The fakery and failure behind the DWP’s new ‘health’ scheme


It seems that the Department for Work and Pensions is sticking to the ‘Adolf Hitler’ model of public relations: If you tell a big lie and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The press release announcing the new ‘Health and Work Service’ is riddled with long-debunked old lies – and one new statement that deserves our scrutiny.

This is the press release used by the BBC in its article on Saturday, telling us that the new, privately-run service is needed to combat the high cost of long-term absence from work.

It seems to be the DWP’s new practice to pass announcements to – let’s call them “trusted” – media outlets before putting them up on the government’s own press website, as a kind of test-run, allowing any credibility problems to be fixed before the government commits itself in an official way.

That’s why the announcement appeared on the government website yesterday (Monday) – two days after the BBC broke the story. Now – in just half the time it took to appear – let’s look at why it’s a load of rubbish.

“As many as 960,000 employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between October 2010 and September 2013, the government has revealed,” the document begins.

Oh really? The DWP reached this figure by applying the findings of a survey, showing the ratio of long-term absences to total days of sickness absence, to findings by the Labour Force Survey showing the total number of days of sickness absence in the UK. That’s 9,000 sick days and 70 absences, applied to an average of 120 million sick days per year. This is based on 2,019 interviews with employees. There’s just one problem.

At the time covered by these surveys, there were around 4.9 million private sector employers.

Considering the huge size difference between the sample surveyed and the body it represents, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the figure is accurate. If it is right, it would be by luck; it’s probably wrong. The figure might as well have been made up – and you should treat it as though it was.

“The government has already taken big steps in getting people on long-term sick benefits back into work as part of the government’s long-term economic plan, with almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010-” Let’s stop there and examine the information content of this sentence so far.

The “government’s long-term economic plan” is a phrase that is being shoe-horned into every press release possible and means nothing. There never was a “long-term economic plan”, and there isn’t one now. Have you seen it? Of course not – it doesn’t exist. This is just a comforting nonsense inserted to lull people into false security that somebody knows what they are doing; I suspect the newly-privatised “nudge” unit may have had something to do with this.

As for “almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010”, check out this interview with Iain Duncan Smith, published in the Telegraph & Argus in 2010. He said: “I intend to move 1.5 million off incapacity benefit by 2014.”

It’s now 2014. We don’t have up-to-the-minute figures but on November 13 last year, the DWP press office helpfully tweeted us its then-current figure for people moving off incapacity benefits in a handy chart: 156,000.


That is a long way from a quarter of a million, and only around one-tenth of the Secretary-in-a-State’s 2010 target.

“- and almost a million who put in a claim actually have been found fit for work.” This is a bare-faced lie. It relates to a statement that 980,400 people were judged capable of work between 2008 and March 2013, but there are two problems with this. Firstly, it does not take into account the number of successful appeals against the ‘fit for work’ judgement (125,700); when adjusted to account for these, the total drops to 854,700. Secondly, this refers to the cumulative number of ‘fit for work’ outcomes of initial functional assessments since October 2008, and it seems likely that many people will have made repeat claims after being knocked off-benefit by an adverse decision. We do not know how many people have done this. Therefore the figure is meaningless.

So far, the DWP has told us that working people get sick (no surprises there), that it has failed to reach its target for clearing people off incapacity benefit and that its work capability assessment system is failing to push as many off-benefit as it should, because it is riddled with errors.

How does this connect with the creation of a new ‘Health and Work Service’, dedicated to ensuring that people who spend more than four weeks at a time off work with an illness get back into their job with a minimum of difficulty?

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

This is a scheme to ensure that people are discouraged from claiming incapacity benefits; the idea is that a drop in new claims, coupled with the number of uncontested ‘fit for work’ decisions, might lead to a larger drop in the number of active claims – which means the amount of money being paid out in benefits would also drop.

Inclusion of the word ‘health’ in the title of the new service is misleading, as it seems unlikely that consideration of an employee’s physical condition will have anything to do with the aim of the exercise.

Look at what the release has to say: “The Health and Work Service will offer a work-focused occupational health assessment and case management to employees in the early stages of sickness absence.”

It continues: “The work-focused occupational health assessment will identify the issues preventing an employee from returning to work and draw up a plan for them, their employer and GP, recommending how the employee can be helped back to work more quickly.”

Health doesn’t get a look-in.

No, what we’re most probably seeing is an expansion of the “biopsychosocial” method employed in work capability assessments, in an attempt to convince sick people that their illnesses are all in their minds. Don’t expect this approach to be used for people with broken limbs or easily-medicated diseases; this is for the new kinds of ‘subjective illness’, for which medical science has not been prepared – ‘chronic pain’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, fibromyalgia and the like.

