July 30, 2012 • 4:20 pm

 “77,000 drink and drug addicts on disability benefits.”

The Telegraph, 30 July 2012

“Thousands of people have been on sickness benefits for a decade or longer because they suffer from conditions including acne, bad backs and persistent coughs.”

“More than 12,800 have been claiming benefit for their alcoholism since at least 2001… another 9,800 have been on benefits for their drug problems.”

The Daily Mail, 30 July 2012

Last year Full Fact found significant problems with media reports into the sums being drawn from the public purse by benefits claimants afflicted by drug or alcohol problems.

So when similar claims reappeared in the papers yesterday about the number of drug or alcohol addicts claiming ‘disability benefits’, we thought they deserved a second look.

Both sets of statistics can be traced to the same source: the latest ad hoc analyses of incapacity benefits and disability living allowance (DLA) claimants, between February 2010 and November 2011, releasd by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) earlier this week.

So, have Fleet Street’s finest avoided the mistakes that beset their reporting of the issue last year?

Analysis

Before diving in, a clarification is required. There are in fact several different types of weekly payment that are being collectively termed ‘disability benefits’ by the papers:

1) Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was introduced in October 2008, and since then has been the scheme for claimants suffering from an impairment that hinders their capability to work. The benefits include personal help and financial support so that claimants can do appropriate work if they are able to.

2) Incapacity Benefit (IB) provides support for people who cannot work due to an illness or disabling condition. It is being replaced by ESA and is given out only to those who applied before October 2008. Those who are still receiving IB will soon be reassessed to see if they are due ESA.  

3) Likewise, Severe Disablement Allowance (SDA) is also being phased out. It provided support for those unable to work due to an illness or disability for at least 28 weeks in a row before April 2001.

The three above can be considered ‘incapacity benefits’, but the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is for those considered ‘disabled’. It is a non-means tested weekly cash payment to help with the extra costs of living arising from an impairment or health condition. The Government has proposed to replace DLA from 2013.

So, with this in mind, first up under the Full Fact microscope, are the latest DWP breakdown of different claimants whose main medical condition is listed as alcohol or drug abuse.

The tables below reveal the different numbers of claimants receiving the different incapacity or disability benefits for alcoholism or drug abuse between February 2010 and November 2011.

Number of IB/SDA claimants:

November 2011

All

Alcoholism

Drug Abuse

1,754,630

34,410

30,030

Number of ESA claimants:

November 2011

All

Alcoholism

Drug Abuse

857,890

21,890

12,670

Number of DLA claimants:

November 2011

All

Alcoholism and Drug Abuse

3,226,790

21,350

Looking these results, it is difficult to see where the Telegraph got their figure of 77,000 drink and drug addicts on ‘disability benefits’. There are a total of 120,350 IB, SDA, ESA or DLA claimants with alcoholism or drug addiction recorded as their main affliction.

However, as the Telegraph reports “34,410 people were receiving Incapacity Benefit because of drug or alcohol problems and another 21,890 are getting Employment Support Allowance”, when in fact, these are the number of claimants receiving benefits for alcoholism alone. When drug addiction is factored in, the total rises.

The Daily Mail’s figures on drug and alcohol addiction can be traced to a second ad hoc analysis from the DWP on disability and incapacity benefits, recording the different medical conditions and durations of each claim.

The analysis only considers the claimants on IB/SDA and ESA between February 2010 and November 2011, but also measures the length of the claim, with the longest group receiving benefits for 10 years or longer.

Most of the recent press attention has focussed on this last, longer-term group of claimants. The Daily Mail article claims a total of 885,000 have been on incapacity benefit for more than ten years.

According to the paper, this includes those claiming for alcoholism (12,800), drug addiction (9,800), depressive episodes (14,000), fractured forearms (30), conjunctivitis (20), cough (20), rashes (20), diahorrea and gastro-entertis (1,300) and malaise and fatigue (4,390). The Sun also cites figures including acne (10), obesity (670) and varicose veins (350).

The tables below show the statistics being quoted by the two papers:

 

 

All

10 years and over

 

1,754,630

885,100

Diarrhoea and Gastroenteritis of presumed Infectious origin

2,460

1,300

Acne

20

10

Obesity

1,560

670

Depressive Episode

333,030

140,180

Cough

70

20

Varicose Veins of lower extremities

670

350

Malaise and Fatigue

9,350

4,390

Conjunctivitis

30

20

Rash and other nonspecific skin eruption

40

20

Fracture of Forearm

50

30

Drug Abuse

30,030

9,800

Alcoholism

34,410

12,840

However, these figures do need to be treated with some care, as there are a number of caveats that need to be applied.

Firstly, the figures are rounded to the nearest 10, which, when we get to such low numbers as “10” or “20”, is fairly significant.

Secondly, we need to bear in mind the DWP’s own guidance on interpretting these figures:

“Medical condition is based on evidence provided at the start of the claim, this in itself does not confer entitlement to IB/SDA or ESA and may not represent a claimants most recent medical condition. Please also note that where someone has more than one diagnosis or disabling condition, only the predominant one is recorded”.

This means that the condition recorded as the claimant’s main disabling is not necessarily the only reason that they are eligible for the benefit, and that they may suffer from multiplie complaints which prevent them from working.

On top of this, someone who has suffered from more than one condition over the years would be categorised only under the condition which initially entitled them to the benefit. Given the often small numbers quoted as claiming benefits for 10 years or more for conditions such as acne, it is possible that other complaints have subsequently developed which prevented them from working for such a long time besides the skin condition.

There is one other problem in the Daily Mail article that also deserves attention. It states that:

“Most of the 885,000 who have been on long-term sickness benefit for a decade or more had not had any contact with the Department for Work and Pensions since signing on.”

The 885,000 figure, as we have already seen, refers to the total number of people claiming IB/SDA for over 10 years. However, according to a Jobcentre Plus release the likelihood of a recipient of IB receiving no contact from the DWP since signing is low:

“Most current incapacity benefits claimants have a Personal Capacity Assessment (PCA) on a regular basis to assess how their health condition or disability affects their ability to work.”

According to this document, it seems the opposite of the Daily Mail’s claim is true, with “most” IB claimaints undergoing regular assessment for their reciept of benefits.

Conclusion

The recent press articles which focus on figures concerning the number of long-term claimants receiving disability or incapacity benefits correctly report figures released by the DWP in an ad hoc analysis.

However whether they are as “shocking” as the papers insist is more moot. A careful reading of the statistics shows that the figures can be difficult to interpret, particularly given the small numbers of people claiming some of the conditions mentioned in the headlines.

It is possible, for example, that the number of people claiming benefits for acne for 10 years or more may include cases where the claimant suffers from more than one condition, or has developed subsequent problems since making their initial claim.

We’ve contacted the DWP to see if they hold any more information that might clarify this, and will update if we find out more.

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