July 27, 2011 • 2:19 pm

 

Full Fact yesterday reported that the Work and Pensions Committee had challenged the Government and the media over inaccurate coverage of the proportion of people claiming incapacity benefits that are “fit for work.”

With impeccable timing, the Department for Work and Pensions also released the results to its latest set of Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) yesterday, which the Government is using to determine eligibility for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

So has the press taken on board the Committee’s criticisms of the “irresponsible and inaccurate” reporting that has dogged the issue in the past? Sadly, a glance at the today’s headlines suggests not:

 

“SICK BENEFITS: 75% ARE FAKING” Express

“Only 7% of people on sickness benefit are unable to work” Mirror

“Just one in 14 of those claiming the new incapacity benefit are too ill to work, according to newly released government figures.” Metro

“TOUGH new checks on Incapacity Benefit show more than nine in ten trying to claim it CAN work, it emerged yesterday.” Sun

“Nine out of 10 sickness benefit claimants are judged fit to work.” Telegraph

 

A cursory glance at the figures published by the DWP reveals that 39 per cent of claimants were found “fit for work” as a result of the WCA. So how have the papers arrived at these headlines?

The Express:

The Express inflates the proportion “faking” incapacity by adding the percentage of applicants who withdrew their claim before the Assessment (36 per cent) to those found “fit for work.”

However the assumption that all applicants who withdrew their claims are “faking” sickness is not one that is supported by the figures. The DWP does not record the reason for withdrawn claims, but this group is likely to include not only those who were genuinely ill enough to qualify for the benefit at the time of the application but who had recovered enough before the Assessment to work, but also those too ill to complete the application process. It is therefore extremely unlikely that all 36 per cent of applicants in this group are simply ‘trying it on’.

A study into the reasons for withdrawn claims was commissioned by DWP in 2010, and this found that some 40 per cent of applicants were in employment 6-10 months after making the claim, while a quarter maintained that their poor health was a barrier to seeking work.

There is also a further error in the Express’ piece. The paper claims that: “Startling statistics showed that of the 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit, a total of 1.9 million could work.”

This isn’t what the figures released yesterday show. There are indeed 2.6 million people of “incapacity benefits” (defined by the DWP as Employment and Support Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Income Support paid because of an illness or disability and Severe Disablement Allowance), however yesterday’s statistics refer specifically to new applicants for ESA only.

As such, they cannot even be used to calculate the proportion of all ESA claimants that ‘can work’. The DWP publishes separate figures for the 250,600 people that have had repeat assessments, with very different results: 26 per cent of this group were found “fit for work” with 12 per cent withdrawing.

Seven or 10 per cent?

The figure chosen by the Mirror and Metro is that only seven per cent of applicants are truly “unable to work.”

This references the proportion of applicants who are placed in the ‘support group’ – the category reserved, in DWP’s words, for “those with severe disabilities”.

However this is not the only category that receive ESA because they are considered “too ill to work.” A further 17 per cent are placed in the Work Related Activity Group, in which claimants receive ESA payments while attending interviews designed to help them back into work when they are capable of taking it.

As Full Fact has previously found, those placed in the WRAG include hospital inpatients, those receiving chemotherapy and sufferers of chronic renal failure.

The 10 per cent figure used by the Sun and the Telegraph is a variation on this theme, referring to the proportion placed in the ‘support group’ once incomplete claims are removed from the equation. Again, however, these papers choose to ignore the 27 per cent of those who completed the Assessment that were placed in the WRAG.

Whether or not incomplete applications are included in the calculation, the seven and 10 per cent figures used by these papers are demonstrably inaccurate when used as a proxy for those “unable to work”.

Appeals:

It is also worth noting that of the 39 per cent found “fit for work” by the DWP, some 37 per cent appeal against the decision, 39 per cent of whom do so successfully.

If these successful appeals are considered in the headline figures, then the DWP notes that 34 per cent were eventually considered “fit for work.”

Conclusion:

In the course of tackling inaccurate press reporting of incapacity benefits, Full Fact has lodged complaints with the Press Complaints Commission, had questions tabled in the House of Lords and submitted evidence to select committees and MPs.

While we have had some success in getting specific stories corrected, we are disappointed that similar mistakes continue to be made with regularity.

With the future of press regulation very much in the limelight at the moment, Full Fact is keen to discuss ways in which these problems can be tackled on a systemic level. This may include the DWP or PCC (or any future regulator) issuing clearer guidance on what the statistics released do and do not show. If you have any suggestions, do get in touch on team@fullfact.org.

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