Ruling

19985-23 Sparks v The Daily Telegraph

  • Complaint Summary

    Grace Sparks complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘Disabled’ drivers claim £40k cars for free”, published on 8 July 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      27th February 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 19985-23 Sparks v The Daily Telegraph

  

Summary of Complaint

1. Grace Sparks complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘Disabled’ drivers claim £40k cars for free”, published on 8 July 2023.

2. The article – which appeared on page 15 – included a sub-heading which read: “Fury at ‘exploitation’ of taxpayer-funded scheme to help depression sufferers with issues around mobility”. The opening line of the article reported that “[m]inisters have been accused of wasting taxpayer money on a ‘profligate’ benefits system, as it emerged that people who say they are immobilised by anxiety or depression can claim £40,000 cars on benefits”. The article then continued: “Those with a mental health condition deemed serious enough to severely restrict their mobility can also get insurance for up to three drivers and breakdown, servicing and MOT cover as part of a ‘worry-free’ package covered by the taxpayer”.

3. The article then reported that “claimants need[ed] to apply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), a disability benefit to help with extra living costs, and secure an ‘enhanced’ mobility allowance. They may also need to pay an upfront fee”. It reported that these “benefits cover[ed] the cost of leasing the car for a set period. Towards the end of the lease, the claimant may be able to buy their vehicle for its current market value.” The article stated that there was “no need to have a physical disability to access the scheme” and that “[t]he Government says people may also qualify for PIP mobility payments if they ‘have difficulty getting around because of a cognitive or mental health condition, like anxiety’”.

4. The article also reported that one of the cars available on the scheme was an “Alfa Romeo Tonale selling for £40,000” and that “[c]laimants can lease the vehicle for free if they cash in their mobility allowance and make an advance payment of £3,999. Alternatively, they could use their benefits to lease a hybrid Ford Fiesta, worth around £25,000, with no upfront costs”.

5. The article went on to report that a “2020 survey”, “conducted by [a named] independent advice company”, of “more than 1,000 people who had claimed or tried to claim the PIP mobility allowance on mental health grounds”, found that “nearly a third of those who cited anxiety as their primary condition were granted the enhanced rate, which would make them eligible for the car scheme”. It then stated that for “depression, the figure was 22 per cent”, rising to “30 per cent for bipolar disorder”, “38 per cent for personality disorder”, “41 per cent for post-traumatic stress disorder”, and “43 per cent for autistic spectrum disorder”.

6. The article also included comments by a Conservative MP and a former Brexit Party MEP on the scheme. The article reported that the former “suggested there was a risk of the scheme reaching more people than intended”, stating: “Although a great many people in need have benefited from Motability’s work over the years, that does not mean it should be exempt from scrutiny”. The article reported that the latter said: “There has to be a safety net for those who genuinely need help but it’s clear that vast numbers of the healthy population are taking advantage of a profligate system which shows no respect for the workers footing the bill”.

7. A similar version of this article also appeared online, under the headline “People on benefits with mental health problems given cars worth £40k”. The sub-headline to this version of the article read: “A survey found that nearly a third of those who cited anxiety as their primary condition would be eligible for the vehicle scheme”.

8. A link to the online article was also published on the publication’s X – formerly known as Twitter – account. However, the publication was not able to provide a copy of this post as it first appeared or confirm its exact wording.

9. The complainant was one of a number of individuals who raised concerns about the article; in line with IPSO’s usual procedures, she was selected as IPSO’s lead complainant for the purpose of investigating the complaint.

10. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. She said that both versions of the headline were significantly inaccurate: claimants could not claim a vehicle “for free”, as reported by the print headline; nor were they “given” cars, as reported by the online headline. The complainant said that these claims were, in fact, contradicted by the text of the article, which referred to a rental scheme and the option to buy the car at the end of the lease.

11. The complainant also said the sub-heading of the online version of the article was inaccurate: there was no evidence that a survey had been conducted by the publication, or that anxiety was a primary condition that qualified claimants for the enhanced mobility allowance. The complainant also said the findings of the survey were misrepresented by the article. She disputed the survey had found that claimants would be eligible for the scheme on the sole basis of a diagnosis of either anxiety or depression. She also disputed that the survey was relevant – as it was conducted three years prior to the article’s publication – or supported the claims made within the article.

12. The complainant also said the article inaccurately reported “there [was] no need to have a physical disability to access the scheme”. She said the guidelines for awarding mobility rates of PIP were limited to physical mobility impairment, and specifically excluded psychological distress. However, the complainant accepted that the government had itself acknowledged that claimants with a mental health condition may qualify for the scheme, where it impacted that person’s mobility.

