Government given dressing-down over ‘fitness to work’ figures


The government has been told by the UK’s official statistics watchdog to improve the way it publishes information about its controversial “fitness to work” assessments.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has come under sustained attack from campaigners and some MPs for fuelling disablist coverage of its incapacity benefit reforms in the media.

Last month, disabled activists criticised newspapers and the government over the “appalling” coverage of new statistics on claimants of out-of-work disability benefits.

Even though the figures showed the proportion of claimants found fit for work – and so ineligible for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – was falling sharply, the Daily Express headlined its report with the words: “Sick benefits: 75 per cent are faking.”

The Daily Mail headlined its story: “Time’s up for the shirking classes: Just one in 14 incapacity claimants is unfit to work under new, tougher tests.”

The figures actually showed that, by February this year, nearly half of those who completed a work capability assessment (WCA) – which tests eligibility for ESA – were found to be entitled to claim the benefit.

Critics believe the government’s presentation of these and earlier figures has encouraged some tabloids to run stories that accuse disabled people of being “scroungers” and “shirkers”.

Now, in a letter to Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP and chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, which has questioned the way the government is presenting the figures, the head of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA) has backed its concerns.

Sir Michael Scholar, the UKSA’s chair, said the regulator had reviewed a DWP statistical release on WCA figures and concluded that it “could be improved in a number of respects” and was “not as clear as it could be”.

He makes it clear in his letter that the release could easily lead non-experts to believe that the number of people found eligible for ESA was lower than it actually was.

This is because the DWP failed to make it clear that those placed in the “work-related activity group” have been found eligible for ESA, while it also failed to point out that 40 per cent of those who appeal against their ESA claim being rejected are successful.

A copy of Sir Michael’s letter has been sent to employment minister Chris Grayling.

A DWP spokesman said: “We received the letter from the chair of the UK Statistics Authority and are working with them to make sure that… the stats are presented as clearly as possible in the future.”

Last month, Dame Anne wrote to Grayling to call on the government to take “more care” in the language it used and how it presented its WCA statistics.

She also asked him to pressure newspaper editors to ensure their reports were “factually correct” and that they avoided terms such as “shirkers” and “scroungers”.

18 August 2011