Tuesday, 3 July 2012

What Is Wrong With The Future State Of Welfare (Part 4)

Following on from the segment where John Humphry's misrepresented the US welfare reforms of the 90s, he states that it happened because of how attitudes turned against claimants without mentioning why it was so. Throughout the 1980s the Reagan administration constantly demonised them. Reagan cut taxes steeply, believing that because of the infamous Laffer curve public revenues would rise as federal income tax was lowered because wealthy people in particular would have more incentive to work more. The budget deficit this caused meant that his successor George Bush had to then raise those taxes after making an election promise not to do so. He deflected the anger for both the deficit and the tax rises towards recipients of social security, which had now successfully been re-branded as 'welfare'. Unfortunately the research required to cover this as a factual topic is immense. I have to leave it at this because without that research and a mountain of indisputable evidence, it becomes a question of bias over what the programme chose to include and omit. My complaint is specifically about factual rigour. --------------------------------------------------------------  

36. The polling figures the programme commissioned by Ipsos Mori is the only confirmed research that appears to have happened in the programme, even if the questions asked were mostly unhelpful. After the initial figures are introduced and it's revealed 63 percent of the public don't think the benefit system is working effectively, the presenter asks the rhetorical question of what the government is doing to reform the system and cut the welfare budget. Then the presenter asserts that David Cameron says it will be cut by £5.5 billion. No context is given, it is not said if this is in total or over a timescale or even if Cameron's claim about the amount intended to be cut is even true. It isn't. In his budget speech on the 22nd of June 2010 the Chancellor George Osborne declared that if any additional savings could be made to the social security budget, then they would offset planned cuts to other departments. So whilst each department was given the ballpark figure of a 25 percent reduction in their budgets, some departments would have lower reductions, paid for by cuts to benefits. When it came to detailing the planned cuts to social security, the Chancellor announced that by changing the measure by which benefits are up-rated using the Retail Price Index to use the Consumer Price Index instead would save £6 billion a year by the end of the current Parliament. Taken as it is, this measure alone somewhat contradicts what the Prime Minister has said before the other budget cuts are even considered. Simply reporting what David Cameron has said is insufficient for the programme, as the audience will trust that the only reason why the presenter is using what David Cameron has said is because it must be true. Leaving it 'hanging in the air' is irresponsible; there is a journalistic obligation on John Humphrys to confirm, contextualise or refute claims such as this rather than just propagate them.

At the end of his budget speech, George Osborne costed all the measures he had announced as saving £11 billion by 2014-15. Later that same year he announced in the October spending review that the cuts to the benefit budget would be even higher and revised the figure to £18 billion. The programme had plenty of accurate public domain source material for this, why it was decided to go with a context-free figure attributed to the Prime Minister is bizarre. I decided to go look for where and when Cameron has mentioned this figure. It's from a speech featured in the programme where Cameron announced the Welfare Reform Bill in February 2011. This speech includes the misleading claim about how much the benefit bill has risen, where Cameron falsely states the figure to be in 'real terms' rather than nominal.

37. The Work Programme is mentioned and asserted to be additional conditionality attached to benefits. It is stated to be 'one of the first things' the government did. The audience can be misled into believing the Work Programme is something new. What is not mentioned is that it replaces the Flexible New Deal and various other work programmes initiated by the previous government. This is not additional conditionality, it was one of the reforms made back in the 90s in-step with what most of the United States were doing.

38. The presenter speaks with the centre manager Julie Gillam and suggests that the jobs might not be there. The response is that the jobs are there and that there were 500,000 in April but that matching people to the vacancy and getting them to 'be realistic' was the issue. This is not challenged, it is not highlighted that there were about two million people looking for a job at that time and the audience might be misled into thinking that these were 500,000 new jobs created in April rather than being the total available. The Work and Pensions Secretary has repeatedly used this confusion to advance welfare policy by claiming that the total number of jobs are newly created each month(and sometimes each week). Certain organisations which benefit from those policies take these messages to heart and spread them. There is a journalistic duty to not allow claims such as these to spread unchallenged.

39. A Work Programme client claims they are no longer classed as unemployed and it's the government manipulating the figures. This is left in the programme without any clarification if it is true or not.

