benefits – to try to justify the government’s welfare reforms.
Before they question the minister, the committee plans to hold a closed session with UKSA, so the watchdog can brief it on how DWP should be using official statistics.
Gilmore said: “This letter is yet more evidence that my colleagues on the work and pensions select committee and I can use when we question DWP ministers on this issue in the coming months.
“Hopefully then this practice of deliberately misusing benefits statistics will stop.”
A Conservative spokesman refused to explain why the party had sent out such a misleading press release, and why Shapps had made his comments.
When asked how this could have happened, he said: “I am not in a position to speak directly for Grant.”
The Telegraph has so far declined to comment.
30 May 2013