Incapacity Benefit: What the papers mean by 'fit to work'

11 February 2011

Back to a familiar theme this morning, as several newspapers report the latest set of figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP):

Here's the opening lines in four press reports on the subject:

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."

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

"Seven out of ten could start jobs straight away - or within a few weeks with help."

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."

So what do the figures actually show? The definition of "fit to work" actually includes people who are hospital in-patients, as explained below.

The research, as all these articles eventually explain comes from the two pilot schemes in Burnley and Aberdeen where Incapacity Benefit claimants were reassessed on the terms of the new Employment and Support Allowance.

The DWP figures show that 29.6 per cent were found 'fit to work' immediately and 31.3 per cent would receive ESA unconditionally.

The rest (39 per cent) were placed in the 'Work Related Activity Group' (WRAG) which according to the DWP press release means "with the right help and support they can start the journey back to work".

But are these people 'fit to work' as the papers suggest?

The most recent set of statistics covering new claimants of ESA (rather than those being reassessed from Incapacity Benefit) gives some helpful detail on what kind of conditions people in the WRAG may have.

Claimants are placed in the WRAG group, and thus are according to the four newspapers above "fit to work" if they are:

"Suffering from a life threatening disease in relation to which there is medical evidence that the disease is uncontrollable".
"An in-patient in a hospital or similar institution".
"[Receiving] regular weekly treatment by way of by way of haemodyalisis or chronic renal failure"
"Receiving treatment by way of intravenous, intraperitoneal or intrathecal chemotherapy;"

This is not to say that all people in the WRAG suffer these types of conditions, but including such people in the various portrayals of this entire group as 'fit to work' would be unfair — and here the Daily Mail is worth a special mention for claiming people in WRAG are "perfectly" fit to work.

It is only by including these people that The Sun and Mail have arrived at their figure of 1.8 million, should the proportion be applied to the approximately 2.6 million people claiming Incapacity Benefit or ESA.

The point is not whether DWP were right to place these people in such categories, since for example someone in hospital would hopefully get better and be able to move back in to work.

Instead the issue is whether the newspapers are justified in including everyone in the WRAG in the headline figures for the proportion fit for work.

After all, people in the WRAG are not working but have to complete "work focussed interviews" and receive support to find suitable work.

DWP were not immediately able to tell us how long people spend in the WRAG — raising questions about The Sun's claim that people leave this group "within a few weeks". We will need to update on this point later. (UPDATE: We have now received the figures from DWP and they show that as of May 2010 more than 90,000 people had been in the Work-Related Activity Group for six months or more.)

It is worth highlighting that not all publications have chosen to report the numbers in this way.

The Press Association report is much more measured, with a first line which states "the first Government programme to reassess people on incapacity benefit showed that a "substantial number" of claimants have the potential to return to work, ministers have announced."


The decision by all of these publications to class every person placed in the Work-Related Activity Group as fit to work, or even "perfectly" fit to work, not only gives an inaccurate picture of some of the people in this group — but an inaccurate picture the entire system of Incapacity Benefits.

All the reports get around to making the point more than half the people in their headline figure are not deemed able to work right away, but this is a point glossed over in most of the opening lines, and all of the headlines concerned. As some of these people are, for example, hospitalised, the claim that they will be ready to work "within a few weeks" should come with a health warning too.

The Press Association example shows that these important figures could still be reported without such clear inaccuracies.

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