DWP: public servant or propaganda vehicle?

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), a government department which appears to be increasingly and inappropriately fashioned by the the ideological welfare-cutting politics of secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith, displays some interesting communications priorities.

On the one hand, the DWP -- bound by civil service standards of honesty, integrity and impartiality, remember -- appears ever keen to tweet and press release the coalition line on benefits, while often being too busy to respond to criticisms or enquiries about the propriety and accuracy of its claims.

On the other hand, it finds time to try to close down social media sites challenging or parodying it, as in the recent case of @UKJCP -- updated here https://twitter.com/departmentofdwp/status/431516149113950209 .

It is not hard to figure why. A quick search under DWP on Twitter illustrates that the department is facing an avalanche of well-researched and documented criticism over institutional failings and inaccurate or misleading use of statistics -- by individuals, but also by the kind of civil society groups the government is proposing to gag at election times through its Lobbying Bill (soon to be law).

Perhaps all this is related to the recent revelation that Mr Duncan Smith has spent some £75,000 on media training for Lord Freud (responsible for pressing cuts and changes to welfare through the House of Lords, where many of the toughest battles over reform have been fought) and 263 DWP staff?

Meanwhile, the quality of the information the department puts out continues to decline noticeably. As policy adviser Paul Morrison of the excellent Free Churches' Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) in London points out in his blog DWP Disability Benefit press releases “unfit for work” (29 January 2014):

"The DWP estimates that the level of Incapacity Benefit fraud is less that 0.3 per cent – the lowest of any means tested benefit. Disability benefits have always had a low level of fraud but I have never seen a DWP press release mentioning this – not even a tweet from the increasingly vigorous @dwppressoffice. Less surprisingly the Department chooses not to highlight that its own errors in administering the benefit cost six times more than fraud.

"Instead we have the Department pumping out a statistic that implies large numbers of people are ‘on the fiddle’. The BBC has made an admirable attempt at a balanced report of the DWP Press release in a report entitled “Million sickness benefit applicants ‘fit for work’”. The story is however misleading and factually inaccurate from the second sentence because it is based on the DWP press release and the accurate but ill-explained numbers within."

You can read the rest of Paul's referenced analysis here: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/dwp-disability-benefit-press-release...

It is not just the current coalition government that has allowed some civil service functions to become increasingly compromised tools for party propaganda. That corrosive process began under Margaret Thatcher and (even more so, some argue) under Tony Blair. But, along with the increasingly selective spinning of data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), it is a deplorable trend nonetheless.

There is a larger, disturbing pattern here. The subjugation of the executive to political whim, the pushing aside of solid advice from the revising chamber and the attempt to silence civic organisations goes-hand-in hand with government challenges to the independence of judicial process (repeated threats to repeal the Human Rights Act and to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights -- formally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) and its flirting with other threats to civil liberties such as the now-abandoned Ipnas (injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance).

Meanwhile, perhaps someone should do some further work on what constitutes violations of the civil service code in the light of the recent behaviour of the DWP? A formal investigation of its fitness for public purpose would be one way of taking forward part of the WOW petition (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/43154) calling for scrutiny of DWP media links and "disregard of medical evidence in decision making [affecting disabled and sick people] by ATOS, DWP and the Tribunal Service". This is an issue which might arise in the #WOWdebate2014 in the House of Commons, on a date yet to be decided.

* Civil service code: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-0...

* WOW petition site: http://wowpetition.com (@WOWpetition)

* More on benefits from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/benefits

* Truth and lies about poverty, benefits and welfare: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18086

* Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrow

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