April 28, 2011 • 3:30 pm

The press coverage of the proportion of people on Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) found ‘fit to work’ has caused Full Fact real concern in the past; so much so that we took several papers to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) on the issue.

So it was with some trepidation that we anticipated the release of the latest set of figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) showing the most recent results of its Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

Sure enough, the story produced some startling headlines in this morning’s press, some examples of which are below:

“Doctors weed out 1m disability benefit claims as three out of four claimants are found ‘well enough to work’.” Daily Mail, 28 April 2011

“ALMOST 900,000 Brits trying to claim sickness benefit are fit to work, shock figures reveal.” The Sun, 28 April 2011

“Sickies: Three-quarters fit to work.” Daily Mirror, 28 April 2011

“Three out of four benefits claimants are fit for work.” Daily Telegraph, 28 April 2011

“BLITZ ON BENEFITS: 887,000 FIDDLERS EXPOSED.” Daily Express, 28 April 2011.

 

But is this coverage any more accurate this time around?

The good news is that Full Fact’s efforts to prevent papers from referring to those placed in the Work Related Activity Group – which can include cancer sufferers and hospital inpatients – as ‘fit to work’ seems to be paying dividends. None of the papers we looked at had made this particular error again.

However this is not to say that the coverage is now free from mistakes.

Most of the papers make clear at some point in their reports that the figure of 887,300 who, in the papers’ view are ‘fit for work’, comprises of 458,500 who took the WCA and were found well enough for employment, and a further 428,800 who withdrew their applications before they could undergo an assessment.

But can we be sure that all people in this second group are therefore ‘fit for work’?

As Anne Begg, chair of the Work and Pensions told today’s Daily Politics show, whilst some may have withdrawn their application because they either already were or later became well enough to work, this isn’t necessarily true for everyone in this group, which may also encompass those forced to withdraw for reasons such as going into hospital.

The DWP doesn’t currently collect the reasons for withdrawals of ESA applications, and so any suggestion that they were ‘trying it on’ or were ‘fit for work’ can only be speculation.

To reach a number for those that were found ‘fit for work’ which is supported by the DWP figures, those that withdrew from the process should be excluded from the analysis, which is exactly what the DWP itself does in its release. This gives a slightly lower proportion found fit by the WCA – 64 per cent.

However, even this figure must be used cautiously. Of those that completed an initial WCA, some 36 per cent chose to appeal. 39 per cent of these appeals found in favour of the appellant, meaning that 48,000 of those considered ‘fit for work’ in the headline figures were subsequently found not to be so.

Once this is factored in, the proportion of ESA applicants found fit to work by the WCA becomes 57 per cent – closer to half than the three quarters posited by the media.

Conclusion

Whilst it is pleasing to see that the press are no longer conflating the Work Related Activity Group with those ‘fit to work’ after we raised the issue with them earlier this year, it seems that Fleet Street has merely replaced one group which cannot really be considered fit to work with another.

Until the DWP produces records for the proportion of those who withdraw their applications because their health has improved enough to allow them to work, we cannot postulate on how many are actually fit to work. Unfortunately the media have done precisely this.

Once this group is removed from the analysis and the impact of appeal results are factored in, the proportion well enough for employment falls to 57 per cent. It therefore seems that the press has favoured the higher figure over one that may give a more accurate reflection of the true picture.

 

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