Benefit of the doubt

The Daily Mail‘s “Grr, people on benefits are scroungers, grr” story for today is “The 100,000 under-24s living on state benefits because they claim they’re too ill to work” (technically that should be under-25s, since the data includes 24 year olds).

The Daily Mail claims this number is “staggering”. Is it?

Well, according to the National Offices of Statistics population pyramids (make sure you set the year slider to “2010”), the population of the UK aged between 18-24 is just a shade under 6 million. The “staggering” number of 100,000 people on benefits means just 1 young person in 60 is on incapacity benefit – 1.6%, in other words.

Age-grouped health data is hard to find, but from the looks of it, 2-3% of 16-24 year olds were reported as being in poor health at the 2001 census. So actually it looks like 100,000 out of 6,000,000 is pretty much to be expected.

Although many [incapacity benefit] claimants of all ages are genuinely entitled to the cash through sickness, many have far less claim to the money. Some are on it because they are too fat, get headaches, suffer from indigestion, or because they are prone to blisters.

Except of course that their weight, their migranes, their digestive disorders or their blistering could well be serious enough to warrant them not working still. Also, that line has nothing to do with young people – it’s from an earlier article talking about people of all ages.

But the introduction of tough new medical tests has seen a high number of workshy applicants being rejected – or abandoning their claims altogether.

That strongly suggests millions of existing claimants, who will all be re-tested in the coming years, are actually fit for employment.

A-ha, Daily Mail, are you trying to play the statistics game too now? Well, sadly your effort was poor. I would rate it 3 out of 10.

First of all, without giving us the numbers, we can’t judge whether “millions” will be turned down at all. There are around 2.4 million people on incapacity benefit – virtually all of them would need to be rejected for that line to be true. A throw away reference in the subheadline suggests three-quarters may be turned down, but that number is deeply misleading. It seems to be from this article – which states that 40% of people, under the new strict tests, did not score highly enough to receive benefits. Note that the new system doesn’t simply test fitness to work, but assigns a score based on what they can and can’t do. Someone with a completely debilitating condition, but one which only affects a few tasks, will be still be marked “fit to work” if their disability is insufficiently broad. Not everyone who has been rejected is “workshy”.

Finally, plenty of people with genuine conditions will have abandoned claims for one reason or another. Going for medical tests is invasive and stressful, and particularly for people with mental health issues or learning difficulties, the stress and unnecessary effort surrounding the tests may put them off seeking benefits – without pushing them into work or providing them with an alternative source of income.

Right. I’m off to London for a bit. Comments will probably get stuck in moderation limbo for a few days. Sorry.

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  1. #1 by Jamie on Wednesday, 4th August 2010 - 14:32 UTC

    There’s also the fact that about 40% of appeals against being found ‘fit to work’ are accepted – page 11 here:

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmcumeds/uc275-vii/uc27502.htm

    (You’ve missed the link to the article stating that 40% of people didn’t score highly enough to receive benefits, by the way.)

    • #2 by atomicspin on Saturday, 7th August 2010 - 20:26 UTC

      Thanks for the correction.

      That link in your comment seems to go to the wrong place – I couldn’t find anything about benefits in that. Still, interesting.

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