Has reporting of incapacity benefits improved?

16 March 2012

The quality of the media's reporting of the welfare reform debate has come in for criticism from many quarters, not least from Full Fact.

Yesterday the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released the latest figures on incapacity benefits assessments, followed by a plethora of media reports on the statistics. So have we seen any improvement?

The press release from the DWP stated clearly that more than one third of people going through incapacity benefits reassessment have been found fit for work. The figures were based on 141,100 claimants who had undergone the assessment process, although around 12,000 had not completed it to date.

Opinion was split on how to interpret the figures, with some claiming they showed a remarkable number of people undeservedly receiving benefits, while others asserted the assessments were too harsh.

As ever, the assessment divided claimants into three distinct groups: 'fit for work', entitlement to Employment Support Allowance (ESA) support group, and entitlement to the ESA work related activity group.

The figures for those who had completed the assessment were as follows:

With that in mind, here are some of today's reports:

BBC News: "More than a third of incapacity benefit claimants being reassessed for the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have been deemed fit to work"

The Sun: "590,000 on sickness benefit are fit as a fiddle"

Daily Mail: "Half a million incapacity benefit claimants are fit for work, Government's OWN figures show"


Telegraph: "More than one in three people whose claims for incapacity benefit have been reassessed are fit for work"

Times: "Over a third of incapacity benefit claimants reassessed by the Government have been found fit for work, according to the first set of official statistics released today."

Guardian: "Third of incapacity benefit claimants ruled fit to work"

Although focusing on the 37 per cent judged fit for work, the data is conveyed reasonably accurately. However, the Daily Express noticeably departs from the crowd and instead reports that 7 out of 10 claimants "could be working". Their article also says they are "potentially fit enough to work".

The method behind the Express report is adding together the 37 per cent fit for work and the 34 per cent placed in the work related activity group. People placed in this group are not immediately fit for work but receive support to move into suitable work in the future.

While it is not incorrect to refer to both groups as having the 'potential' to work, it must be made clear that only the 37 per cent fit to work "could be working" immediately - the other 34 per cent were assessed as potentially being able to work in the future. The Express mention this later on in their article.

An improvement on last year?

Incapacity benefit assessment reports happen throughout the year. Indeed, Full Fact found problems as recently as January this year.

However, in February last year, the picture - if the papers are to be believed - was somewhat more bleak:

The Sun: "A SHOCKING 1.8 million people claiming incapacity benefit are FIT to work, figures reveal today."

Daily Mail: "Up to two million people who have been living on sickness benefits for years may be perfectly fit to work, official test results show."

Daily Telegraph: "More than two thirds of those currently claiming incapacity benefit are fit for work, ministers revealed last night, after publishing the first statistical evidence of Britain's bloated benefits culture."

Daily Express: "NEARLY seven out of 10 incapacity benefit claimants were found to be fit for work as part of a Government crackdown on Britain's sick note culture."

Compared to today's reports, the proportion or number found to be ready for work was apparently much higher. However this owes less to any change in the underlying data and more to changes in the way it is reported. We have elicited corrections to a number of incorrect benefit stories from many different papers, so we hope that the press are beginning to better reflect the figures.

For example, while the Sun reported that 1.8 million were 'fit to work' last year by counting those in the WRAG as well as those actually found fit to work, but has today reported that 590,000 were found likewise based on only the latter group.

Similarly, the Express has refined its claim, from stating that 70 per cent were "fit to work" last year to 70 per cent "could be working" today.

While the language used by the press has itself been criticised for being "deeply offensive", we are pleased that reporting is getting closer to the facts and figures.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.