New analysis of official figures appears to show – despite ministers repeatedly suggesting otherwise – that the proportion of disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits has remained roughly stable over the last 15 years.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been working for the last month* to examine government statements that suggest people with long-term health conditions and other disabled people have become far more likely to claim out-of-work disability benefits in recent years.
DNS has used Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data, and its calculations have been checked by two leading academics, Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger and Professor Sally McManus.
Both confirm that – despite significant limitations, or caveats, with the ONS data and the DNS conclusions – the figures appear to show that the proportion of working-age disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits has remained stable over the last decade.
DNS used two separate sets of ONS data to estimate the numbers of working-age disabled people, one from its UK-wide Labour Force Survey and the other from the England and Wales Census**.
Both sets of figures – using the Labour Force Survey data and the Census results – suggest that the proportion of working-age disabled people claiming benefits such as incapacity benefit, employment and support allowance and the disability-related components of universal credit, has fluctuated slightly but has remained fairly stable.
DNS is stressing that these conclusions need further examination, but the figures strongly suggest that there has been no significant increase in the proportion of disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits since 2010.
If this conclusion is correct, it should have an important influence on policy, as it suggests that political parties should focus more on improving the health of the population than on making it ever harder for disabled people to claim benefits.
Last September, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride suggested that increasing numbers of disabled people claiming out-of-work disability benefits were “holding back the labour market and the economy”, while he announced measures to tighten the work capability assessment.
The following month, prime minister Rishi Sunak told his party’s annual conference in Manchester that supporting so many disabled people on out-of-work benefits was “not good for our economy” and “not fair on taxpayers who have to pick up the bill”, and he called it a “national scandal”.
A briefing to journalists earlier in the week of comments that would be made by chancellor Jeremy Hunt had led to a spate of stories in right-wing newspapers, claiming that Hunt would “declare war on 100,000 work-shy benefit claimants” and would “turn the screw” on people who refused to work.
In November, Stride suggested that some people on out-of-work disability benefits were “taking taxpayers for a ride”.
The figures produced by DNS using the census figures and DWP data show that, although the number of people in Britain receiving out-of-work disability benefits rose from about 2.4 million in 2010-11 to about 2.8 million in 2020-21, the number of working-age people describing themselves as disabled (in England and Wales) also rose significantly in that period.
The DNS analysis shows that the proportion of working-age disabled people on those benefits actually fell from 50.7 per cent to 48.1 per cent over the decade.
Using the Labour Force Survey (LFS) figures, both the number of disabled people and the number of them on those benefits continued to rise substantially from 2010 until 2023.
The most dependable LFS figures are likely to be those from 2013 to 2023, although again there were changes in how they were calculated which mean it is difficult to draw firm conclusions.
But they appear to show an increase in the number of UK working-age disabled adults from about 6.6 million in 2013 to about 9.6 million in 2023, while the number on out-of-work disability benefits in that period increased from about 2.3 million to about 3.4 million.
During this time, the proportion of disabled people on those benefits fluctuated between 32 per cent and just over 35 per cent, while it was 35.10 per cent in 2013 and very slightly lower than that (35.06 per cent) in 2023.
Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger, co-lead on the work, welfare reform and mental health programme for the ESRC Centre for Society and Mental Health at King’s College London, said the DNS figures were “newsworthy” and he concluded that “your point broadly holds”, despite several caveats.
He believes the rising number of people identifying as disabled could reflect changes in the benefits system.
But he added: “More and more people are saying that they have a limiting health condition/disability.
“Until we get to the bottom of why this is happening, our claims about the benefits system might be nonsense – and they might lead to wrong-headed or even actively harmful policies.”
Professor Sally McManus, director of the Violence and Society Centre at City, University of London, said separate figures from the Health Survey for England – unrelated to employment or social security claims but covering the whole population – also show the proportion of people reporting bad or very bad health increased between 2011 and 2019 (especially in women), while the proportion reporting a limiting longstanding condition also increased.
She also pointed to the findings of Sir Michael Marmot, who showed four years ago that after a century of increases in health and life expectancy, these rises stalled from about 2011, while life expectancy for the first time went down among women in low-income neighbourhoods.
She said these other sources suggested that the DNS findings “of an increase in the proportion of people in the population who need disability support appears consistent with an impact of austerity measures on population health”.
She said the DNS figures suggest “a strong clear story” which appears consistent with other sources.
Despite asking to see the DNS figures, and how they were calculated, DWP has refused to comment on them, or to say if ministers now accept that the proportion of disabled people claiming out-of-work disability benefits has remained fairly stable over the last 10 to 15 years.
But it did not suggest that DNS had made any errors in its calculations.
Instead, a DWP spokesperson said in a statement: “We know one in five of those on the highest tier of health benefits want to work with the right support.
“That is why we are taking long-term decisions on welfare reform to help everyone who can work to access the health and financial benefits it provides.
“These include our £2.5 billion Back to Work Plan, which will help over a million people, including those with disabilities and long-term health conditions, to break down barriers to work.”
*Contact DNS if you would like to see the calculations
**The Labour Force Survey provides annual figures, while the census only takes place every 10 years, including in 2011 and 2021, although the census figures do not rely on comparatively small samples of the population, as the survey does
Picture: Rishi Sunak (left) and Mel Stride
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