40. It is reiterated and yet again that the conditionality for jobseekers is something new, rather than being something in place since the introduction of Jobseekers Allowance in 1998.

41. The presenter speaks with a GP in Tower Hamlets, Dr Sharon Fisher. Dr Fisher is not asked for an opinion in her area of expertise, but an opinion on statistics. As far as I am aware, Dr Fisher is not a statistician. Both John Humphrys and Dr Fisher talk as if Incapacity Benefit is purely a sickness benefit. When disability is considered, it is not inexplicable that there are 2.6 million claimants(about 1.6 million for IB and 1 million for ESA). Dr Fisher expresses her belief that the benefit system is exploited and that she tells patients that it is not in their best interests for them to be 'off sick'. She reveals she is not a statistician and certainly not one familiar with this topic when she incorrectly confuses correlation with causation by stating that the longer someone is 'off sick' the lower their chance of returning to work. Her error is not mentioned, challenged or investigated. The audience will be misled into believing in it because of this and because she is a GP, even though she is not a statistician.

42. Following his interview with Sharon Fisher, John Humphrys makes a claim that is only explained by attributing blatant dishonesty to him. He asserts that 'your local doctor no longer has final say'. This feeds into a tabloid myth about 'sicknote culture' causing Incapacity Benefit claims to be high. The impression the audience will get is that doctors ever did have the final say on whether IB would be awarded or not. A doctor can write a sicknote, which an employer can insist on if an employee has been off-work because of illness for more than a period of time prescribed by law. During that time the employer must pay Statutory Sick Pay for as long as an up-to-date sicknote is provided. Sicknotes have no statutory effect on Incapacity Benefit, which is awarded once the period for sick pay is up and the employer's obligation to pay it ends. The most a sick note can do then is be used as evidence to be considered by a DWP decision maker- it is they who have the final say and it has been for as long as there has been Incapacity Benefit. The myth is a remnant of when Statutory Sick Pay was paid by the benefits system rather than employers, that is when it was 'sickness benefit' but after responsibility was transferred to employers in the 80s, the label was misused by the press and politicians to describe Invalidity Benefit and then Incapacity Benefit.

The word of a doctor has never been enough to ensure the payment of Incapacity Benefit as John Humphrys misleads the audience into thinking.  

43. The programme compounds this falsehood by showing a vox pop featuring Professor Steve Fothergill from Sheffield Hallam University claiming it is the reason why 'the Incapacity Benefit bill rocketed upwards over the past couple of decades'. Incapacity Benefit was introduced in 1995. Over the period it existed from 1995 to 2008, it did not rise. There was a slight rise until 2004 when it began falling again and by 2008 when it ceased taking new claimants it was almost back at what it was ten years earlier. The professor asserts the myth that 'Incapacity Benefit' was used to hide unemployment, giving the timescale of '20 to 25 years ago'. No research or documentary evidence is provided for this well-worn but unsupported myth. In truth the predecessor Invalidity Benefit and Invalidity Pension rose enormously prior to 1995 but AFTER the 1985-1990 timescale Steve Fothergill gives. The most likely explanation is not high unemployment, but the Care In The Community policy that meant former residents of care homes and psychiatric hospitals now needed support. Savings were made from closing the residential units and some of those savings were re-directed towards additional benefit spending concentrating on the disabled and mentally ill. Disability Living Allowance was introduced in 1992 to replace Mobility Allowance and working-age Attendance Allowance, which further drove the expansion in claims for IVB. Far from being inexplicable, this was intended and there were worries at the time that DLA was being under-claimed and a large publicity campaign for it followed. This only changed when the obsession for benefit cutting was imported from the United States. But the major rise in claimants did not happen 'over decades' but in a short period just before 1995.

44. The presenter asserts that 'more stringent tests have been brought in to flush out people claiming on health grounds when they shouldn't be'. No evidence is presented to support that the Work Capability Assessment for Employment Support Allowance is 'more stringent' nor is it explained what that is supposed to mean. The Personal Capability Assessment for Incapacity Benefit that it replaced was ranked as the 'toughest' test for a benefit of its kind in the whole of the OECD in that it rejected more claimants than any other. The audience is not told whether 'stringent' means it is thorough or more accurate or simply that it just rejects more claimants who apply.

