The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claimed that the number of DLA claimants was increasing, but neglected to point out that working-age recipients have actually been falling.
On Monday – the same day that Channel 4 aired a Dispatches investigation into the reforms – DWP released a “statistical update”, which it said showed the number of successful claimants of DLA had risen by 15,000 between February and May 2012.
But analysis of DWP figures by Disability News Service (DNS) has shown that the rise in claimants is due to increases in the number of children and older people receiving DLA, while the number of claimants aged 16-64 actually fell by more than 1,600.
This is important because the reforms and cuts will only affect working-age claimants, with DLA for that group to be gradually replaced by the new personal independence payment (PIP) from April.
Stephen Lloyd, the disabled Liberal Democrat MP, who has previously criticised the coalition for “pandering to the Daily Mail” – after it published a misleading press release about the results of its “fitness for work” tests – said he was “extremely angry at this sleight of hand by the DWP”.
He is to write to Esther McVey, the Conservative minister for disabled people, to highlight his concerns about her department’s “massaging of the stats”.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said it was “yet another example of the DWP manipulating the figures on DLA to suit their agenda of abolishing DLA”.
She said: “I find it astonishing that it was not made clear that the number of working age applicants are falling, and can only conclude that this did not suit their agenda.
“The DWP have form in creating impressions rather than dealing with the real facts. Transparency surely means that you should not need to be a qualified statistician to get to the truth.
“The DWP ministers and its press office have been found guilty yet again of trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by its failure to be clear what exactly the statistics show.”
DWP used its new figures to persuade two right-wing newspapers to run stories claiming that the rise in DLA claimants proved the need for reform.
The Sun newspaper claimed 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 claimed 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”.
Both the Sun and the Mail published their stories as – and probably before – DWP released the statistics to other media, with the Mail even having time to commission a cartoon to illustrate its article.
McVey claimed – in a statement accompanying the figures – that DLA was an “outdated benefit” and that the government’s welfare reforms were about “ensuring the billions we spend on disability benefits give more targeted support to those who need it most”.
But Lloyd said: “Someone [at DWP] fed their, frankly, misleading line to the Sun and the Daily Mail and I doubt whether either of those papers have sufficient interest in getting to the actual truth over disability issues to do the proper research with the figures to see they’d been spun.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “Given the interest in this reform, and to be transparent, we decided to publish a web story on Monday highlighting the top-line figures, with a link for anyone who would wish to investigate the data further.”
She claimed the figures were made “publicly available” four days before the DWP press release was issued.
But when asked why the press release did not make it clear that the number of working-age DLA claimants had fallen, the spokeswoman said these statistics were available to “anyone who wants to dig down into those figures”.
A link in the press release transfers the reader to DWP’s “statistical tabulation tool”, which allows a researcher to search the entire benefits database and produce “bespoke” tables of figures.
The DWP spokeswoman said: “I have done nothing more than be open and transparent. We always talk about the overall caseload. That is what we have done. I have put a press release on the website in the interests of transparency.”
When DNS questioned how the Mail and the Sun knew in advance about the figures, she said: “I am sorry but I am not going to give you a blow-by-blow description of who the press office deals with.”
And when asked why the DWP press office was not being open and transparent about when it told the Mail and the Sun about the figures, she said: “I am not giving you a running commentary.”
1 March 2013