The Welfare Reform Bill is the Department of Work and Pension’s flagship benefit reform, a major part of which is the axing of Disability Living Allowance in favour of Personal Independence Payment in order to allow a politically-mandated 20% plus cut in the number of people receiving it (as a historical parallel/reminder, ESA was originally supposed to generate an even smaller cut). The justification of the change was supposedly the 30% increase in people claiming DLA, a rise DWP ‘sources’ described as ‘inexplicable’. The Broken of Britain were challenging these figures as soon as they appeared last year, pointing out ‘The claim is made that DLA claims have risen by 30% in eight years – without accounting for population growth of 5% in this period, a pronounced demographic shift, and increased awareness of DLA.” Their protests, and those of others, were ignored, and the 30% growth was part of the justification used to convince MPs to vote for the Welfare Reform Bill as it passed through Parliament.
In February of this year, Declan Gaffney wrote an article for the prominent political blog Left Foot Forward entitled ‘The ‘inexplicable’ rise in Disability Living Allowance explained’ In this article he points out that 36% of the growth (246,000 of 680,000) comes from people over retirement age, which is actually explained entirely by existing DLA recipients reaching retirement age as it isn’t possible to start a new DLA claim after retiring. And as DLA was only introduced in 1992 the number of people claiming it and then retiring will continue to grow for a number of years yet. So 36% of the ‘inexplicable’ increase is immediately explained by simple logic. He then points out that demographic change, the growth in the population and other related changes -- more simple logic, absolutely basic stuff for this kind of analysis, accounts for another 125,000, meaning we have now explained over half of the supposedly ‘inexplicable’ growth. The remainder does represent an increase in the rate at which DLA is received, but Gaffney goes further, noting that increases in the receipt of DLA by children are related primarily to Learning Disabilities and Mental Health, and can likely be explained by greater awareness, and now 71% of the ‘inexplicable’ growth has been explained. That leaves 199,000 cases to be explained, these are the working age cases which are actually relevant to the government’s argument, but, rather than 30%, they now represent 8%. Gaffney notes that the rate of new claims has actually dropped slightly, and the rate of claims ending has increased slightly, and speculates that this may relate to a historical rise in rates of disability in the ‘90s and that the figures are playing ‘catch up’. He also notes that the wording in the report is ‘almost designed to foster misinterpretation’, talking about the ‘subjectivity and complexity’ of claims, which is interesting wording indeed when you remember that ministers have been continually pushing the line that DLA is too ‘complex’.
Despite all of the arguments against it from Disabled People, groups such as Broken of Britain and Where’s the Benefit, and from disability charities and anti-cuts groups the Welfare Reform Bill has ground its way through the Commons and was all set to head into the Lords in July when at the last minute it was postponed until September. And then last week, on Monday, at the peak of the national crisis over the rioting, DWP released a new report, which Declan Gaffney has again dissected in an article for Left Foot Forward, DWP admits disability reform based on dodgy figures, as reported by Left Foot Forward He notes the growth figure has now dropped to 29%, while DWP now admit that the figures for recipients over 65 “distorts the overall picture of growth”. Correcting for that drops the growth to 23%, demographic changes drop that figure to 16%, Yet even as it admitted comprehensively screwing up the original figures, DWP was briefing its tame tabloid attack hacks, leading to the Daily Express claiming that ‘Handouts for Disability Soar by 185%’, as reported by the TUC’s Touchstone Blog which also notes that the population has aged as it increases, yet another reason for DLA claims to have increased, and that the increases are concentrated in the early years of the benefit, which was to be expected as DLA Lower Rate was a new benefit rather than a replacement for an existing one, and therefore would be expected to bring in a new population of claimants over a period of years, while also noting that what the tabloids reported as an incomprehensible rise in the number of young men in receipt of DLA was actually simply a rise in people first receiving it as children. In fact, the Touchstone article notes, the DLA statistics figures show a steadily declining rate of increase, with the latest figures representing the lowest rate of increase since the benefit was introduced.
So DWP has been caught using dodgy figures and logic and has owned up to it, problem solved? Not exactly, because the government has used that now unsupportable 30% figure as a substantial part of its justification for getting the Welfare Reform Bill through the House of Commons. MPs have been convinced that the Welfare Reform Bill was needed to stop an out-of-control disability benefit by that 30% figure, and it turns out that not only wasn’t 30% even the right figure, but the growth was built into DLA by the way it was designed and would have petered out in a few more years. Those MPs have taken that false argument and used it to justify their votes for the Welfare Reform Bill, and those votes can’t be taken back. In fact, but for the postponement of its date in the Lords, it wouldn’t just be MPs voting for the Bill based on dodgy figures, but Lords as well. And, as Declan Gaffney goes on to note, not only does that dodgy figure mean MPs have been misled, but it means the whole basis for replacing DLA with PIP has to be called into question, because if DWP hadn’t identified blatantly obvious reasons for the increase like people retiring, then it probably didn’t understand anything else about DLA, or the impact of the changes it proposed to make.
And then things turned even more dodgy. The regular Left Foot Forward commenter ‘Mason Dixon, Autistic’ was reading through the new report and noticed something odd about the dates, it was published on Monday 8th August, but it was signed off in May 2011. And of course May was when MPs were voting on the second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill based on the 30% figure, while July, but for the postponement, was when the Lords would have voted on it, also based on the 30% figure, and now it has finally been released, three months late, and buried on the worst Bad News Day in recent memory. Left Foot Forward picked up his point and ran with it in a third story, Why did DWP delay releasing new data until after welfare reform bill cleared Commons? analysing the last quarter’s comparable releases from DWP and finding that with only one exception they are released in the same month they are signed off, and that exception is the one in which the DWP shows itself using dodgy figures to support a Bill passing through parliament. There is a very real suspicion that DWP have hidden figures that would have undermined the case for the Welfare Reform Bill and cast major questions over the preparation behind the Bill; while hiding those figures amounts to DWP having deliberately and consciously misled Parliament. Left Foot Forward have presented DWP with a string of questions over the delayed report, the preparation behind the changes to DLA and how Parliament was kept informed. The answers should be fascinating, if for nothing else than for watching DWP squirm, but potentially for so much more.
Nor is this the only problem the DWP is having with statistics. Having been savaged in a report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions over its reporting of ESA related statistics and the headlines they relate to in the press, the DWP have this week been hauled before the government’s statistical headmaster and told that they had better pull their socks up. The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority has written to the chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, telling them that, in his opinion as the official watchdog on government use of statistics, DWP have failed to reach an acceptable level of clarity in their reporting of ESA statistics. He specifically draws attention to the failure to make clear that people in the ESA Work Related Activity Group are not fit for work, and the similar failure to show the effect of the rate of successful appeals on the overall figures, and states that he is therefore invoking his statutory powers to require DWP to conform to the Code of Practice for Official Statistics in regard to reporting of these figures (astoundingly government statistics are not required to follow this code unless they are designated 'National Statistics' or UK Statistics Authority has exercised their authority to require it under the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007, which is what they are doing here). His statement in the letter that ‘The presentation of statistical releases is the responsibility of departmental statisticians, not their Ministers.’ appears to be a direct message that ministers, and the political ‘Departmental Special Advisers’ (aka SPADs) should keep their political fingers out of DWP’s statistical reporting.
So not remotely a good week for DWP, but the question I’m personally starting to wonder about is at what point sheer incompetence, or politically directed misreporting, crosses the borders of legality to become subject to criminal charges of Misfeasance in Public Office.