A million 'scroungers' on benefits for a decade?

10th Jun 2011

The Daily Express this morning was treated to an editorial from the Employment Minister marking the launch of the government's Work Programme.

"More than a million people have been left to languish on out-of-work benefits over the past 10 years," Mr Grayling tells us, so the programme aims to get people, including long-term benefits claimants, back into work

Or as the paper's own coverage puts it: "a crackdown on benefits scroungers will be launched by ministers today."

Curiously, Mr Grayling did not use that description and nor does the Mirror, which leads with "Million on benefits for more than a decade" in its headline, or the Daily Mail, which merely told its readers that: "Shocking new figures show that over one million people have spent the past ten years claiming at least one of the three main out-of-work benefits."

Is that true? Yes it is.

It is important to make clear, though, that nine out of ten of them have been judged to be unable to work because of illness or disability.

In a brilliant example of how government openness can make public debate better, all the figures behind these stories are published by the Department for Work and Pensions, which generated them.

Not only have they published the figures, they also explain how anyone can use the NOMIS for labour market statistics and the DWP's tabulation tool for benefits statistics to get their own data any time they want.

In this case, the Department did it themselves and gave the numbers to the press.

The 1,019,620 who have been on the same benefit continuously for ten years break down like this:

  • Job Seeker: 1,050
  • ESA and incapacity benefits: 922,930
  • Lone Parent: 65,910
  • Carer: 23,130
  • Others on income related benefit: 6,600

Incapacity Benefit is restricted to those who "couldn't work because of illness or disability before 31 January 2011," when it was replaced by Employment and Support Allowance.

The other trigger for being in that group is receipt of Severe Disablement Allowance, which replaces Incapacity Benefit for people who have not paid a certain level of National Insurance.

It is not surprising that disability, caring responsibilities and parenthood might last for more than ten years.

As Chris Grayling, the Minister in charge of the programme, wrote in the Daily Express: "Some people claiming long-term benefits will be too sick or disabled to have a realistic chance of returning to work and they continue to receive our unconditional support. Our reforms are not about forcing people back to work if unable to do so."

So why was the Express alone describing them as scroungers? Is it just a habit?

Much of the story is concerns with the fact that research released by the Department for Work and Pensions showed that about 193,000 claimants had received Job­seeker's Allowance for three out of the past five years and the corresponding suspicion that some people play the system with short periods of work to avoid being targeted as long-term unemployed. The Express seems to have lumped the one million in with these.

It would be as wrong to imply that there is no scope for claiming benefits inappropriately as it is to imply that all claimants are doing it.

Indeed, the government feels that some people who are currently on Incapacity Benefit may be able to work, which is why it has begun a programme of reassessing claimants.

The early findings suggest perhaps a third may be fit to work right now and the conditions of another third, though serious now, need not keep them out of work permanently. They might, for example, be being treated for cancer.

But the very existence of that process shows how misleading it is to refer to all claimants indiscriminately as scroungers.


The Express's use of "benefit scroungers" in this context would be unlikely to survive scrutiny from the Press Complaints Commission but unfortunately the Express stopped playing with them. We will have to see if the paper's own corrections procedure is up to its task.

Meanwhile, it is welcome to see the stories from the Mail and Mirror reporting the new numbers fairly.

On a wider point, these ad hoc analyses only started to be published after Full Fact complained to the UK Statistics Authority last summer. Today's releases show the Department is not just doing the minimum it must to keep the regulator happy. These releases are clear and helpful, with spreadsheets as well as PDFs and valuable background information.

We are pleased to see the Department go so quickly from being pulled up on its standards to setting an example.