Toby Young and I Daniel Blake, continued

By Bernadette Meaden
October 27, 2016

I recently wrote a response to Toby Young’s review of the film I, Daniel Blake. In it Mr. Young made statements about sick and disabled people and the Work Capability Assessment which I and others thought were inaccurate. Yesterday (26 October 2016) Mr Young informed me that he’d based his view on a specific DWP press release. I’d like to continue the debate, albeit rather wearily. I would much prefer it if support for people who because of illness or disability are unable to work was simply an accepted feature of the welfare state, as it used to be.

In his review, Mr Young stated that, “when the test was introduced in 2013 by the then Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, roughly a million people decided to come off the Employment and Support Allowance rather than go through the assessment." He went on to say that of those who underwent the test, "a further million were declared fit for work." The clear implication was that millions of people had been claiming, or trying to claim, a benefit to which they were not entitled, perpetuating the myth of ‘fake’ disabled people cheating the hardworking taxpayer. Well, it was rather more than an implication: he actually wrote, "the vast majority should never have been receiving disability benefit."

Yesterday on Twitter Mr Young (@toadmeister) responded , saying, “I was relying on this 2014 DWP press release @BernaMeaden. See paragraph 3. http://bit.ly/2f6p5dp“ I thanked him for responding, but said I didn't feel that the press release really supported what he  had written.

Let’s take a closer look at the press release on which Mr. Young relied. There are a number of problems. Firstly, it relates to the period October 2008 to March 2013, whereas Mr. Young was referring to something which he believed happened following a decision by Iain Duncan Smith in 2013. Secondly, it relates to new claimants over a period of 54 months – it does not relate to almost a million existing benefit recipients, cheats who were ‘caught out’ by a new tougher test, which is what Mr Young implied. If this had been the case, claimant numbers would have dropped dramatically, which they didn’t.

Paragraph 3 of the press release does indeed mention a million people withdrawing a claim before reaching a face-to-face assessment – but the second half of that sentence says, “this can be due to individuals recovering and either returning to work, or claiming a benefit more appropriate to their situation.” Bear in mind that this is a million discontinued new claims over 54 months, which averages out at around 18,500 per month, across the whole of the UK. What many commentators seem to forget is that ESA is the benefit for people who become unable to work for many reasons, which may be permanent or temporary, through illness or accident. The fact that a percentage of claimants recover and withdraw their claim in the months between application and assessment is not proof of cheating, as Mr Young implies –  surely it’s proof of honesty?

But apart from the problems with the way in which Mr Young has used the DWP press release, there are several serious problems intrinsic to that press release, in the way it chooses to present statistics. That very press release was rigorously analysed the day after publication here “DWP Disability Benefit press releases ‘unfit for work’“  by Paul Morrison, policy adviser on poverty and inequality for the Joint Public Issues Team. After analysing the press release he concludes, “The unpleasant narrative is fed; nastier and straightforwardly untrue stories will flow from these statistics. Ministers will again express surprise and say they have no control on what the press does with these numbers once they are released; while @dwppressoffice re-tweets the stories. Disabled people deserve better than this and Christians and Churches should stand alongside them and demand that they receive it.”

To be fair, Mr Young very honestly admits in his review that he is not an expert on welfare. So perhaps he can’t be expected to know, as those who are experts do know, that in recent years the DWP  became notorious for misuse of statistics and the spin it put on press releases. So much so that it received more than one rebuke from the UK Statistics Authority, and concern was expressed by both the cross-party Public Administration Select Committee and the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee.

I’d like to reiterate that I get no satisfaction from pursuing this matter. I wish it wasn’t necessary to combat suspicion towards people struggling with illness, disability and poverty. But meanwhile, I would repeat my offer to Mr Young to enter into an email correspondence so we can discuss these issues. John Pring of Disability News Service has made a similar offer.

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© 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

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