Thursday, 28 April 2011

'Sicknote Britain' yes or no?

According to one screaming tabloid headline today: "Blitz on benefits: 887,000 fiddlers exposed". Echoing stories in many of this morning's papers, the Daily Express says that three-quarters of Incapacity Benefit (IB) claimants are "workshy spongers feigning serious disability". Shocking, if true.
But it isn't true.
pills on a prescription
The red-top press has worked itself up into a lather of indignation and fury over statistics that are variously described as evidence of "Britain's sicknote culture", "greedy skivers" and "benefit cheats". So, let's examine the facts. The source for all this is the latest batch of data from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) on applications for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), a benefit introduced two-and-a-half years ago by the Labour government. Today's figures relate to the period between October 2008 and August 2010 - a time, for the most part of course, when Labour was in power.
The key point, though, it that these are new applicants - people applying to see if they might be eligible for additional financial support.
Some will be trying it on, knowing they are quite well enough to work but hoping to hoodwink the assessors into giving them sickness benefit. But I suspect many are simply individuals who don't want to miss out on a welfare payment to which they may be eligible. There is nothing 'dodgy' about seeing if you meet the criteria for something.
The DWP exhorts the public to ensure their full benefit entitlement. For instance, the department has regularly encouraged people to ensure they "don't miss out" on council tax benefit while the Mayor of London also has a scheme called "Know Your Rights".
So, it could be argued, that applicants for ESA are doing what they are told. Unsurprisingly, many people learn that under the tough new medical assessments, they do not qualify. Others, on realising that they have to undergo detailed checks, withdraw their application.
Are these people really workshy spongers? One can easily imagine someone who believes their depression or back pain has contributed to their unemployment and wanting to see if their condition entitles them to the slightly more generous payments under ESA than JSA (Jobseekers Allowance). That would seem to be common sense, not greed.
Government campaign image
Some newspapers, though, appear to have misunderstood the point. The Daily Express, for instance, says the figures "suggest that more than £4billion of taxpayers' money is wrongly paid out" to scroungers. But, of course, nothing has been paid out to any of the applicants because they are not yet receiving the benefit. Extrapolating the data from new applicants to those already receiving IB risks comparing apples and oranges because those in receipt of IB have already been through an assessment.
The government has just begun rolling out its programme for re-assessing existing IB claimants amid controversy over the fairness and accuracy of the medical checks, but it would be a surprise if the proportion deemed "fit to work" was anything like the 39% of new applicants who have not been previously assessed.
To recap then: the figures reflect the results of a Labour welfare reform for new applicants to a relatively new benefit. This has nothing to do with a coalition "blitz on benefit cheats" or a "government crackdown on welfare scroungers", however much Ministers would like to spin the stats. I would also note that today's stories bear an uncanny resemblance to reports six months ago on the previous tranche of ESA data which said almost exactly the same thing.
Far from providing evidence of sicknote Britain, the figures could be seen as evidence of citizens following government advice to ensure they "don't miss out".

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