“399 fiddlers!” doesn’t make such a good headline
by Claudia Wood
Three months ago, I wrote a blog about the government’s creative use of statistics when it came to releasing data about claimants of Employment Support Allowance. I pointed out that, despite the claims that 75 per cent of people claiming ESA were fit for work, actually the figure was 39 per cent.
And yet, this morning, the tabloids were all shouting the same story. My personal favourite was the Express, which declared “887,000 fiddlers!” and explained: “Whitehall figures showed three-quarters of Incapacity Benefit claimants are not entitled to the money. Nearly half a million people receiving the cash were exposed as being fit for work after undergoing medical tests in a Government crackdown on welfare scroungers.”
So – let’s just recap why this is wrong on so many levels.
First, 887,000 claimants (75 per cent) were not found fit for work. Like last quarter, 39 per cent were – or 458,523 people. The rest are made up of people who are still in the middle of claiming, and those whose claim was stopped before completion. This latter group make up 36 per cent of claims, but the reasons this happens are diverse – some people miss the medical appointments, the claim is stopped and they have to start again. And yes – some realise half way through the application they aren’t eligible for ESA.
Now let’s get on to the 458,523 “fiddlers” who failed the eligibility test. The Express tells us they were receiving cash when they weren’t entitled to the money.
They weren’t. These figures are for new applicants – not current claimers. So not a single one of these people was receiving more than they were entitled to. This is because during the assessment for ESA, you get paid JobSeekers Allowance – around £67 a week. Everyone is entitled to that if they are unemployed. It’s only when you pass the ESA test do you get the higher ESA benefit rate. So no one was fiddling money from the state.
What all these people were actually doing – both the 39 per cent who failed the test and the 36 per cent who stopped half way – was applying for a benefit they thought they might be entitled to due to being unemployed and in poor health.
As with a lot of benefits, the eligibility test for ESA is complicated – you can’t tell before you apply whether you will definitely get it or not. So if you are in poor health, you might get it or you might not - the only way to know is to sit the assessment. Moreover, being deemed “fit for work” is not a static benchmark. The Government recently tightened it up to save money - so people who would have been eligible a couple of years ago might not be now. Can you seriously call these people fiddlers simply for checking?
If so, that means the hundreds of thousands of people every year who asks for free social care – only to find they are not “ill enough” and are refused help – are “fiddlers”. It means everyone who has ever applied for tax credits, only to be told they aren’t eligible for one reason or another, is a “fiddler”. In fact it means anyone who checks their eligibility for anything is fiddling.
At this point I probably should mention that those currently claiming Incapacity Benefit (the predecessor of ESA) are being reassessed. This began a few months ago, with only 1347 having been reassessed. So far, 29.6 per cent of current IB claimants (399 people) have been judged fit for work and moved back to JobSeekers Allowance.
“399 fiddlers!” doesn’t make such a good headline does it? Also, the new test for ESA is stricter than the old test for IB – this was a conscious decision by the government to reduce the numbers of claimants and save money. So those 399 fiddlers aren’t fiddling – they just didn’t make the cut of the new test.
With all this in mind, reading the vitriolic and - more importantly - wholly incorrect article in the Express made me wonder how the press are allowed to misrepresent statistics so flagrantly. Confusing new applicants (who aren’t getting any money they shouldn’t be and are just checking their eligibility) with existing claimants (some of whom may be getting something they shouldn’t, but this is a judgment call by the government as to “how sick” people should be before the state provides extra benefits) is a huge factual error.
Surely someone told the Express they were, well, wrong? I noted Chris Grayling, the unemployment Minister, was careful to be quoted as saying “new claimants” in the paper. But the government aren’t blameless in all this. Grayling used the large number of failed applications to imply similar numbers of current (IB) claimants would also be found fit for work. He didn’t refer to the actual evidence that less than 30 per cent of IB claimants were currently failing the new, tougher test. A tougher test that was designed to find fewer people eligible for benefits. Again, I suspect the government is happy to allow the public, fuelled by the media, to misinterpret the figures and believe we can’t move for benefit scroungers.
For people like me, who actually know the truth to the statistics, this is hugely frustrating. But then I think of a man claiming IB who Demos spoke to for a forthcoming report – he had worked all his life, but had a stroke 5 years ago and due to seizures, poor memory and weakness down one side had been unable to find a job. He told us he was worried about being seen at home during the day because will think he is a “benefit scrounger”. He said people were more aggressive to him when they found out he was claiming.
His concerns put my irritation into perspective. I wonder if the government realises the potential consequences of whipping up what the tabloids like to call “outrage” and “fury” towards “benefit scroungers”? Let’s hope they’re keeping as close an eye on the number of disability hate crimes as they are on ESA claims.