The headlines today are screaming that a mere 7% of ESA claimants aren’t fit for work. The Daily Mail says that “Benefits Britain marches on: Just one in 14 disability handout applicants are too ill to work” while the BBC claim “Tests claim few benefit claimants unfit to work” These figures are grossly misleading. These actually come from a Department of Work and Pensions press release, 26 July 2011 – Work Programme provides tailored support as latest figures show people are being found fit for work. Those news stories haven’t actually mislead about the contents of the press release too much, the propaganda comes from the DWP. The Express, on the other hand, has gone for “Sick benefits: 75% are faking” which is just an outright lie.
Lets start with the figures from the DWP.
For all new ESA claims from 27th October 2008 to 30th November 2010, the result of the initial WCA is as follows
- Support Group – 7%
- Work Related Activity Group – 17%
- Fit for Work – 39%
- Claim closed before assessment complete – 36%
- Assessment still in progress – 1%
These figures are true, but lie by omission. First of all, the figures given are for ALL that start a claim for ESA. As stated, 36% of people that start a claim drop out before they even get to their Work Capability Assessment. Some of these people will drop out because they perhaps shouldn’t have applied in the first place. Some might even have been trying it on and then realised that they would be caught. Some recover enough to find work, some find work that fits around their disabilities. Some, however, drop out because they are so ill that they cannot face the application and testing process. We don’t know, as no records are kept of reasons for dropping out, but I contend that many more than we know drop out because they are too ill to finish the process. Given that 36% of claimants are not tested, we cannot include them in the ‘fit for work’ category. That 7% of claimants is actually 11% of claimants who complete the process.
11% is still a very small number. That still casts 89% of claimants as cheats, doesn’t it? Well no. No it doesn’t. Not unless you are a tabloid writer. You see, 17% of total claimantss – or 26.6% of claimants that finish the process – are put in the Work Related Activity Group. Being put in this group DOES NOT mean that the claimant is fit for work! It means that there may be some job, as yet unknown, that the claimant could possibly manage to do, if they push themselves hard enough,possibly at high cost to their health, IF they receive the right support in terms of information, equipment, services and grants. People in this group must attend six interviews at the Job Centre over the course of a few months to try and determine just what this possible job could be, and the support that would be needed to do it. People in this group STILL RECEIVE ESA.
Adding those two together and leaving out the people that dropped out, that means that 37.5% of people tested were not fit for work. That still leaves 61% that were receiving ESA who were found fit for work. Are they all cheats? No. Here’s why.
The Work Capability Assessment takes place at the end of the assessment phase of the claim. That means the test can take place up to 14 weeks after the person started to claim ESA. 14 weeks is a long time, and it should also be noted that people are often sick for a long time before they even apply for ESA, either on Statutory Sick Pay for 28 weeks, or just unaware that they can claim. Those people could easily have been sick for 9 months before being tested. 9 months is long enough for people to recover or start recovering from many health issues, and so these people would have been correctly being given ESA while unable to work. Health issues change, and finding these people fit for work now would be correct, but does not invalidate their claim in the previous months. I think if the WCA correctly finds someone capable of work after many months of illness but heading towards recovery, this is usually a good thing.
Assuming that changes in health conditions account for a chunk of that 61%, let’s say a third, that still leaves the rest. Here’s the thing. The accuracy of the testing process has been found to be wrong, broken, inadequate, however you want to put it, by MPs, a house of commons select committee, many disability rights charities, and many many individuals and activists. Even a person involved in designing the test has said that it is not fit for purpose.
33% of people found fit for work between October 2008 and August 2009 appealed against that decision. 40% of those overturned that decision and were awarded ESA. That’s 27,500 people who were provably found fit for work when they were not. Many more people did not appeal, for many of the same reasons that may have caused people to drop out of the claims process.
Today the Commons Select Committee on the Migration from Incapacity Benefits to Employment Support Allowance released its 6th Report – The Role Of Incapacity Benefit Reassessment In Helping Claimants Into Employment. Among other things, that report criticised media coverage and stated that government had a duty to take more care when engaging with media.
5. Sections of the media routinely use pejorative language, such as “work-shy” or “scrounger”, when referring to incapacity benefit claimants. We strongly deprecate this and believe that it is irresponsible and inaccurate. The duty on the state to provide adequate support through the benefits system for people who are unable to work because of a serious health condition or illness is a fundamental principle of British society. Portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants as some sort of scheme to “weed out benefit cheats” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government’s objectives. (Paragraph 40)
6. Whilst fully accepting that the Government, and this Committee, have no role in determining the nature and content of media coverage, we believe that more care is needed in the way the Government engages with the media and in particular the way in which it releases and provides its commentary on official statistics on the IB reassessment. In the end, the media will choose its own angle, but 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. (Paragraph 41)
I disagree with part of this in that I think that consciously or not, Conservative ministers have an ideological motive to move people off of benefits, portraying them as cheats if necessary, with the help of special advisors. (SPADS.) I believe that ministers and SPADS have been feeding selected information to the press to create a national view that is biased against sick and disabled people that claim benefits, and the press have been only too happy to amplify this.
- DWP: 26 July 2011 – Work Programme provides tailored support as latest figures show people are being found fit for work
- Daily Mail: Benefits Britain marches on: Just one in 14 disability handout applicants are too ill to work
- BBC News: Tests claim few benefit claimants unfit to work
- Commons Select Committee on the Migration from Incapacity Benefits to Employment Support Allowance
- 6th Report – The Role Of Incapacity Benefit Reassessment In Helping Claimants Into Employment