Statistics Authority steps in over disability benefits tests

11 August 2011

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must improve the way it presents data on disability benefits claims, the official statistics watchdog has said.

Sir Michael Scholar, Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, has said that Departmental presentation of data about whether people are 'fit to work' or eligible for Employment Support Allowance was "not as clear as it should be."

The Authority has now asked the DWP to assess the publication of these statistics against the Code of Practice for Official Statistics—guidelines designed to ensure coherent and trustworthy statistics.

Sir Michael's intervention comes after Full Fact had raised concerns with the UK Statistics Authority about how figures on disability benefit claimants were being presented to and by the press.

We asked the Authority to look into whether the DWP could improve the presentation of the statistics, and in turn improve press coverage of the issue.

Today, in a letter to Anne Begg MP, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee which raised similar concerns, Sir Michael has set out some of the steps he believes need to be taken.

The improvements the Authority recommends focus on the commentary accompanying the statistics, which, Sir Michael argues "should help all users of the statistical release, especially journalists, to better understand the figures."

In light of the gap that has at times existed between the figures and newspaper coverage, Sir Michael insists that "there should be no confusion between the statistical messages in official statistics publications and the comments of Ministers on those statistics."

Though there is no legal obligation for DWP to comply with the Code of Practice in relation to these figures, the Statistics Authority have taken the step of requesting the Department formally assess the publication against the rules.

This follows criticism last year from the Authority of DWP's statistical practices, when the Department was criticised for "serious deficiencies" in the way it published data, following a Full Fact complaint.

In another significant statement, the Authority has given one of the clearest endorsements yet of Full Fact's work to correct misleading claims, stating that all official figures should be presented in a way that enables the rebuttal of inaccurate uses of the data.

In the letter to Ms Begg, Sir Michael says that the Authority the view "that good statistical commentary not only helps people to understand and use the statistics, it allows inaccurate stories to be shown to have no basis."

This point is an extremely welcome contribution from the Statistics Authority.

Full Fact is is committed to bringing about improvements in public understanding of official figures that enable people to make informed judgements about the accuracy of the information they are given, be it by the press, politicians, or for that matter factchecking organisations.

We have already successfully pressed for additional commentary on statistics relating to the number of foreign workers in employment, enabling us in turn to raise concerns about press coverage with the PCC, and we look forward to similar improvements in the DWP statistics.

Such changes are not guaranteed to reverse ingrained misinterpretation immediately, but over time these changes can improve understanding among those using those stats, and where they do not provide the basis for rebuttal and eventually a better informed debate.

We look forward to seeing how these controversial and important figures are presented once the Department has implemented the Statistics Authority's advice.

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