This morning, the Express newspaper published the following article:
SICK BENEFITS: 75% ARE FAKING
THREE in four people on sickness benefits are fit for work or drop their claim before facing strict new tests, shock figures revealed yesterday.
Startling statistics showed that of the 2.6million people on incapacity benefit, a total of 1.9million could work.
The Daily Mail, Mirror and Sun published similar articles with differing statistics, though all were inaccurate in terms of the way in which the DWP numbers had been utilised to smear claimants of disability benefit. All of these articles contribute to a growing culture of suspicion and hatred against welfare recipients in the mainstream media and within society as a whole.
The 75% figure quoted by the Express, along with the 1 in 14 figure quoted by the Daily Mail and others bears little resemblance to the truth. Here’s why: taking a quick look at the actual figures from the DWP, you can immediately see that the fit for work category contains 39% of applicants and not the 75% which the Express printed on their front page today:
- Support Group – 7%
- Work Related Activity Group – 17%
- Fit for Work – 39%
- Claim closed before assessment complete – 36%
- Assessment still in progress – 1%
Political Scrapbook does a great job of explaining how the Express arrived at this deeply misleading figure:
The figure of 75% is based on applications for Employment and Support Allowance between October 2008 and December of last year. It combines those deemed “fit for work” (39%) with applicants who withdrew before a Work Capability Assessment could be completed (36%) — a category that the Express immediately labels as “fakers”, despite the fact that many claimants may simply have recovered.
Indeed, as Steven Sumpter notes, the process of claiming ESA lasts around 14 weeks. This inevitably means that many who initially enter a claim will have recovered during this time, which is of course great news and can be reflected in the statistics as being found either fit for work, or by dropping out of the process entirely. Rejected claims can also stem from a recommendation that someone apply if unsure about their eligibility for ESA, or where the case is borderline. Indeed, the DWP does not record the reason for withdrawal, so for the Express to label all those who fall within this category as faking it is a complete and utter lie.
Some simple statistical errors also appear to have slipped into the Express article. The figure of 1.9m people who could work is based on the combined total of 2.6m claimants of both Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance. However, as Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, pointed out on Twitter earlier today, the figures released concern new claimants for ESA only, so therefore the figure of 75% (even if it were accurate) cannot simply be extrapolated across the entire population of claimants receiving any form of disability benefit.
It is important to note that whichever set of statistics you choose, the DWP numbers represent only those entering the application process for the first time. So this certainly does not indicate that claimants have been paid out money from the state to which they were not entitled, as much of the media coverage today seems to imply.
Another startling omission from most reporting on these statistics is the extraordinary success rate within the appeals process for ESA:
33% of people found fit for work between October 2008 and August 2009 appealed against that decision. 40% of those overturned that decision and were awarded ESA. That’s 27,500 people who were provably found fit for work when they were not. Many more people did not appeal, for many of the same reasons that may have caused people to drop out of the claims process.
The obvious reason for the high rate of appeal success lies in how these tests are administered.
The procedures to determine whether someone is eligible for ESA are not carried out by a GP or other health professional as one might reasonably expect, instead they are run on behalf of the DWP by Paris-based information technology firm, ATOS Origin.
Various detailed critiques of ATOS exist, so I won’t go into too much detail, suffice to say that the one of the important objectives of the keyword-based, computer-administered tests is to justify the removal of claimants out of the disability welfare system, with an added financial incentive for ATOS to do so. Capitalism’s deeply destructive profit motive out in full display.
The shameful standard of media reporting on this issue is even more surprising given that it comes the day after the the Work and Pensions Select Committee issued a strongly worded attack on misleading tabloid coverage on this issue.
Sections of the media routinely use pejorative language, such as “work-shy” or “scrounger”, when referring to incapacity benefit claimants. We strongly deprecate this and believe that it is irresponsible and inaccurate. The duty on the state to provide adequate support through the benefits system for people who are unable to work because of a serious health condition or illness is a fundamental principle of British society. Portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants as some sort of scheme to “weed out benefit cheats” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government’s objectives.
Today’s reports echo those from February, where an almost identical set of misleading statistics was released and manipulated by the tabloid press. A typical example being the attention grabbing headline that seven thousand people had been signed off sick from work with sexually transmitted diseases, even though this particular category was focused not on STD’s but instead on serious conditions such as renal failure and bladder disorders. Similarly, tabloid newspapers also claimed ten thousand people were claiming ESA for being overweight, despite this number including people with diabetes and malnutrition.
I can’t quite shake the feeling that the DWP releases of ESA claimant data are being timed to coincide with unfortunate news from other areas of government, particularly since this release was conducted on the same day that the ONS revealed disappointing economic growth figures for the UK. An embarrassing story for the coalition which has now been neatly moved away from the front page of today’s papers.