Since I invited readers to write a specific email to their Tory or LibDem MP to demand a straight, personal answer on the government’s reckless and intentional abuse of statistics even after they’ve been rebuked by their own statistics authority, a couple of Tory MPs have surprised me by responding very quickly, and with a personal response rather than the previous rote repetition of a communiqué from their central office.
That’s where the surprises have ended – except that the first such response managed to astonish even cynical me with its blatant evasion of anything remotely resembling actually addressing the issues. But it was entirely in keeping with a party that is ‘extremely relaxed’ about its relationship with the truth and which appears to feel no remorse over its gross distortion of facts and statistics to deceive and demonise.
A 2nd Tory MP has now responded, and once again I have to commend him for his promptness and for actually writing a personal reply. His response is a lot more subtle, a lot more personable. It presents the MP as reasonable and considered. But that just makes its substance worse. Here is the email received by a constituent of Penrith and the Border from her Tory MP, Rory Stewart.
Dear Ms Jeffrey,
Thank you for your subsequent email on the topic of the UKSA and statistics used by DWP Ministers.
I believe that there are two issues of relevance: one relates to the use of statistics. The other relates to the government’s programme of Welfare Reform.
Obviously, I am personally opposed to any individual or organisation knowingly distorting statistics in order to achieve political or other ends.
However, that does not mean that I disagree with the substance of the government’s welfare reform policies.
No. Nor did the constituent ask about the policies. Hideous though those are, it would be unrealistic to expect an MP to criticise his own government’s policies in a response which he’s already been informed will be published.
Similarly, I want to see a system of welfare that continues to care for the vulnerable and needy, whilst also helping those who want to work get back into work.
Very good. That’s what any humane person would wish.
This government believes that looking after the disabled and the most vulnerable is a hallmark of a civilized society, and that will not change.
Ah. Now we’re entering the realms of fantasy. Mr Stewart’s government took to its welfare ‘reform’ programme with, for example, a pre-decided number of disabled people it was going to kick off benefits. Not an attitude of ‘let’s assess everyone and see how many genuinely need and deserve help because of their disability’, but a pre-decided number. A quota, regardless of the reality ‘on the ground’ (which is where many disabled people have been left after ludicrous Atos inspections or even assessment by postal questionnaire.
However, I am deeply opposed to the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding this – in particular use of language such as ‘scroungers’ or ‘spongers’. No Minister or parliamentarian condones this sort of language
Hmmm. Now Mr Stewart appears to have gone off into some private utopia where even Tory ministers are nice, restrained people. Tory frontbenchers may not feel they can get away with use of the exact terms ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’, but they are certainly no strangers to ‘inflammatory rhetoric’.
Cameron’s constant references to ‘people who do the right thing’ in direct comparison to benefit claimants (most of whom are working people), and Osborne’s infamous and nonsensical ‘closed curtains’ speeches are self-evidently designed to inflame, and to cast benefit claimants as exactly ‘skivers and scroungers’ even while avoiding the use of the terms themselves.
Mr Stewart is either woefully naive or, more likely, woefully disingenuous.
but I am afraid that the media continue to use language such as this to aggravate the public and indeed contribute to campaign emails such as those I have received.
Sadly these campaigns do not always get to grips with the details of the issue at stake, but rather use confronting language that paints a black and white picture. Rarely, if ever, are matters this simple.
See my comments on the previous paragraph! Matters rarely are ‘this simple’, but Mr Stewart’s government colleagues are so eager to portray benefit issues in simplistic and inflammatory terms that I wonder whether they’ve over-invested in stocks of black and white paints and fire extinguishers.
For example, we need also to acknowledge the reality of the fluctuations that exist as a result of people moving on and off various benefits, for a variety of reasons, all the time.
Er, exactly. And, as the letter made perfectly clear (because I wrote the original text to be very clear), the Tories had knowingly ‘conflated’ (to use the UKSA’s term) those ‘fluctuations’ to present a false picture of almost a million disability claimants dropping their benefit claims rather than face medical assessment. But Mr Stewart completely fails to acknowledge that part of the email, let alone address it.
This, coupled with the fact that it is one policy area in which the use of statistics is perhaps more prevalent than in other departments, should be taken into account.
Egg-frickin’-sactly! So answer the question!
This, I hope, makes my position clear. I do not believe that any of my parliamentary colleagues would knowingly mislead in this manner;
I’m afraid it makes your position anything but clear, Mr Stewart. You write condemningly of distortions, simplistic approaches and the realities of benefit claims – and then completely fail to acknowledge the obvious. In fact, you say you don’t believe any of your colleagues would distort in such a gross and deliberate fashion.
But David Cameron has claimed £12.7bn extra has been put into the NHS by his government when this is patently untrue, as the UKSA has now confirmed; Iain (D) Smith claimed that your benefit ‘reforms’ had got people back into work, when the Office of National Statistics explicitly said that the stats showed no such thing; and Grant/Michael Shapps/Green – and your party HQ’s press release – made that claim about those 900,000 disabled people who mysteriously dropped their claims all of a sudden and how this supported your party’s ‘reforms’.
I believe it has been investigated properly, and it is an important development that will help us to improve the way we communicate our policy developments to the public. Thus I will not be asking a question in the House, but I will be glad to forward your concerns to Iain Duncan Smith.
Rory Stewart MP
Penrith and The Border
Sorry, Mr Stewart. Nice try, but just not good enough. However personable you seem to be, you’re either blind or have your head in the sand (or somewhere darker). I hope the people of Penrith and the Border see this and remember it at the next election.