Monday, 17 December 2012

My Face In The Mirror

Key Summary:
  • This is about the '32 WRAG deaths per week'
  • WRAG does not mean 'fit for work'
  • Overall WRAG figures not comparable to deaths
  • Deaths happened over a period
  • Period only covers January-August 2011
  • Total deaths currently unknown 
  • The in-flow onto WRAG is what matters
  • Compare WRAG in-flow with deaths over same period
  • You are eight times more likely to die if you are in the WRAG
  • Even though WRAG claimants told they will work in future 

This is something I should have blogged about back in April. I'm doing it now because there has been some recent tremors among welfare campaigners(a disturbance in the Unified Spoon Field possibly) in regards to the impacts and efficacy of the Work Capability Assessment in relation to deaths that follow the assessment. Unfortunately some factoids and myths have built up which could have been stopped before they were started. Some of them are the result of reasonable assumptions made because of information that turns out to be wrong, others because of well-intentioned but desperate embellishment(people ARE actually fearing for their lives after all and the government's response is to accuse the fearful of fear-mongering) and then there are just the talking points thrown out by supporters of the government which they don't care whether they are true or not.

It all began with a FOI request made by journalists at the Mirror and the response they received. They wanted to know how many ESA claimants had died after being assessed and found fit for work. But the DWP does not count this- it doesn't track people found fit for work at all. What the DWP did give them were figures for how many who were put in the Support Group and Work-Related Activity Group had died. The DWP collects that information because they track on-flows and off-flows, as well as the reasons for why someone claims they also record the reason for a claim ceasing including when a claimant dies.

The Mirror article states that between January and August 2011 there were 1,100 claimants in the WRAG who died and 5,300 in the SG who died. The Mirror states that they do not know how many died after being found fit for work. 1,600 died before an assessment. Well that seems clear, but the problem is the headline: "32 die a week after failing test for new incapacity benefit".

The number is arrived at by dividing the total number of WRAG off-flows due to death by the number of weeks in the period covered. Roughly; the Mirror seems to have just calculated it as 1000(cases) / 30(weeks) = 33.333

However, the bit that misleads is to say that the WRAG have 'failed' the test. They haven't- even though the current government are trying to change the meaning and purpose of the WRAG yet again, it is for people who are not able to work- it's just that they might be able to in future. A few days later, Sonia Poulton wrote in her blog at the Mail that this was people found 'fit for work' who had died following an assessment. FullFact covered it here. What gave Sonia Poulton(and the sub-editor who write the Mirror headline) that idea though? Well, because in their briefings to the press the government have inter-changeably used both those who leave ESA before assessment and the WRAG to exaggerate the proportions who are judged to be not actually in need of the benefit. In fact Chris Grayling chose to headline one of his notorious press releases to include the phrase 'the vast majority found fit for work'. I get angry about the unwillingness of the media to fact-check, but even fact-checks require presumptions that some information is trustworthy. If ministers saturate a national debate with falsehoods, we're left relying unwittingly on invisible underhand falsehoods to argue against highly visible overt falsehoods.

The meat of the issue though- later this year the figures were updated and using the same calculation now shows about 73 people in the WRAG die each week. Being short on time and spoons, I'll not address this until I've had considerable time to mull over the source material. I will deal with it in the context of the original 32 per week and the claims that were made in response to the Mirror article.

The main claim- these people could have died anyway. How do we know it isn't in line with the national average? Some of the comments below the Mirror piece ask this and make their own(wrong) calculations. At the time I did the calculations they should have actually done and my finding was that those in the WRAG have a considerably greater risk of dying than the general working-age population. How people had been calculating it was to take the total that had died and compare them to the total of WRAG claimants. This is wrong because the number who had died was over a period, whilst the total is simply a snapshot at one point in time. If you want to be accurate about calculating mortality you compare the mortality rate to the in-flow rate.

In the run-up to ESA being introduced, the media machine that allowed the Labour government to do what ever they wanted to social security(by falsely accusing them of being 'soft' on the issue, a most welcome slander) was in full-gear. They made very loud noises that someone on Incapacity Benefits for more than ten years was more likely to die than come off it and go back to work. This was back when ESA was being sold on the premise that IB was supposed to allow those who could to go back to work and clearly it wasn't working- which did completely ignore the large numbers of short-term claimants who did return to work. Long-term claimants though are permanently and severely disabled, so of course they are more likely to die than return to work. But now that the political environment demands it, the brilliant minds of press and policy have forgotten that- it conflicts with their current goals.

In the period of January to August 2011, people went onto the WRAG and people died whilst on the WRAG. These people were not found fit for work, but nor were they found to be eligible for the Support Group- the problem with them doing into the WRAG and then dying whilst on it is that they have been assessed as being able to work in the future. The extent to which this is happening highlights a problem with the accuracy of the process and the validity of ministerial claims that it is working and doesn't need any radical changes(let alone scrapping completely).

We can't compare the number of deaths with the total WRAG figure because we don't have the total death figures- just the ones for that period. There are problems with comparing deaths in that period with the in-take of that period, they won't track exactly, but it's the closest we can get.

I've looked at the ESA tables and for Jan-Aug 2011 the aggregate total joining the WRAG is 60,700. In that time 1,100 people died.

So is it a simple matter of comparing this to the national UK average mortality? No- that figure includes children and pensioners, who are not represented among ESA claimants and pensioners especially drag the mortality rate up. We need to look at the chances of dying when you are aged between 16 and 60/65. Do most working age people really have a 1.1 in 60.7 chance of dying in the next seven months like WRAG claimants do? Just to note before excluding pensioners though- I looked at the ONS table on this and as recently as 2010, the mortality rate for the UK population generally is 655 per 100,000 for men and 467 per 100,000 for women. That averages at 561 per 100,000. Just so you know, I went to a children's educational website just to refresh my memory on how to calculate mean averages- that says something about my current state. Anyway, for WRAG claimants that comes out as 1,532 in 100,000. I'll be back to correct my math later if it's wrong, but for now your chances of dying in the WRAG is approximately three times that of the general population.

Then you exclude pensioners and look only at working-age mortality...

The most accessible information to hand was a report from that indicates premature deaths have been falling in the general population. They look only at 25-59/64 but I don't think 16-24 year olds will change things much, so the figure that comes out of this is accurate. So, for working age people the mortality rate is 185 per 100,000.

If you are in the ESA WRAG, your chances of dying are more than eight times that of the general working-age population, even though you've been told you will be able to work in the future.

These aren't perfect figures, but if the ones that showed the truest picture were available- the government would never deliberately publish or publicise them.


  1. One thing needs to be noted: the figures used here apply only to new ESA claimants. They do not apply to IB-ESA migration cases, meaning that the mortality rate of ESA WRAG claimants could be higher or lower, but it is probably higher.

    It might be that the newer '73 deaths per week' figure counts the WRAG total and not just new ESA claims.

  2. Good luck for 2013, Arec, and many thanks for all your efforts over this past several years and in the future on behalf of the destitute and the disabled.