Wednesday, 07 October 2015

Leap of faith

From: Inside edge

Returning from holiday this morning to hear Iain Duncan Smith mouth half-truths and dodgy stats about benefits on the Today programme it felt like I had never been away.

The work and pensions secretary was speaking as the overall benefit cap was introduced in another 335 local authority areas from today. The remaining 40 most affected areas will follow next month.

In an astonishing interview IDS packed in so many questionable claims that it seemed he was determined to establish a decisive lead in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) game of dodgy stats bingo.

The idea of the competition is to pack as many misleading claims and figures into a broadcast interview as you can and score one point for each one that goes unchallenged. I have absolutely no evidence of course that such a thing exists but I believe that it may.

This after all is that same standard of evidence that IDS applies himself. Questioned by John Humphrys about the UK Statistics Authority’s refutation of his claim in May that 8,000 people have already returned to work as a result of the cap, he simply asserted: ‘I believe this to be right’.

With faith-based politics like that in action there seems no limit to what he can achieve. Hey presto, claimed IDS, ‘every week something like half a million new jobs are in the job centres’. At that rate there should be no unemployment within a few weeks.

Abracadabra! There is no problem getting affordable housing in London. ‘We believe that there is plenty of accommodation available. A third of all rental accommodation in the private sector is available for those who are on social rents.’ Even allowing for him tripping over his own tongue at the end, that’s quite a claim.

Shazzam! ‘The homelessness figures have hardly moved at all’ in response to the housing benefit cuts so far. In fact, homeless acceptances have risen 34 per cent since the election.

Open sesame! This will stop councils putting people in homes they cannot afford in work – conveniently forgetting that this is exactly what the government is doing with affordable rent. 

Behold! Fairness means the old dodgy chestnut of ‘not living, for example, in some cases living in houses costing £50-£100,000 a year in rent’.

When Humphrys quoted figures from Haringey (one of the four pilot areas) showing that in only 4 per cent of capped families had someone found paid employment, IDS fell back on what other people believe.

‘Let’s reverse this argument and put it to you that there are plenty of families out there working and paying their taxes who will be asking this question: ‘why are we arguing about this, why are we having a debate as to whether or not somebody should be earning more than they are on welfare payments not working?’

This shifts the proof from ‘I believe this to be right’ to ‘lots of other people believe it to be right’ and lots of opinion polls about the popularity of the cap would appear to bear this out regardless of the facts. The principle that nobody should earn more out of work than average earnings for someone in work does get wide support, especially among people who cannot conceive how much rents cost in London. Except of course that it a false comparison based on a fictional benefit system. Anyone in work with a high rent or a large family (the two main groups affected by the cap) will also be getting tax credits and housing and other benefits too.

All of which is why the benefit cap and the faith-based politics of IDS are so pernicious. Using the same logic, he could just as easily argue that it is wrong that someone working part-time should apparently get more than someone working full-time, or that the cap should be reduced still further (which is already a serious proposition among some Conservative MPs).

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