On Saturday a number of media outlets reported Government claims that nearly 900,000 people dropped benefit claims “rather than undergo a tough new medical test“. Reports in The Telegraph, Express, Daily Mail, MSN and Wales Online, based on a Press Association story, however, fail to dig deeper into the claims.
How accurate are they? Steve Walker has looked at the data, following a pointer from Declan Gaffney, and found the pattern of ‘dropped claims’ doesn’t support the headlines. HMI Welfare has re-checked and re-presented it, along with some documentary context. Here are the key findings:
- The “almost 900,000 people” figure covers claimants from December 2008 to May 2012 – three and a half years covering both the last years of the previous Labour government and the early years of the current coalition government.
- During that time the total caseload of claims has risen from 143,200 to 199,100 – a rise of 39%
- But the number of claims closed before assessment only rose from 56,600 to 60,500 – a rise of 6.8%
- Even at their peak in late 2011, closed claims numbered 72,100, a rise of 27% from the starting point and 38% of the total caseload (the average was 36%)
- In the last quarter covered by the data (up to May 2012), claims closed before assessment were at their lowest for over a year. As a percentage of total claims, they were the lowest since the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was introduced in October 2008 (the data begins from the first full quarter during which the ESA was in place)
- The Department for Work and Pensions itself reports that most people withdraw their claim for a range of reasons, including returning to work and switching to Jobseeker’s Allowance.
We’ve re-published the part of data used for the visualisation here. As Walker explains:
“If, at Shapps is trying to portray, a huge number of claimants decided to drop their claims because they knew they’d be discovered as cheating, you’d expect to see a graph … showing large numbers of ‘faking’ claimants [at the introduction of the ESA] getting spooked by the fact they’d have to undergo assessment under the new system and withdrawing their claims”
The figures, instead, tell a story closer to that explained by Gaffney:
“Every month, about 130,000 people leave Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Of these ESA leavers, about 20,000 have not yet undergone a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). There is no mystery about this: claims for ESA are counted from when people are issued with an ESA 50 form to fill in, and there is an inevitable gap between the form being issued and the Work Capability Assessment. Indeed according to Nomis there are currently 488,000 claims in the ‘assessment phase’ of ESA, meaning that there has not yet been a decision on entitlement.”
Gaffney links to a Department for Work and Pensions report (PDF) which explains the ESA process, and includes a section on why claims were closed or withdrawn:
“The most common reason people gave for withdrawing their ESA claim was that their condition had improved and so they had closed their claim, either returning to work or claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). This is consistent with the high rates of return to work and JSA claims which had been identified for the closed/withdrawn group in survey research with ESA customers. In many cases, customers got in touch with Jobcentre Plus directly to inform them that they would like to withdraw their claim. However, a number of customers had not proactively informed Jobcentre Plus that they no longer wanted to claim: some felt they had recovered sufficiently to end their claim and many chose to no longer submit sick notes and some decided to not return the ESA50 (see Section 3.2.2), as they thought this would mean Jobcentre Plus closed their claim.
“One woman said that she had been contacted about not completing the ESA50 (although her claim was not closed at this stage, because she was known to have a mental health condition), but that in fact she had never received this form to complete.
“Some customers reported being deterred from continuing their claim by the ESA50 form. In these instances the individuals’ conditions were manageable or expected to improve fairly soon, and/or they had an alternative source of income, such as part-time self-employment or family support. For these marginal claims the form was deemed too time-consuming when customers were already uncertain about their wish to claim. In one case an individual feared future adverse consequences from having a period of sickness benefit claiming on their employment record/CV, and had also returned all the benefit they had been paid for this reason.”
Notably, that 900,000 figure not only includes people who simply found employment, but also those who might still have been entitled to ESA but who did not pursue it for other reasons.
And Gaffney points out that:
“Grant Shapps is not the housing minister. That means that his inaccurate claims were made in a party political role, so they are not subject to the rules governing ministerial use of statistics, although this would presumably be the case were his claims to be repeated by a minister.”
If a minister does repeat the statistic, it will be recorded on They Work For You, where you can set up an alert to be notified.