The DWP’s mysterious figures on workless households

The DWP have recently briefed journalists on the number of households in the UK where nobody has ever been in paid employment - but where have the figures come from?

Something odd has been happening at the Department of Work and Pensions. There have recently been a plethora of stories about the 250,000 households in the UK ‘where no one has ever had a job‘.

Yet the DWP have not made this analysis available to the general public via its website – as is the case for the vast majority of DWP’s statistics – despite the Coalition’s commitment to ‘throw open the doors‘ of public bodies.

But the DWP has confirmed to Left Foot Forward that they did brief the press, and have provided a copy of the press release (which is still not listed in the DWP’s newsroom). As well as being secret, the figures provided to journalists appear to contain errors.

Press reports make clear that the DWP said that adults in 250,000 households had never had a job. However, by the time Left Foot Forward recieved the figures the estimate had changed to 325,000 households, as a result of an ‘error’ in the original analysis.

This also means that DWP’s correction in City AM to Chris Grayling’s additional error (when he first stated that there were 71,000 households in London who had never worked, comprising 23 per cent of the population, which was then revised to 61,000 and 7 per cent of the London population) is also incorrect. The most recent figures provided by the DWP to Left Foot Forward suggest that they now believe there are 95,000 households in London in this position, who comprise 4 per cent of the population.

But the real problem goes beyond the secrecy and the statistical mistakes. It is beginning to look as if DWP ministers are insisting that officials put a party-political spin on what should be a straightforward release of statistical information.

Many of the households included in the analysis are likely to be made up of people the Government does not expect to work and has committed to protecting – severely disabled people and single parents with very young children. DWP statistics show that around 10 per cent of people who undergo the Work Capability Assessment are placed in the Employment and Support Allowance Support Group, which means that the Government does not expect them to seek work or undertake work-related activity.

Even using this contentious measure of severe disability, a minimum of 260,000 disabled people nationally are in this position – some will never have worked.

Similarly, there are around 1.9 million single parents with dependent children in the UK, of whom around 57 per cent are in employment.  It is likely that around 200,000 of those single parents who are not in work have very young children, and that a proportion of these people may never have had a job. The Government only believes that only single parents whose oldest children are over five should be in paid work, so using these people as evidence of persistent worklessness seems disingenuous.

In addition, the analysis published by DWP is not broken down by age – meaning that young unemployed people and student households are included in the analysis. However, ONS analysis suggests that around 39 per cent of households where no one has ever had a job are households aged 16-24. Workless student households are not a key government concern. On the other hand high levels of youth unemployment definitely are – but these young people need support, not criticism. With youth unemployment at 17.5 per cent, it seems hard to see how any Government could hold young workless households responsible for their predicament.

Of course, there are people included in the data who have never worked and are not young, disabled or parents with childcare responsibilities – yet this does not mean that they can all be written off as feckless.

While the Government states that: “the problem isn’t down to a lack of jobs” there are close to 2.5 million people who are unemployed,  2.3 million economically inactive people who want to work and less than 500,000 vacancies across the economy.

In addition, many of these vacancies are for posts that long-term unemployed people are unlikely to be qualified to undertake (for example 62,000 are in health and social work, 31,000 in financial services and 35,000 in professional and scientific activities) and positions are not spread evenly around the country – in many areas of the country where there are even fewer jobs than the national figures suggest.  Between June and July, the number of vacancies available fell.

Any objective analysis of these statistics would acknowledge these points, yet they have been presented in a way that encourages the media to blame those who are out of work for their predicament.

Long-term worklessness is not a lifestyle choice – it is a debilitating, stressful and difficult existence. Prolonged periods out of work have significant negative impacts on health and wellbeing for individuals as well as damaging the economy.

Research by the Prince’s Trust has recently shown the impact that growing up in a workless family can have for children. According to their report one in five (20 per cent) of young people living in workless households said that seeing their parents out of work made them anxious about finding a job, one in four (25 per cent) said their parents didn’t have the knowledge to help them find employment and two-fifths (39 per cent) of those living in communities with high levels of unemployment said they worried that they would never find a good job.

The Government are also wrong to imply that benefit levels are too high.  It cannot have escaped the DWP’s attention that Jobseeker’s Allowance levels in the UK are now worth less than they were in the 1980s. If households are receiving high benefit payments it will be a consequence of them being in significantly greater need – for example parents caring for disabled children or large families or families where adults are disabled are entitled to higher levels of state support.

We cannot even assume that everyone in the DWP’s analysis will be claiming benefits: the Labour Force Survey will include exceptionally wealthy people who do not have to work as well as workless households that are not entitled to welfare payments (e.g. students). In addition, households that are entitled to benefits but are not claiming them (unclaimed benefits save the Treasury around £16 billion a year) are counted in the Government’s workless household figures.

Of course the Government should be doing all that it can to support people who are out of work to move into jobs. But implying that everyone who is not in work should and could be in employment, that people facing long-term worklessness are somehow to blame for their position and that overly generous state support is preventing people from entering jobs is not borne out by the evidence. Of course there is nothing to stop politicians making those claims, but they should not expect DWP officials to do so on their behalf.

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