Are claims for incapacity out of control?

There’s been a lot of confusion about the stats issued for Incapacity Benefit, which was recently replaced by Employment and Support Allowance. The IB stats seem to show an increase of over a million people since the revision of the system in the mid -1990s. The Daily Mail reports that the figures trebled after 1979. That seems initially plausible, because we might expect incapacity to rise in line with unemployment, but it’s not actually true. In 1979, the principal benefits covering people now covered by ESA were Invalidity Benefit (contributory), Supplementary Benefit for people who were sick or disabled (means-tested) , Non-Contributory Invalidity Pension and Sickness Benefit. There were 1,463,000 claimants for those four benefits in 1979. There was a reduction in the early 80s when Statutory Sick Pay came in, and then a lesser increase when Severe Disablement Allowance replaced NCIP. The big increase for people with incapacities happened in the 1990s, and it mainly occurred in Income Support – the means-tested benefit – rather than in Incapacity Benefit. Incapacity Benefit figures may also have seemed to increase, but that was mainly because Sickness Benefit was taken into it in 1995, and Severe Disablement Allowance was rolled into IB for new claimants in 2001 – those inclusions probably account for 250,000 extra claimants.

The figures in contemporary reports have been retrospectively revised between 1997 and the present, in the apparent belief that people will find the numbers easier to understand that way. Unfortunately it’s led people to believe that claims have rocketed, when they haven’t. I’ve had to piece these figures together from different sources, which always raises questions about consistency, but subject to that, here are the counts in 000s of claimants for 1998, 2003 and 2008.

1998 2003 2008
Incapacity Benefit 1618 1586 1413
Severe Disablement Allowance 376 331 281
Income Support for sick and disabled people of working age 881 1100 1191
Total 2875 3017 2885

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