Work capability tests: Media sparks horror with stories of ‘fakers’ and ‘shirkers’

Activists have attacked newspapers and the government over “appalling” coverage of the release of new statistics on claimants of out-of-work disability benefits.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released figures this week showing the number of disabled people found “fit for work” after being tested by the controversial work capability assessment (WCA).

The figures actually show that the proportion of claimants found fit for work – and so ineligible for the new employment and support allowance (ESA) – is falling sharply.

But 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.”

In the wake of the media coverage, Dame Anne Begg MP, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, wrote to employment minister Chris Grayling.

Her committee published a report this week that criticised media coverage of the assessment process as often “irresponsible and inaccurate”, while calling on the government to take “more care” in the language it uses and how it presents its WCA statistics.

She called on Grayling in her letter to contact newspaper editors “to ensure that the reports they carry about ESA claims are factually correct and that they avoid pejorative terms such as ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ which are irresponsible and inaccurate”.

She told Disability News Service she was “really angry” with this week’s coverage of the government statistics.

Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said the latest stories were “appalling” and “almost beyond belief” and were “potentially creating hostility and hate crime” against disabled people.

Geoff Adams-Spink, a disabled journalist, disability equality consultant and director of Adams-Spink Ltd, said this week’s stories completely undermined the government’s claim that it was not responsible for the “anti-disability media coverage”.

He said the stories were clearly a result of DWP briefings “designed to create a hostile climate towards people who have support needs”.

The stories are just the latest to attract the anger of disabled people over the last year. In April, disabled activists demonstrated outside the Mail’s London offices to protest about the newspaper’s “disablist” and “defamatory” coverage of incapacity benefit reform.

This week’s Express story confuses new ESA claimants with those already claiming old-style incapacity benefit, who will be reassessed over the next three years and will be far less likely than new claimants to be found fit for work.

The Express also fails to mention that the WCA has been heavily criticised for being flawed, inflexible and unfair, with many people with significant support needs denied the benefit; and that 40 per cent of appeals against being turned down for ESA are successful, with up to 96 per cent successful when they have expert representation at their appeals.

The Mail headline and story suggest that successful ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) – for those disabled people who will need support to return to work – are “workshy” and “shirking”.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said it was aware of complaints about the Mail and Express stories, but declined to comment further.

This week’s media stories, and the government’s press release, fail to mention that the number of people being found “fit for work” actually fell dramatically between August 2010 and February 2011.

In August, 63 per cent of claimants who completed the WCA were found fit for work, with nine per cent placed in the support group (for those whose impairment prevents them working) and 27 per cent in the WRAG.

But by February this year, just 55 per cent were being found fit for work, with 12 per cent in the support group and 32 per cent in the WRAG.

A DWP spokeswoman claimed that “seasonality” could be affecting the figures, while claimants assessed as fit for work often take longer to process, so “fit for work proportions are most likely to increase as the later results come through”.

She said: “It is possible that there is a trend emerging, although it is still too early to say whether there is a change in the underlying data, or a result of the limitations in the data described above.”

When it was pointed out that the decline in numbers of those found fit for work appears to date back to last autumn, she declined to comment further.

Both the Express and the Mail declined to comment.

The DWP has yet to respond to Dame Anne’s letter to Grayling.

News provided by John Pring at


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