Have 1,000 people died after being found "fit for work"?

10 April 2012

The Government's Work Capability Assessments (WCA) - used to judge an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimant's eligibility for the benefit - has proved controversial since it was introduced in 2008, with campaigners arguing that it judges potential claimants too harshly.

Professor Harrington's independent review of the system recommended a number of changes last November, which have been accepted by the Government.

Newspapers have consistently misreported the outcomes of these assesments, and as recently as this February the Daily Mail had to correct inaccurate claims about the number found "fit for work" by the WCA.

However in the run-up to Easter, the Mail itself published a blog which seemed to add weight to the view that the WCA was failing to spot genuine disabilities. It said:

"Last year over 1,000 sick people were deemed fit for work by Government-appointed assessors. So far so good. Only problem is they all died before they even got around to clocking on for work."

Daily Mail, 6 April 2012

So where does this claim come from, and is it accurate?

Figures on the deaths of ESA claimants aren't routinely published by the Department of Work and Pensions [DWP], but have been unearthed via a Freedom of Information [FoI] request made by the Mirror newspaper to the Department.

Published by their investigation team a couple of days before the Daily Mail article, it states that between January and August 2011, 1,100 claimants died after they were put in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) following their assessment.

Regular Full Fact readers will know that being placed in the Work-Related Activity Group is not the same as being found "fit for work".

The DWP makes clear that in the WRAG "the claimant's capability for work is limited by their physical or mental condition and it is not reasonable to require them to work."

In fact, people placed in the WRAG can include those "suffering from a life threatening disease in relation to which there is medical evidence that the disease is uncontrollable", who might be expected to number among the 1,000 deaths referenced in the Mail.

When it comes to the number of claimants actually found "fit for work" by the WCA, the DWP makes clear to the Mirror that it doesn't hold any data on these cases:

"Data on the number of ESA claimants that have died following a fit for work decision is not available, as the Department does not hold information on a death if the person has already left benefit."

While we've been unable to get in contact with the Mail blogger to confirm their source for the claim, given the dearth of alternative information available and the similarity of the figures, it seems likely that the Mirror investigation is it.

If so, this would highlight the damage done by the erroneous conflation of the 'fit for work' and 'work-related activity' groups in the media over the past couple of years.

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