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The benefit cap and the DWP’s misuse of statistics

From Nicola Smith's touchstone blog.

In a formal response to a letter the TUC recently sent to the UK Statistics Authority, Andrew Dilnot CBE (the Authority’s Chair) replied confirming that:

We have concluded that the statement attributed to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that ‘Already we’ve seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs. This clearly demonstrates that the cap is having the desired impact’ is unsupported by the official statistics published by the Department on 15 April.

The incident also prompted a response from the UK Statistics Authority directly to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in which Andrew Dilnot remarks that:

In the manner and form published, the statistics do not comply fully with the principles of the Code of Practice, particularly in respect of accessibility to the sources of the data, information about the methodology and quality of the statistics, and the suggestion that the statistics were shared with the media in advance of their publication.

The basis for the complaint has been well documented, and as others (not least Declan Gaffney and Jonathan Portes) regularly point out, this is only one in a number of similar incidents over recent months. So what is driving this trend?

While there are no doubt a number of factors at play, much of the current bout of misrepresentation seems to be linked to a desperate attempt to prove that dramatic cuts to benefits for vulnerable people are in some way good for them. Not content with imposing a benefit cap on families as a means to reduce social security expenditure the Department is keen assert that this initiative is somehow also in everyone’s best interest.

As this FT blog shows, DWP advisers (not necessarily press officers, as Kiran Stacey has noted) have been attempting to place stories on the benefit cap’s effectiveness as a welfare to work measure for months, despite the lack of any evidence to justify their case. Yesterday’s DWP Press Office twitter account was also illuminating – instead of acknowledging that there is any truth to the UK Statistics Authority’s charge, the account issued a stream of justification for the Secretary of State’s claim, based on ‘anecdotal’ evidence.

For those who care about outcomes for those who are currently the worst off, and who want a fair social security system which provides everyone with a basic safety net in times of need, these failed attempts to justify regressive policies are of deep concern. And this is why our argument with the current DWP Ministerial team is not simply about how they choose to use statistics; we fundamentally disagree with their assessment of the impact their policies will have, and demonstrating that their misrepresented evidence doesn’t support their case helps to make this point.

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