Monday, 3 June 2013

DWP Minister caught making up "facts"

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan may or may not have once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they can't have their own facts. Which is why it's been quite worrying to see so many recent incidents of the Government making up headline-grabbing claims with no basis in fact in order to, well, grab headlines. 

Ministers have repeatedly been told off for abusing official statistics in an attempt to prove a point, while Michael Gove was amusingly exposed as having used a PR puff-poll advertising a crappy TV channel as the basis of claims about the standard of education under the previous government. Now it's Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb who has been caught making us his own facts. 

This Government likes nothing more than a good crackdown, and back in May Webb announced the latest. He told the Daily Telegraph that people who live overseas and haven't paid National Insurance in the UK would no longer be entitled to a state pension based on their spouse's contributions. There are various holes in the policy - as Full Fact pointed out at the time, it's not exactly a massive problem to begin with, and a couple of days later the Telegraph itself highlighted that the policy could have unexpected consequences for "ex-pat wives" who trail around various overseas postings with their husbands.

But whatever you think of the policy, you can't deny Webb and his department the right to come up with such things. The problem is, he didn't end there.

In a bid to give the story legs, Webb said the following:

"Women married to British men, we are getting more of them claiming a pension based on his record. In some cases, they have never set foot in Britain at all

"There are women who have never been to Britain claiming on their husband’s record. There are also men who have never been to Britain claiming on their wife’s record."
The claim that people who have "never set foot in Britain" are claiming pensions was widely reported. It made the second paragraph in the Telegraph story, the third in the Mail's version, was given airtime on the BBC and Sky and still picks up almost 2,000 hits on Google - and that's just for the exact wording.

The trouble is, it's not true. Or at least, Webb has absolutely no idea whether or not it is, as his own department has just admitted.

As soon as I heard the claim, I smelled a rat - it seemed extremely unlikely that the government would have any means of cross-referencing every single visit to the UK with the NI records and pension claims of people living overseas. So I sent the Department for Work And Pensions an FoI request asking for their official numbers showing how many people claiming a spouse's pension in the way described by Webb had "never set foot in the UK". 

The answer?

"The information requested is not held by the Department as we do not collect information on whether State Pension claimants, who are not currently resident, have ever visited the UK."

So Steve Webb stood up in front of the national media and said something that has no basis in fact. It's entirely possible that some pension claimants have never visited the UK, but it's also possible that there is nobody in this situation. Webb doesn't know either way. 

He could have got round this by saying "it's possible for someone to never visit the UK and still claim a pension", and he'd have been entirely right. But he didn't. He stated, as a fact, that "there are" men and women who have never set foot in Britain but are still claiming pensions here, and he said it despite having no way of knowing whether or not it's true.

It all raises a few questions.

Why does the government think it's acceptable for ministers to create their own facts in order to support their opinions? Why do so many otherwise sensible journalists blindly repeat claims made to them by politicians without checking their provenance?

And has Steve Webb himself had a change of heart since 2006 when, in a speech to the NHS Confederation conference he attacked the Labour administration by saying:
"So much for evidence-based policy. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is making it up as it goes along!"


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