Challenging government untruths on poverty

On the eve of the 2014 budget, Methodist Church press officer Anna Drew wrote a powerful blog on the struggle by churches and others to get to the truth about poverty in Britain today.

In reviewing the Chancellor's latest measures, the assessment of the economy and the assumptions upon which it is based (the main target of opposition leader Ed Miliband's stinging response), it will be interesting to see how those at the bottom of the heap in austerity Britain are impacted – once the spin and gloss had been accounted for.

Looking at what lies behind political claims is part of what the report from the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has done. It latest work is likely to be lost in the build-up to Budget Day, so it is worth examining and re-iterating.

In her blog for the excellent Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) of the Free Churches, Anna writes: "One of the things that I’ve been proudest of over the last year (other than the birth of my son) has been the opportunity to be a part of the Truth and Lies campaign, challenging the misrepresentation of the poor by press, politicians and (yes) Christians throughout Britain.

"For more than a year we’ve been banging on about how statistics are so frequently used and abused to paint an inaccurate picture of what it means to be a benefits claimant (pensions, anyone?). We’ve been able to add our voices to the growing concern about the increased use of foodbanks, the total benefits cap and changes to housing benefit.

"We’ve seen a lot of news coverage, but more importantly, Christians across the UK have been writing to us to tell us how they have been engaging with their communities, the media and their MPs to encourage fairer reporting of welfare stories. The Chairs of the London Methodist District are spending Lent visiting foodbanks and speaking with MPs from each of the main parties about food poverty and welfare reform.

"But we’ve seen very little movement from the Government on the issues. So it was great to see [the 18 March 2014] report from the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, monitoring the performance of the DWP. The report criticises the implementation of new system of Personal Independence Payments, as well as expressing concern over the future of local welfare assistance. It also raises serious concerns about the Department’s use of statistics.

"The report highlights one particular use of statistics out of context by Grant Shapps, MP, in a March 2013 press release where he implied that nearly 900,000 people chose to come off incapacity benefits rather than facing a medical assessment. In fact, no causal link can be shown as many of those people will either have recovered from illness so that they no longer require incapacity benefit, while others may have instead claimed a benefit more suited to their situation.

"So, who’s to blame? Cue cries of ‘Not me, Guv!’ from DWP head of Communications John Shield. Apparently it was a Conservative Party release, not a departmental one.

"Grant Shapp’s untrue statement was highlighted in a letter from 11 churches and key charity partners to David Cameron. The letter also pointed to two other untrue statements by ministers to which the Committee refer in their report. Taken together, this points to a pattern of statements which unjustly paint benefit claimants in an unpleasant light. The Committee comments that:

2013 saw heightened and quite widespread concern – including from the UK Statistics Authority and organisations representing disabled – about the DWP commentary accompanying releases of benefits statistics.

"It’s so easy to forget that the statistics we’re talking about represent real people, facing real and increasingly difficult financial situations. To misrepresent anyone, whether you’re a politician, a journalist or just someone chatting in a pub, is a failure to honour that person’s story and to treat them as genuine human being and the creation of God we believe every person to be.

"So it can’t be about point-scoring or political agendas. It has to be about an open, honest and fair debate on the statistics and the lives behind them.

"It is sad and frustrating that this remains an issue, but it’s also heartening to see that issue raised by the body that is responsible for monitoring the work of the DWP.

"[The Committee] has recommended that DWP sets out the specific steps it has taken in response to these concerns, to ensure that statistics are released in a way which is accurate, and fair to benefit claimants – and we look forward to seeing things improve.

* Read Anna Drew's full blog for JPIT here: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/a-good-day-to-be-a-press-officer/

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

* Ekklesia's 2014 Budget coverage: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/budget2014

* On Twitter, follow the hashtag: #Budget2014

* Follow JPIT to Twitter: @PublicIssues

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

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