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UK Politics

It all adds up: Work and Pensions press officers sent on statistics course

Training follows complaints about figures published by Iain Duncan Smith's department

Telling lies or damned lies can often get politicians into trouble, but it is statistics that tend to land Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work and Pensions press office in hot water.

Although the communications team met the UK Statistics Authority and a senior DWP statistician earlier in the year, press officers are being dispatched on a statistics course this summer after a series of complaints concerning figures it has published.

Despite the barrage of criticism that has come its way, the DWP went on the defensive today over reports it had "quietly ditched" statistics used to collate the number of deaths of recipients of incapacity benefit, now known as Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

Disability campaigner Samuel Miller wrote to the department to see if it would be updating its July 2012 report entitled Incapacity Benefits: Deaths of Recipients, showing that 10,600 claimants died between January and November 2011.

The total was broken down based on the person's most recent Work Capability Assessment (WCA) result. The number of deaths of those whose assessment was not complete stood at 2,200. Those in the 'work related activity group', where individuals have limited capability for work, totalled 1,300 and there were 7,100 in the 'support group', where people receive unconditional benefit.

Mr Miller was told by the DWP's ESA analysis team that "there is no intention of releasing an updated version of these statistics" in a written reply. The Canadian-based campaigner said he was concerned mortality rates had risen since welfare reform and that the DWP "is resorting to petty obstructionism-even a full-fledged cover-up-because the mortality of the sick and disabled has become too politicised for the Tories to cope with."

He added: "I suspect that there has been a staggering increase in the number of benefit claimant deaths since November 2011."

Mr Miller said he was filing a complaint with the Information Commissioner's Office.

A spokesman for the DWP said: "These figures were put together on an ad hoc basis last year and therefore there are no plans to update them. They've also been used in a very misleading way. The figures show the number of people who were claiming ESA but who then died with a recorded date of death.

"As the report says, data on the number of ESA claimants that have died following a fit-for-work decision is not available as we do not hold information on a death if the person has already left benefit."

Previous DWP 'ad hoc analysis' led to Mr Duncan Smith having his knuckles rapped. Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said in May that the work and pensions secretary's statement that 8,000 people who would have been affected by the benefits cap had moved into jobs was "unsupported by the official statistics published by the Department" in April.

Labour’s Glenda Jackson told the Independent the DWP’s use of statistics, spin and language has led her and a number of her cross-party colleagues on the work and pensions select committee to repeatedly ask officials for “greater clarity” on a number of issues.

She said: “The largest beneficiaries of benefits are pensioners yet the language that has often been deployed by the department and has taken hold in the country does not reflect that. There’s a very grey area with who is briefing and selling government political policy -  the press officers, the special advisers or the ministers - and a lot of that confusion comes down to the spin that is put on statistics. The situation is not improving.”