Just who’s doing the conning?
Never trust a politician observably descending to the demotic. Here’s a line from David Cameron’s speech today:
We’ve got to get some sense back into our labour market and get British people back into work. For years you’ve been conned by governments. To keep the unemployment figures down, they’ve parked as many people as possible on the sick. Two and a half million, to be exact. Not officially unemployed, but claiming welfare, no questions asked. Now we’re asking those questions. It turns out that of the 1.3 million people who have put in a claim for the new sickness benefit in recent years. One million are either able to work, or stopped their claim before their medical assessment had been completed.
“Conned by governments”, “on the sick”, “no questions asked” – I think Bullingdon Boy imagines he has the common touch. Connoisseurs of rhetoric will enjoy the first of these – isn’t it admirable of the Prime Minister to admit that it wasn’t just Labour governments that did this? Well, not really…
Anyone who dealt with the Employment Service (the forerunner of Jobcentre Plus) knows that, in the 1980s, when unemployment topped 3 million and Ken Livingstone had a massive banner across County Hall shouting at Westminster what London’s unemployment level was that month, there was an imperative throughout the organisation to get people off Unemployment Benefit by any means possible. All the way from the top down to Unemployment Benefit Office managers, the instruction was that anyone who might qualify for Invalidity Benefit instead of UB was to be helped on his or her way. We know this in the trade union movement because we were part of the process – when there were unavoidable redundancies and you’d got members who were unlikely ever to get another job, you could help them to a benefit that was a bit higher.
Back then, when people talked about the “headline figure” for unemployment, they meant the Claimant Count. One reason why the International Labour Organisation definition became more popular with the media was the scandal of the constant fiddles to massage down the Claimant Count became too much even for the Tory press. Certainly, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the scandal the PM is talking about was a reality.
But, and here’s the rub, there isn’t any evidence that this process took place under the last government.
I know, I know. For some people, the notion that there was a government more dishonest than New Labour is hard to bear. But I’m afraid the evidence is just too strong. Look at what actually happened to claims for sickness and disability benefits:
The period when the number of claims doubled was the premierships of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Alternatively, let’s concentrate on the last government’s time in office. The chart below uses DWP figures to show what happened between the period just before the last government came in and that just after they went out:
Total claims went from 2,838,000 to 2,654,000 (though I’ll grant that they took the scenic route to get there). You can argue that this wasn’t enough of a reduction, but the Prime Minister’s implication that the last government has equal responsibility for the level of claims we have today doesn’t bear scrutiny.
Now, let’s turn to the other element of that passage from the Prime Minister:
of the 1.3 million people who have put in a claim for the new sickness benefit in recent years. One million are either able to work, or stopped their claim before their medical assessment had been completed
damns the government as utterly evil annoys me tremendously is the way Ministers and others use that term “able to work” to suggest that we have a million people trying to get a benefit they shouldn’t have. I’m pretty sure the Prime Minister is using the statistics the DWP published in July; they show that:
- 517,900 were found fit for work
- 485,500 had their claim closed before completing their assessment
The Prime Minister could have said that half a million were found fit to work and half a million had their claim stopped before the assessment was finished. But lumping the two types of outcome together and saying that the second group “stopped their claim” invites us to conclude that they’d realised they were going to be found out and so dropped out.
But the evidence he’s using doesn’t allow him to say that. The statistics don’t distinguish between people who stopped their claim and those whose claims were stopped by the DWP: the commonest reason for closing a claim is that the claimant missed an appointment or didn’t fill in a form properly. As you might expect with sick and disabled people and a complicated benefit application process, people can miss appointments because they are ill or fail to understand what is required of them.
Some people will simply have recovered. The DWP’s research into unsuccessful claims found that:
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).
Some people say they never received the right forms from DWP, some found the forms intimidating, some decided that having been on ESA would look bad on their CV. Of the fairly small minority who missed meetings, some hadn’t been able to afford the bus fare or had other transport problems and some had failed to attend because they were too nervous without someone to go with them.
I suppose some readers will say to themselves
Even so, half a million fit for work is a lot of people.
Which is true – but the whole point about the new test for Employment and Support Allowance is that it was designed to be harder to get. It really shouldn’t be a surprise that it does what it was supposed to – and it doesn’t prove that those half million people were malingerers.