What does 'fit to work' actually mean?
by Claudia Wood
On Sunday I was asked to speak on LBC about the latest government release, on what must clearly be a slow news day – top 10 ridiculous excuses benefits fraudsters give when caught. This was used as a hook to promote government benefit reform plans and reemphasise that the government loses £1.1bn in benefit fraud each year.
I laid out some stats, which I bet very few people listening believed. But they come from the latest DWP bulletin, which states that the benefit fraud rate for incapacity benefit is just 0.5 per cent. That’s about 9,500 people. It also states that whilst the government might have “overpaid” benefit fraudsters by £1.1bn last year, they had underpaid people by £1.3bn in benefits due to administrative errors.
Now of course, benefit fraud can never be excused. And other benefits, like housing benefit, income support, carers allowance and so on have higher fraud rates, up to 3.9 per cent. But there seems to be government and media preoccupation with people claiming they are too ill to work only to be caught out playing football or working another job – that’s clear from the selection of excuses the government released to the media over the weekend. Those people actually fall into that relatively small group of 9,500 fraudsters which cost us £30 million last year. Yes that’s £30 million too much, but only a fraction of the total £180bn the government spends each year on benefits.
So why does this relatively small phenomenon cause so much “outrage” (a favourite tabloid word) and a primetime slot on LBC? One reason. People confuse benefit fraud, with government statements that 27 per cent, 50 per cent, 75 per cent of people claiming sickness benefit (it changes from minister to minister) are actually fit to work.
The fact is, being found “fit to work” is not the same as being guilty of benefit fraud. Being fit to work is a subjective judgement, based on what the government (and society) of the day thinks is acceptable. Hundreds of years ago, it was necessary and expected that people worked with significant physical impairments and in the last throes of terminal illness. These people were all deemed “fit to work”. Then society moved on and we thought it was unacceptable that very ill people should work, and gave them support so they didn’t have to. And we have been arguing over how ill someone needs to be before they are given that support every since.
The current Government is reassessing incapacity benefit claimants according to a new, tougher test. They have, in short, moved the goalposts and created a less generous definition of “fit to work”. This means lots of people who have been on sickness benefits for years are now subjectively judged to be fit to work according to this new definition. They have not been claiming fraudulently for all that time.
So when we hear that hundreds of thousands of people are people claiming benefits but are actually fit to work, this isn’t telling us anything about the level of fraud – of people wilfully mis-claiming – in the system. It just tells us about Government opinion.
We have to question whether the Government allows this popular misconception to continue in order to generate support for its welfare reform agenda.