Dame Anne Begg MP on media misrepresentation of benefits claimants, 27 July 2011

From website of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, 27 July 2011

The Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions has today written to the Minister for Employment Chris Grayling expressing serious concerns at the most recent misrepresentation of DWP statistics on benefit claimants in some sections of the media yesterday and today, after the committee also published a report yesterday which covered, among other things, concerns over the way releases of official statistics about the incapacity benefit reassessment process have been covered in the media in the past.

Letter to Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP

Dear Minister,

As you know, the committee published its report on “The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into work” yesterday.

You will have seen that in our report, we highlighted the concern amongst incapacity benefit claimants about the negative public perception of them. We deprecated the coverage of the reassessment in some sections of the media and in particular the use of terms such as “scrounger” and “work shy”. We drew particular attention to the way in which releases of official statistics about the reassessment process were covered in the media and said that:

“We believe that more care is needed in the way the Government engages with the media and in particular the way in which it releases and provides its commentary on official statistics on the IB reassessment. In the end, the media will choose its own angle, but the Government should take great care with the language it itself uses and take all possible steps to ensure that context is provided when information about IB claimants found fit for work is released, so that unhelpful and inaccurate stories can be shown to have no basis.”

By what I assume was a coincidence, the Department chose to release statistics on new Employment and Support Allowance claims yesterday. The coverage of the statistics in some newspapers, notably the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, was a particularly egregious example of the way they can be misused. The headline in today’s Daily Mail was “The shirking classes: just 1 in 14 incapacity benefit claimants is unfit to work”.

When we took evidence from you in this inquiry, you stressed that the Government had played no part in feeding negative media stories about benefit claimants. You made clear that the Government could not control the editorial approach of the tabloids but said that you had had “a number of conversations with people in the media about the need for care in this area”.

I am sure that you are therefore as shocked as I am by this most recent misrepresentation of DWP statistics on benefit claimants. It is clear that your efforts to persuade the press to act responsibly when discussing incapacity benefit have not yet been successful.

It is also important that the Department’s press releases always take care to emphasise the distinction between new ESA claims and the reassessment of existing incapacity benefit claimants, which may not have been the case on this occasion.

I trust that you will be contacting newspaper editors again to urge them to ensure that the reports they carry about ESA claims are factually correct and that they avoid pejorative terms such as “shirkers” and “scroungers” which are irresponsible and inaccurate. As we said, “portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants as some sort of scheme to ‘weed out benefit cheats’ shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government’s objectives.” It is clearly important that the Government takes every possible step to counter this ongoing negative portrayal.

Yours sincerely

Dame Anne Begg MP