Are half of 'sickness benefit' claimants found fit finding work?

30 July 2012

The BBC's Panorama is tonight set to air an investigation into the controversial Work Capability Assessment (WCA) used to test eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), with reports in this morning's papers suggesting that it will find examples of the tests "sending sick and disabled back to work."

However Saturday's Telegraph carried a very different story, reporting that Minister's were claiming that the WCA have been a "success", with over half of those found fit by the tests returning to work.

Dig a little deeper into the article however and it quickly becomes apparent that the headline claim isn't entirely accurate.

As the article itself notes:

"10 per cent of claimants went back to their old job, while 18 per cent found new employment or began working themselves. Others retired or were supported by their family — adding up to more than half who no longer claimed state benefits."

As this suggests, the true proportion of those returning to work after being found 'fit' by the WCA stands at around 28 per cent.

The problems with the story don't end there.

These "new figures" are in fact drawn from a 2011 report published by the DWP based on research conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies the year before.

As the table below shows, of the 500 people found fit for work who were interviewed for the study, 10 per cent returned to an old job, and a further 18 per cent found new work. The rest either moved onto another benefit (48 per cent) or took other paths (25 per cent) such as retirement or education.

It's also dubious whether this sample is good enough to use as a proxy for all those on 'sickness benefits' in the way that the Telegraph does.

For example, the DWP is currently assessing two distinct groups for ESA: those making new claims and those Incapacity Benefit claimants who are being moved onto the benefit as IB is phased out.

This study only looks at those making new claims for ESA, and not those who are being reassessed as part of the transition from Incapacity Benefit. To call this group 'recipients' of the benefit as the Telegraph does is therefore wrong, and misses an important distinction.

It's also significant that the WCA has typically found a higher proportion of new claimants 'fit for work' than it has for those being reassessed, and this latter group may in turn have had more difficulty returning to work.


So while the underlying figures do tell us something about the destinations of new ESA claimants found fit for work, this isn't the same as the total cohort of people on 'sickness benefits' - the term used in the Telegraph's headline.

Even if we overlook this, the Telegraph has still overstated the proportion of those returning to work, as the stats show that around 28 per cent have been able to move into a job, rather than the half mentioned in the paper's headline.

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