Yesterday, in the House of Lords, Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud criticised the way the media have covered the issue of the welfare system.
“I have already expressed my concern about the fear factor, which I find very disturbing. I also acknowledge that the press in this country sometimes writes articles that none of us in this room find appropriate. I certainly do not find them appropriate and my colleagues in the department find them deeply disturbing.
“We do not control the press, regrettably, and things are written that we do not like to see. However, I am pleased to put on the record where we stand,” he said.
Time after time we have analysed press coverage we have found – in addition to some inaccurate statistics – terms like scrounger and fiddler used to describe groups of people which included some legitimate claimants of incapacity benefits.
It is welcome that Lord Freud has stated on the record that the Department does not find this kind of coverage appropriate.
Yet there is a question as to what role the Department played in helping generate such coverage. Last autumn, the DWP regularly provided briefings to the press on various aspects the benefits system, but did not make them publicly available.
Such practices came in for strong criticism from the Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority after Full Fact referred the matter to the regulator. Sir Michael Scholar warned that there were “serious deficiencies” in DWP statistical practice. The briefings are now made available online, as part of an ad hoc statistical series.
If Lord Freud’s comments are reflected in action from the DWP it would suggest the Government is taking on board a point raised by the Work and Pensions Select Committee. Earlier this year, the Committee said ministers could take steps to help cut out the “irresponsible and inaccurate coverage”.
“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,” the report said.
Of course, the Government still has to keep publishing statistics on things like the Work Capability Assessment, and the press will keep reporting them, and as Lord Freud says, DWP cannot control this press coverage.
What ministers can control though is the responses such as quotes provided to accompany stories. If DWP view of the press coverage was made clearer in such responses, it would, at least, be a start.