13. The complainant also said the article was misleading to report that the scheme came “with insurance cover for up to three named drivers”, as she said this presented a sensible measure as something readers should be outraged about; the additional insurance coverage was necessary as some disabled individuals entitled to use the scheme may not be able to drive, therefore their carers should be insured without an additional financial burden being placed on the claimant.

14. In addition, the complainant said the article quoted two politicians in an inaccurate and misleading way, as it presented their comments as fact and without challenge. She said the article constituted “manufactured outrage” by the publication, which harmed the disabled community.

15. While the publication said the text of the article accurately reported how claimants applied to the scheme, it accepted the headline was inaccurate. To address this, on 28 July – 20 days after the article was published and 9 days after the publication received the complaint from IPSO – it published the following correction in its Correction and Clarifications column on page 2:

article headlined ‘‘Disabled’ drivers claim £40k cars for free’ (Jul, 8) was incorrect. In fact, disabled claimants, deemed eligible, are able to claim subsidised leasehold cars . We are happy to correct the record.”

16. On 27 July, the publication also amended the headline of the online article to read “People on benefits with anxiety or depression could claim subsidised cars”. It also amended the following sentence within the text of the article: “Claimants can lease the vehicle for free if they cash in their entire mobility allowance and make an advance payment of £3,999” by removing the words “for free”.

17. At the start of IPSO’s investigation, on 5 September, the publication offered to publish the following correction under the headline of the online article:

The headline previously stated that people on benefits were given cars worth £40k. This headline has been changed to accurately reflect the fact that cars can be leased to eligible individuals.

18. The complainant did not consider that the actions taken by the publication were sufficient, as she did not consider the locations of the published and proposed corrections to be sufficiently prominent.

19. In response, on 27 September, the publication offered to publish the following standalone correction online, which would be published on its homepage for 24 hours. It said this correction would also be added to the top of the online article, beneath the amended headline:

This article has been amended. The headline previously stated that people on benefits were ‘given cars worth £40k’. The article also previously reported that the lease for a £40k vehicle was free. Both these points were incorrect. In fact, disabled claimants deemed eligible are able to claim subsidised leasehold cars. Those Claimants wishing to lease a £40k vehicle have to make an advance payment of £3,999 in addition to cashing in their entire enhanced mobility allowance. We apologise for these errors and are happy to correct the record.”

20. While the publication was unable to provide a copy of the original post on X, it accepted this had reproduced the original headline of the online article. It said this post had been automatically amended when the headline of the online article had been amended on 27 July. In an effort to resolve the matter, on 27 September, the publication also offered to publish a link to the above standalone correction on its X account.

21. The publication did not accept that the complainant’s further concerns breached Clause 1. The publication denied the article misrepresented the eligibility of claimants to the scheme, particularly those with ”cognitive or mental health condition, like anxiety”, and said the article accurately reflected the government’s own guidance on the subject: “You do not have to have a physical disability to get the mobility part. You might also be eligible if you have difficulty getting around because of a cognitive or mental health condition, like anxiety”. The publication also denied that the article’s coverage of insurance under the scheme was inaccurate or misleading. It said the text of the article made clear that claimants were able to get insurance for up to three people as well as the costs of breakdown, servicing, and MOT.

22. The publication said it was entitled to report on the survey and maintained that the article – including the sub-headline of the online article – accurately reported the findings of the survey in question, with the text of the article including a breakdown of its results. To support its position, it provided IPSO with a link to the survey, which stated: “[m]ore common conditions, including anxiety and depression do lead to awards of PIP mobility. Autistic spectrum disorder and PTSD attracted the highest proportion of awards. Nonetheless, 60% of claimants with depression and 67% of claimants with anxiety as their main condition got an award of the mobility component”. It also denied that the article stated, or suggested, the survey was conducted by – or for – the publication. Instead, the article made clear the “poll” was “conducted” by a named “independent advice company” in 2020.

23. While the publication recognised the complainant disagreed with the views of the MP and the former MEP, it said it was entitled to report them; they were clearly presented as comment and distinguished as such. It said the article made clear the claim that ministers have been “accused of wasting taxpayer money on a ‘profligate’ benefits system” was not a claim of fact; rather, it was conjecture and presented as such, by way of the use of inverted commas in the sub-heading and with this claim attributed to the former MEP later within the text of the article.