45. The presenter asserts that 'figures show three quarters of new claimants who've been tested were deemed not to merit the benefit at all'. No supporting evidence is provided for this claim. It is untrue and can be sourced to a DWP press release that lumps those put into the 'Work Related Activity Group' and those actually found 'Fit For Work'. Those in the WRAG can not be described as not 'meriting the benefit at all'. They are not fit for work, they are those claimants deemed to be able to work eventually with the right support- they have not been rejected for their ESA claim nor would they be rejected for an Incapacity Benefit claim if it were still available. The presenter conveniently does not mention the number of claimants who appeal and those who are successful, or that this is an ever-lasting cycle where half of all ESA claimants are in the Assessment Phase which is perverse considering how the presenter remarks "But it's political dynamite. You can imagine the headlines if it goes wrong." It is going wrong but as there has been a complete abandonment of ethics from journalists like Mr Humphrys, there are no headlines.

46. The presenter continues using figures that originate with government ministers without actually checking them when he claims '11,000' claimants are assessed per week. The figure is wrong, even if IB-ESA migration claims are added on top of the new ESA claims.

47. Moving onto Housing Benefit, a segment from that speech by David Cameron is shown where he links the cost of Housing Benefit with the government 'paying for people to live in some of the most expensive real-estate in London', which in fact makes up for a very tiny amount of the expenditure. Rather than challenging this, the programme and presenter support it and the audience is misled into believing it as a result.

48. The presenter uses a very unfortunate choice of words when talking about how Housing Benefit is used. He begins by sensibly talking about the lack of social housing in Islington which means the council has to house people with private landlords, but he describes those people as being 'on benefit'. Given the context of the programme up to this point and the general nature of what constitutes the welfare debate in Britain, the audience link people 'on benefit' with 'unemployed'. It is not mentioned that the recent rise in Housing Benefit is almost entirely from people in-work, that only one in eight claimants are on a benefit where they are expected to seek work and most claimants are lone parents, pensioners, the disabled and full-time carers. Considering the purpose of Housing Benefit, the argument against paying it to people in expensive private rental accommodation is not simply about why the employed should pay for the unemployed to be housed, but an argument against Housing Benefit entirely which misunderstands what it is for and who receives it.

49. In an interview with Eduardo Celleri and his family, John Humphrys is told through a translator that most of the rent on their home is paid through Housing Benefit. Their monthly rent is £2,300. After making them thoroughly uncomfortable and feeling unwelcome, the presenter leaves the questions that would actually enlighten the audience unaddressed. The main one would be how much Housing Benefit they actually receive. The presenter left the impression that a substantial amount of that monthly fee was paid with it but this isn't confirmed and the actual national picture for families like Eduardo's suggests it is unlikely but because of the need for a translator it isn't clarified and Eduardo is not able to confidently confront Humphrys on the way he is being treated, although he responds admirably, accurately and with dignity. I doubt the presenter would have been as nice about the Celleri family to the camera after the segment had Eduardo Celleri had not cottoned and been assertive in a way that many claimants up to this point had been too nervous to do.

50. The programme comes back to the Ipsos Mori polling. Whilst the other questions were just uselessly vague, this one actually misleads both those being polled and the audience: "People who receive higher housing benefit because they live in expensive areas should be forced to move into cheaper housing to bring down the benefit bill." The problem with this question is that it implies it was not already the case. Local authorities ration their housing and limit where claimants of Housing Benefit may live. This is never mentioned in the programme and this question implies Housing Benefit is a free-for-all with no restrictions of this nature.


  1. Yay - get forensic on their collective arse! Keep it up Mason!! Be nice to see this on tv or splashed over a front page or three.

  2. Today programme

    John H v Jon Portas (re charity report Government "reform" effects on "troubled families"

    JP-brief explanation
    JH will not effect the poorest- only the families with 27 kids and billions a week ie. welfare cap(surprise,surprise)
    JP -wcap-tiny proportion-DLA-20% cut in expenditure,social services cuts etc will particularly impact the disabled
    JH-nah the really disabled are protected the Government would not be risking the political consequences
    JP-well actually,it is already difficult to get DLA attempt at factual explanation,process involved
    JH-sorry time up