From the TUC

Just who’s doing the conning?

05 Oct 2011, by in Society & Welfare

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

What 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.

8 Responses to Just who’s doing the conning?

  1. Bill Kruse
    Oct 5th 2011, 9:21 pm

    It also doesn’t prove that the people it suggests are fit to work are in any way employable. The two terms have recently become interchangable which is of course nonsensical. There appears to have been no input at all from employers into the testing, a key consideration you might think.


  2. Chris2
    Oct 6th 2011, 12:09 am

    And, of course, there are no jobs for them anyway. Because the original cause, the destruction of the manufacturing sector and exporting of jobs to lower wages,and lower standards generally still remains unchanged.
    As does the systematic destruction of workers rights, particularly the right to strike.
    And Labour, which no doubt did cut the numbers of claimants, and which was promising to implement schemes very similar to those the Tories are adopting, is as much to blame as Cameron and his gang.

  3. john
    Oct 6th 2011, 12:56 am

    Disabled people thrown off Incapacity benefit onto The Work Programme are being car parked, not cherry picked.

    The Work Programme isn’t fit for purpose even for the able-bodied.

    Why is it that private companies A4e & ingeus deloitte are failing to reach targets set by themselves and Government to find employment for 50% of their clients on The Work Programme.

    By their own admission these private companies are only finding employment for 10-13% of the unemployed.

    Rather than terminating their contracts this government has rewarded A4e & ingeus deloitte with larger renewed contracts. Rewarding failure.

    Leaving smaller third sector providers with better employment results to perish. These providers were the last hope for disabled people wishing to find employment.

    Some much for Lain Duncan Smiths payment by results.

  4. john
    Oct 6th 2011, 1:11 am

    BBC Radio 4

    The Work Programme

    More:programme information
    Listen now (28 minutes)

    Available since Thu, 22 Sep 2011.

    Can the government’s flagship programme to help the long-term unemployed succeed?

  5. Bill Kruse
    Oct 6th 2011, 5:03 am

    In fact the only thing all these schemes seem to do well is provide an income stream for private companies from the public purse. It increasingly appears that this has always been the only point of the exercise, and is the result of collusion between crooked businesmen and corrupt politicians of both parties. The police should be investigating. Seriously.


  6. john
    Oct 6th 2011, 8:14 pm

    The police should be investigating. Seriously.

    Thanks Mr Kruse.

    Disabled people have been turned into commodities. You cannot quantify human dignity therefore it is subservient to profit.

  7. john
    Oct 6th 2011, 8:43 pm

    Your Thoughts

    this from

    A Work Programme provider asks a customer to sign forms giving consent for: the provider; any employer; and the DWP; to exchange information (presumably to verify whether someone has been successfully placed, thus allowing provider fees to be paid?). The form says that entitlement to benefit, placement on the programme, and offers of employment, do not depend on the customer giving this consent. In practice, the customer reports considerable pressure to sign, or else not be allowed on the programme.
    Are there any practical steps that might protect the client from a sanction or refusal of benefit (I know the obvious one is: just sign the forms

    Further to my last post, on doing a bit of digging, I can’t see detailed guidance for Work Programme providers, but the DWP guidance for ‘Work Choice’ is here: (copy and paste the full link)

    It links to a sample consent form very similar to the Work Programme one, which likewise says above the place where the customer signs:

    “If you do not give consent, this will not affect your entitlement to participate in the programme, or any job offer or employment obtained. You can write to [Provider] at any time to withdraw your consent and this will not affect your placement on the programme or any employment or offer of employment made.”

    The guidance itself says (DWP’s bolding):
    “A2.15 Because DWP carry out validation checks of Job Outcome payments made to Providers, a customer consent form is provided which must be completed by all customers who start on DWP Employment Programmes.

    A2.16 Please ensure you customise this form with your organisation’s details and obtain your participants’ written consent to share their information at the earliest appropriate moment in Module One. You must store this form securely and retain it for inspection, when required, by DWP validators.”

    **I do not see how these two documents are reconcilable, unless the assurance that consent is optional is an empty set of words. I can see no mention in the guidance of the possibility that a ‘customer’ would refuse to give consent for their data to be shared.

    What would happen if a customer/client refused to sign Rather interesting.

  8. Phil C.
    Oct 7th 2011, 12:55 am

    Great article and great comments already on this thread!
    My opinion is that the Thatcher govts of the 80s had an attitude of [mass] “unemployment is a price worth paying”,
    and this price was paid mostly by those thrown onto the scrapheap, in terms of loss of income/livelihood & self-respect/status and consequent weakening of health; but the Thatcher govts did recognise their obligation to cushion the effects by at least shelling out the necessary out-of-work welfare payments.
    Thatcher knocked people down but gave them a survival income in compensation;
    seemingly, the current govt want to callously mug as many welfare claimants as they can.

    In stark contrast to their rhetoric about responsibility, the main party leaderships today are all in denial of governmental responsibility and exhibit an attitude towards welfare claimants which I consider to be shameful.

    i.e. some people will have suffered aggravated or additional health problems through being unemployed and wage-less for a significant period of time
    some people will have soldiered on doing a job for years despite the onset of a disability or chronic illness … only to be made redundant at some point and then find themselves unable to secure a new job because employers are generally unwilling to recruit applicants who have a health problem.

    Politicians seem unable to *get* these two points, as they look at the stats and fail to grasp why the figures for disabled and sick are higher post-1980 than they were during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
    They want a simple answer, preferably one which attributes blame (e.g. “malingering”, “lifestyle choice”, “welfare dependency”), for a complicated problem – and they can’t or won’t see that one factor is when there are persistent high levels of unemployment, due to successive govts pursuing neoliberal economic policies aimed at keeping inflation down and the Trade Unions weak, there is inevitably going to be a higher percentage of the unemployed who have an aggravated or acquired health problem and are genuinely eligible for a sickness benefit.
    (sorry for the length of this reply)