Relevant Clause Provisions

Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

24. The headline of the print version of the article made the clear assertion that ‘disabled’ drivers can “claim £40k cars for free”, while the online headline stated that those with mental health problems would be “given cars” worth this amount. This was inaccurate; in fact, claimants deemed eligible could claim subsidised leasehold cars through the Motability Scheme by contributing some or all of the benefits received through Personal Independence Payments (PIP) together with an additional payment in some circumstances.

25. Committee was clear: a publication cannot rely upon the text of the article to correct an inaccurate headline. While the Committee noted that the text of the article – in print and online – stated that the Scheme operated by providing subsided leasehold cars to those eligible, this was not sufficient to correct the inaccurate headlines. The publication of the headlines amounted to a failure by the newspaper to take care not to publish misleading or distorted information, raising a breach of Clause 1(i).

26. Committee also considered that both versions of the article, as a whole, misrepresented the basis for eligibility to the Scheme. The assessment criteria made clear that claimants were unable to qualify if they only had a mental health condition; a diagnoses of depression or anxiety alone would not make a claimant eligible under the Scheme. While the Committee acknowledged that the article made a reference to claimants “with a mental health condition deemed serious enough to severely restrict their mobility” also qualifying for insurance under the Scheme, this was not sufficient to rectify the misleading impression given by the article as a whole that a diagnosis of a mental health condition was sufficient to qualify for the Scheme. In the Committee’s view, this impression was created by the article’s presentation of the survey results from 2020 as well as the inclusion of the term ‘disabled’ within quotation marks in the headline of the print article, which suggested that those who were eligible could not be considered to have a condition which affected their mobility. In these circumstances, the manner in which the Scheme was presented, particularly where its assessment criteria was publicly-available, represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Code.

27. In circumstances where the cumulative effect of the coverage had given an inaccurate and misleading impression of the conditions of and eligibility to a taxpayer-funded Scheme, including within both headlines, this was considered significant and thereby required correction under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

28. The Committee next considered whether the remedial action taken by the publication was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii). The print correction had been published promptly (nine days after it had received the complaint from IPSO) and with sufficient prominence (where it appeared in the newspaper’s established Corrections and Clarification column). However, its wording did not fulfil the requirements of Clause 1(ii): it did not address the significantly misleading impression given by the article as a whole regarding the eligibility of the Scheme, or adequately correct it. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

29. Nor did the Committee consider that the actions taken by the publication in relation to the online version of the article satisfied the terms of Clause 1(ii). The publication had amended the headline, upon receipt of the complaint from IPSO, and then offered to publish a correction beneath the headline at the start of IPSO’s investigation, on 5 September. However, the Committee considered that the publication of a standalone correction was necessary to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). The Committee noted that headlines, given their prominence and potential to mislead, are given particular consideration under the Code. In addition, headlines often appear on website homepages, affording them an additional level of prominence. The publication had offered – on 27 September, 83 days after the article was published, and 29 days after IPSO had launched its investigation – to publish a standalone correction. In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that the publication’s offer to publish a correction was not sufficiently prompt, and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii) regarding the online version of the article.

30. The Committee expressed concern that the newspaper had been unable to provide a copy of the social media post as it was first published on X and had only accepted that this post had reproduced the original headline of the online article during IPSO’s investigation. For the reasons outlined above, this headline, which was then shared on X, misrepresented the Scheme. As such, the Committee considered the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information under Clause 1 (i). For the same reasons given above, this was significant and, as such, the X post required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

31. The X post had been automatically amended when the headline of the online article had been amended on 27 July – 19 days after it was first posted on social media, and upon notification of the complaint from IPSO. On 27 September, the publication had then offered to publish a link to the standalone correction on its X account. The Committee did not consider that these actions were sufficiently prompt to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), given the delay between when the publication was notified of the inaccuracy and when it offered to put the correct position on record, as it was required to do under the Code. As such, there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii) in relation to the X post.

32. The newspaper was entitled to publish the views of the two politicians, provided that such comments were distinguished as such – in line with the terms of Clause 1(iv). In this instance, the views of these individuals were clearly attributed to the respective person and distinguished as their comments, through the use of quotation marks. While the Committee understood the complainant disagreed with their inclusion and disputed their suitability to speak on matters concerning the disabled community, publications are allowed to include the views of individuals where fact is distinguished from comment. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

33. The Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate to report that the Motability Scheme included “insurance cover for up to three named drivers” as this accurately reflected how the Scheme operated: claimants were able to insure up to three named drivers on the leased vehicle. Further, the Committee noted that the text of the article made clear which organisation had conducted the survey and when. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusion

34. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

35. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent, and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

36. The Committee had found that the article – both online and in print as well as the newspaper’s post on X – had significantly misrepresented the conditions of and eligibility for the Motability Scheme. This misrepresentation formed the basis for the article’s criticism of the Scheme. Given the prominence and nature of the breach, and where the remedial action taken – and offered by – the publication did not fulfil its obligations under Clause 1(ii), the Committee concluded that an adjudication was the appropriate remedy.

37. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The print article had featured on page 15. The Committee therefore required that the adjudication should be published on page 15 or further forward in the newspaper. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Daily Telegraph and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

38. The adjudication should also be published online, with a link to this adjudication (including the headline) being published on the top 50% of the publication’s homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment to remove the breach identified by the Committee, a link to the adjudication should also be published on the article, beneath the headline. If amended to remove the breach, a link to the adjudication should be published as a footnote correction with an explanation that the article had been amended following the IPSO ruling. The publication should contact IPSO to confirm amendments it intends to make to the online material to avoid the continued publication of material in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

39. A link to the adjudication should also be published by the newspaper’s X account. This social media post should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Daily Telegraph, refer to the complaint’s subject matter and include a link to the online adjudication.

40. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Grace Sparks complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘Disabled’ drivers claim £40k cars for free”, published on 8 July 2023. A similar version of this article also appeared online, under the headline “People on benefits with mental health problems given cars worth £40k” and was shared on the newspaper’s official “X” account.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required The Daily Telegraph to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Editors’ Code.

The complainant said the article misrepresented the Motability Scheme, designed to provide people entitled to mobility welfare payments with access to a vehicle. She denied that claimants could claim a vehicle “for free”, as reported by the print headline; or that they were “given” cars, as reported by the online headline. She also said the article was inaccurate to report that “people who say they are immobilised by anxiety or depression can claim £40,000 cars on benefits” and that a survey found that “nearly a third of those who cited anxiety as their primary condition were granted the enhanced rate, which would make them eligible for the car scheme”. While she accepted that those with a mental health condition – such as anxiety and depression – could qualify for the Scheme, she said that the threshold for qualification exceeded these conditions on their own.

The Daily Telegraph said that the text of the article – both online and in print – accurately reported how claimants applied to the Scheme. However, it accepted the headlines were inaccurate. The newspaper had published a correction, in print, and in its established Corrections and Clarifications column, 9 days after it had received the complaint from IPSO. It also amended the online headline and offered to publish a correction beneath the headline. Later, during IPSO’s investigation into the matter and 83 days after the article was published, the newspaper offered to publish a standalone correction on its website. It also offered to publish this correction on its “X” account.

IPSO found that the article – both online and in print as well as the newspaper’s post on X – had significantly misrepresented the Motability Scheme: claimants did not receive vehicles for free. Instead, those deemed eligible were able to claim subsidised leasehold cars through the scheme, and they had to meet at least some of the cost, either via giving up a portion, or all, of their Personal Independence Payments (PIP), or by paying additional amounts on top of their allowance.

Further, in IPSO’s view, the references in the article, taken together, including the findings of a survey from 2020, suggested that those with mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression could qualify for the scheme. However, the assessment criteria for the Scheme make clear that claimants are unable to qualify if they only have a mental health condition; diagnoses of depression or anxiety would not make a claimant eligible under the Scheme, unless these conditions also affect their mobility.

For these reasons, the Committee considered that the newspaper’s characterisation and presentation of the Scheme – information that was publicly available – represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate and misleading information, and a breach of Clause 1(i).

Given the article misrepresented the conditions of taxpayer-funded scheme, this was considered significantly misleading and, as such, required correction under Clause 1(ii) of the Editors’ Code.

The Committee concluded that the action taken – and offered – by the newspaper did not fulfil its obligations under Clause 1(ii). While the print correction had been published promptly and with sufficient prominence, it did not acknowledge the significantly misleading impression given by the headline and the article as a whole regarding the eligibility criteria of the Scheme, or adequately correct it. Further, the newspaper’s offer to publish a standalone correction – in relation to the online article and X post – was not considered sufficiently prompt, particularly given the prominence and significance of the breach: a standalone correction was required and had only been offered 83 days after the article was published, and 29 days after IPSO had launched its investigation into the matter. The Committee therefore found a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

The complaint under Clause 1 was upheld.


Date complaint received: 13/07/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 05/02/2024