Incapacity Benefit: Can 94% of claimants work?

26 January 2011

"400,000 'were trying it on' to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity benefits claimants can work" Daily Mail, 26 January 2010

This headline is even more inaccurate than the other oft-quoted figure, that 75 per cent of incapacity benefits are fit for work — of which more later.

The Mail has exaggerated the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on the processing of claims for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). People applying for the ESA have to undergo an assessment of whether they are able to work and the statistics cover the results of this assessment.

Looking at the figures it becomes clear that even in this short headline there are several things the Mail got wrong.

Incapacity claimants

Contrary to the headline the figures from DWP only relate to Employment and Support Allowance, which replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008.

Roughly two million of the 2.6 million people on incapacity-related benefits are on Incapacity Benefit, not ESA. Thus even if the 94 per cent figure was valid it would cover a relatively small proportion of those claiming benefits having been deemed unable to work.

The Government is currently in the process of assessing those on the old Incapacity Benefit to move them on to ESA.

The Department for Work and Pensions estimates that when they have completed the 1.5 million assessments 23 per cent of these people will be fit for work - not 94 per cent, or even 75 per cent.

This demonstrates how misguided it is to apply a statistic related to ESA applicants across the board to all Incapacity Benefit claimants.

'Trying it on'

This refers to the number of people who, having undergone an assessment were deemed to be capable of work.

Since ESA was introduced 396,000 of those assessed have been categorised in this way. However it is important to note that up to November 2009 33 per cent had appealed this decision, and in 40 per cent of cases a tribunal sided with the claimant. This resulted in 13 per cent of those found fit for work being changed.

The Mail also uses the phrase 'trying it on' in relation to those who withdrew their application before an assessment could take place.

Though it is suggested in some papers reporting the figures that these people withdrew their claims, knowing they would be 'found out' by the extra scrutiny.

Yet a report completed for DWP actually found that one significant reason for withdrawal of claims was the improved health of the claimant. Given that DWP has previously said that it takes on average three months between a claim being made and an assessment taking place, this seems like enough time for a change in circumstances that would see claims withdrawn.

94 per cent can work

This proportion is based on results that show that 6 per cent of all those who applied for ESA were placed in the Support Group, where they receive ESA payments and are not required to engage with Pathways for Work.

A further 16 per cent of applicants (or 25 per cent of those actually assessed) were placed in the Work-Related Activity Group — those who received ESA who are required to participate in Pathways to Work.

Pathways to Work is a programme that seeks to help people on ESA prepare for and find work.

So how the Mail arrives at the 94 per cent figure is by putting the 16 per cent of applicants who pass into the Work-Related Activity Group as 'fit for work' even by the Government's own definition, such people are not deemed currently fit for work.

This point is at least alluded to a few lines into the Mail article, where it is stated: "94 per cent of new claimants were either 'trying it on' or would be fit enough to work in the near future." [emphasis added]

So, for the purposes of that eye-catching headline, those who may be able to do some form of appropriate work in the future, become those who "can work".


This article shows just how something loosely based on the statistics can become a very inaccurate headline.

It is true to say that of all the people who have so far applied for Employment Support Allowance 6 per cent went into the Support Group.

But this does not mean that the other 94 per cent of ESA claimants are all fit for work, let alone 94 per cent of people on Incapacity Benefit.

Of course, the Mail is not the only paper to report the figures. The Daily Express, has also covered the statistics, but claiming that they show 75 per cent 'on sick are skiving'.

While we will be taking a closer look at this article later today, there is further explanation of why even this lower figure is wrong here.

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