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Last week a sick woman tweeted, "have been told spending time in sun would benefit osteoporosis one of my many ailments. I'm scared I'll be reported for fraud if I do."
The government, aided and abetted by a sensationalist media, has done much to create this climate of fear for vulnerable people, often through a blatant misrepresentation of the facts.
In the last few years there have been numerous examples of the government playing fast and loose with statistics: Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions has become notorious for it. And misrepresenting the truth about people dependent on social security is not a dry academic issue: it can do real harm in the real world.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this was when Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps announced to the world that "nearly 900,000 people who were on incapacity benefit dropped their claim to the payments, rather than undergo a tough medical test… This is a new figure, nearly a million people have come off incapacity benefit... before going for the test. They take themselves off."
This ‘fact’, that nearly a million people who had been claiming sickness or disability benefits were ‘faking it’ was seized upon by the press, and repeated again and again in the media. I’ve heard it quoted quite aggressively in television debates by people who consider anyone on benefits as a scrounger, and use this ‘fact’ about sick and disabled scroungers to justify their views.
Of course this ‘fact’ was completely untrue: the actual number of people who dropped their claim for Incapacity Benefit before going for an assessment was under 20,000, a tiny fraction of what had been claimed. The UK Statistics Authority rebuked Grant Shapps for his ‘mistake’: but the Department for Work and Pensions did not make any efforts to dispel the impression that almost a million people had been faking their illness or disability. With constant repetition and banner headlines it entered into the national consciousness. This and other distortions of the truth have led to sick people being afraid to get some sunshine, fuelled disability hate crime, and increased the distress of those who are mentally ill.
So the use or misuse of government statistics may not be a subject to set pulses racing, but it really matters. Statistics should give us a true picture of what is happening: if the government misuses them it distorts the public debate, and leads people to judge policies on an inaccurate basis. It undermines democracy.
There are people battling to restore the truth to public debate, and they would appreciate your help. Jayne Linney is Director of DEAEP, a social enterprise run by and for disabled people, and Debbie Sayers is one of the founders of Disability Matters UK. Together they have launched the TRUTH Campaign, and would be grateful if you could sign their petition, and join the Time For Truth Thunderclap
, which states: "All MPS must use statistics accurately, fairly, and ‘unspun.’ Budgets and policies must be built on facts not beliefs."
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden