Over the last few months, Left Foot Forward, along with Full Fact and Touchstone, has been critical of misleading press stories about the benefit system and those who depend on it based on figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions – in some cases released confidentially to selected journalists.
A reprimand from the Statistics Commissioner has led to some improvement in transparency in DWP’s handling of evidence, but the problem of misleading reporting hasn’t gone away. While inaccurate stories may in some cases be attributed to failures on the part of journalists, the fact is that if government doesn’t want the figures it is releasing to be distorted, it can take steps to ensure this doesn’t happen.
As anybody who has been involved in briefing the press on issues of public concern knows, heading off easily-anticipated misinterpretations of the evidence is a key part of the task. Misleading stories such as this one in today’s Telegraph (and Mail, Sun and Express) are eminently avoidable.
The Telegraph headline read:
‘Two in three benefit claimants are fit for work’
With the report stating:
“That means roughly 70 per cent of those claiming money on the grounds that they were too sick to work were in fact capable of holding down some form of paid employment.”
The evidence for this assertion comes from the first results from the pilots extending Employment Support Allowance to existing claims for Incapacity Benefit and incapacity-related Income Support.
In fact, as the DWP’s press release shows, the reassessment found that 71 per cent of claimants were not ‘fit for work’. How did the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and Express get it so wrong – and get it wrong in exactly the same way?
The main changes which ESA has brought in compared to the previous system are:
(a) A tighter assessment of eligibility, known as the Work Capability Assessment (WCA); and
(b) The introduction of a new distinction between claimants who are deemed to be able to undertake some ‘work related activity’ and those who are not. IB didn’t make this distinction, meaning that people with very different levels of impairment were treated similarly.
Under ESA, those who are found to be ‘fit to work’ on the new WCA are not eligible for ESA, but can apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance – in other words, they are treated as being unemployed rather than as having ‘limited capability for work’. Those who are found to have ‘limited capability for work’ are entitled to ESA and are assigned either to the ‘work-related activity’ group or, if they are not deemed able to undertake work-related activity, to the ‘support group’.
Today’s press stories conflate those who are found ‘fit to work’ with those who are not found fit to work but are found capable of some ‘work related activity’.
This shows a complete misunderstanding of the main intention of introducing ESA in the first place, which was to provide more support and greater conditionality for those who were not ‘fit to work’ but could be expected to be able to return to work at some point in the future, while maintaining unconditional support for those who were not in this position.
That 29% were found ‘fit to work’ looks like a strong enough finding, so what led journalists to exaggerate this to ‘two in three’? Perhaps the steady stream of misleading stories about Incapacity Benefit over recent months has raised the bar to the point where 29% just doesn’t look like a big enough figure.
The figure is not in itself surprising: the WCA was introduced with the explicit intention of tightening eligibility compared to IB and it is widely believed that the incentives for the providers who conduct the assessment are designed to bias judgment towards rejecting claims (a view supported by the high rate of successful appeals against WCA decisions).
What is more surprising in today’s figures is the high percentage of those who are not ‘fit for work’ who are also not able to undertake any ‘work-related activity’. When ESA was first proposed, it was widely assumed that the great majority of claimants who were not immediately ready to return to work would be able to start a ‘journey back to work’ with appropriate support. But for 526 claimants assigned to the work-related activity group, 422 were assigned to the support group.
This finding tends to support the argument raised here recently: the severity of impairment among claimants of incapacity benefit is far higher than is generally recognised. The fact that more than half of IB/ESA recipients, and two thirds of long-term recipients are also in receipt of Disability Living Allowance suggests that some of the expectations which both the current and previous governments have encouraged about the impact of changes to the benefit system are exaggerated.
Addressing the employment penalties faced by disabled people – at all levels of severity of impairment – is a much bigger task than the rhetoric of welfare reform often implies.
Most of today’s press coverage is emblematic of the distortions to which virtually any evidence on the welfare system is subject in the current climate: these stories seem be designed to foster suspicion and grievance with regard to benefit claimants.
When four national newspapers converge on the same misinterpretation of the evidence, some responsibility surely lies with those providing the figures.
Government could easily reduce the risk of this kind of misleading reporting by making sure that journalists understand the evidence and that its own briefing is clear and unambiguous – and when public resources are used for government media handling, why should we expect anything less?
• Read more about this story on Full Fact.