Recent Statements on disability benefits and out-of-work statistics


The welfare system is incredibly complex and understanding the available statistics and how to use them can be challenging. With the introduction of Universal Credit and the devolution of some benefits in Scotland taking place, the welfare landscape is continuously evolving so this adds to the complexity of making comparisons over time.

Our role is to ensure that statistics are used appropriately in public debate and accurately represent the evidence so that the public are well informed on such issues. Here, we set out and evaluate some claims recently made using disability benefit and out-of-work statistics. Our aim is to help users be better informed and more aware of what to watch out for when these topic areas are discussed.

Claim 1: Are three times as many people signed off compared to a decade ago?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) published outcome to its Work Capability Assessment: activities and descriptors consultation found that the proportion of people with Limited Capability for Work and Work-related Activity (LCWRA) outcomes at WCA has risen since 2010. Individuals in these groups have no requirement to look or prepare for work, which may be interpreted as these individuals being ‘signed-off’.

While this may appear to support the claim that more people are signed off than a decade ago, the comparison does not reflect the complexities of the data or take account of any changes to the benefit system or the criteria for allocating to this group. The data that this claim is based on counts the number of people allocated to the LCWRA/ESA Support Group each year and compares 2011 data with 2022 data. In 2011 the benefits system was going through a transition from Incapacity Benefit to ESA. Claimants of incapacity benefit were not required to go through a WCA but when an individual transitioned to ESA, they did. This means you would expect a rise in WCAs during the transition period from 2008 to 2014 to transition claimants onto ESA.

The data do not take into account changes to the level of WCA repeat assessments over time. DWP told us that WCA reassessments did not take place regularly for all and were not at a significant level at all points during this period. Instead, reassessments were prioritised for those most likely to change award, some of whom will have moved from the LCW to the LCWRA group as their condition had worsened. While the impact this has on understanding changes over time is expected to be small, it is important that users understand data limitations such as this.

In 2017 DWP announced that those in the LCWRA group with severe, lifelong health conditions who are unlikely to ever be able to return to work would no longer be reassessed. This change would reduce the number of re-assessments carried out and potentially impact users’ ability to make comparisons over time. Due to other changes over the last decade, it is unclear how many individuals may have been allocated to the LCWRA group under other criteria.

Despite these changes, statisticians in the DWP advise that  the comparison presented in its consultation document (paragraph 5) is reasonable as the most recent significant change to the welfare system, the introduction of Universal Credit, does not need to be accounted for in the comparison as the WCA outcome is referenced not the system within which it operates.

Our view:

The accuracy of comparisons over the last ten years is complicated by changes to the welfare system over time. The numbers in DWP’s consultation document are accurate when looking at the number of people allocated to the LCWRA/ESA Support Group in 2011 and 2022 based on the welfare systems in place at each of those points in time. We would expect statements to clearly define which groups they are comparing when using the term signed off, note any significant changes over time, and to provide a source for any comparisons being made.

Claim 2: Are 94% of people who report feeling ‘down and bluesy’ to their doctor signed off as not fit to work?

The data on fit notes available from NHS England’s statistics on Fit Notes Issued by GP Practices shows that 94% of people who receive a fit note from their GP are deemed not fit for work. However, this does not mean that 94% of people who go to the GP saying they feel ‘rather down and bluesy’ receive a fit note stating they are not fit for work.

The reasons for granting fit notes are varied. While there are no statistics specifically on those who report feeling down and bluesy, nor those struggling with poor mental health, the NHS England’s statistics between October 2022 and September 2023 show that 37% of fit notes with a valid diagnosis recorded were issued for closest available category of ‘mental and behavioral disorders.’

There are also a number of data quality issues with fit note data that makes reaching conclusions based on it difficult. For example, approximately 74% of fit notes issued between October 2022 and September 2023 do not have a diagnosis recorded in the data so we can’t tell why they were issued. The guide published alongside this data notes that only electronic fit notes are included within the data, and that the following will not be included:

  • hand-written fit notes provided by healthcare professionals
  • medical certificates provided by private doctors
  • fit notes provided by hospital/secondary care
  • fit notes for patients who objected to having their data extracted
  • diagnoses which are recorded in free text on the fit note.

There is also no data available on occasions when patients may request a fit note and are not issued with one.

Our view:

The reasons for granting fit notes are varied but this does not mean that 94% of people who go to the GP saying they feel ‘rather down and bluesy’ receive a fit note stating they are not fit for work.

Claim 3: Personal Independence Payment (PIP) “is thousands of pounds a month”.

As covered by Full Fact, claims of these sorts conflate months with year. From the DWP website on how much PIP you can get, the maximum is £184.30 a week which works out as an average of just under £800 a month. An individual on the higher weekly rate of both the daily living and mobility parts would receive around £9,500 a year in PIP.

Our view:

Those who receive PIP do not receive thousands of pounds a month.