People with these conditions will probably be sent back to work – with speed. Their conditions may worsen, their lives may become an unending hell of pain and threats – I write from experience, as Mrs Mike spent around two years trying to soldier on in her job before finally giving up and claiming her own incapacity benefits – but that won’t matter to the DWP as long as they’re not claiming benefits.

That is what we can all expect from the new ‘service’.

It will be a fake, necessitated by failure.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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27 thoughts on “The fakery and failure behind the DWP’s new ‘health’ scheme

  1. Sam Barnett-Cormack

    It’s unintuitive, but population size is not actually relevant (statistically) to the accuracy of results achieved by a certain sample size. A sample size of 2000 has the same accuracy of results, the same confidence interval, whether it’s for a population of 50000 or 5000000.

    Just sayin’. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of *other* problems with the Government’s working.

    1. Mike Sivier

      The DWP does say that the survey was of a representative sample – but look out, because Jonathan Wilson is about to make a comment that’s relevant to this question.

  2. Jonathan Wilson

    Why would the DWp need to base its figures on a survey?

    Surely these figures can be calculated extremely accurately using the SSP start/end dates, although obviously this doesn’t take into account “company sick policy” out side or extended above the standard SSP rules (ie the company pays a number of days out of its own pocket before reverting to SSP).

    Seriously all they need to do is issue the following “SQL pseudo code”

    Select count(*) from SSPTransations.where sum(dateto – datefrom as weeks) >= 4 and transationdate=range(01042012 31032013)

    F88k knows what the DWP do… but IT is obviously not their strong point and neither is their ability to tell a statistical truth.

    Now I realise this is overly simplistic, but a survey can produce any required result by carefully selecting its targets… eg. by choosing companies that are predominantly low pay – high risk – hard graft the figures for long term sick are more likely to be a higher statistical norm than say choosing free loading MP’s with “directorships” that don’t actually require turning up, or are a few hours a month, and are just a name…. bit like IDS “I saw nothing, its all on schedule and in budget” when his departments IT was going down the pan faster than the Titanic, seriously the guy probably never even talked to anyone in the department, so what were we paying for, in any other “business” he would be fired and prosecuted for fraud.

    1. Sam Barnett-Cormack

      You need the survey and interviews in order to capture data that isn’t in the SSP data. I don’t think the SSP data records a lot of things they’ve used in the stats behind all of this. Now, it might not be needed for the headline figures, but it would be inconsistent to sometimes use one set of data and sometimes another, and to avoid another lecture from the stats head they would have to cover it with explanations of what came from where.

      As long as you have the whole-population data needed to sample properly, sampling is a very valid way of doing things.

      1. Mike Sivier

        Mm… They applied the findings of a tiny (in comparison) survey to whole-population data and tried to tell us the result was reliable – and I’m not convinced.

  3. Shaun A J Stockdale

    “government’s long-term economic plan”

    Have you not seen this is as a part of the pre-election sh*t* spin, add in the words labour crashed into a wall, and our long-term economic plan has helped us reverse out of the wall so do you trust giving the steering wheel back to them and risk further catastrophe… Deficit paid in 4 years to long-term economic plan, people have short term memories and will buy this rubbish

    1. Mike Sivier

      The fact that this is pre-election spin is exactly what I was pointing out.
      I do worry that people have short memories and will accept the spin – they all seem to want an easy life, little realising that doing nothing will make it harder for them to survive in the long run.

  4. Barry Davies

    Well the Government has actually had a 100% success rate in getting people off Incapacity benefit, because it doesn’t exist anymore the transition to ESA where people had a maximum of 3 years according to camoron but in fact it turned out to be 12 months maximum on the work related group where just about everybody was placed by ATOS. Basically the government have taken people off benefits, but as they can’t claim jobseekers allowance if they are not available for work they are not now working which is what the government claims.

    1. Mike Sivier

      “Incapacity benefit” in this situation refers to IB or its replacement, ESA. The fact that the phrase refers to both the title of a particular benefit and also a group of benefits in general means the government can be annoyingly confusing about this.

  5. Graham Hughes

    I am someone who has ‘moved off’ DLA. Not because I have got better or ‘moved into work’ but because my form to submit a new claim at the end of my previous, time-limited for two years, award came just as I, the CAB, a mental health advocacy service and, finally, my MP had reached the end of the 18 month battle with ATOS, the DWP and the Tribunal Service to get my ESA restored after the WCA gave me 0 points again. By the end I was so worn down by it all that I could not even acknowledge the emails from those who were helping me much less start a new claim for DLA so I had to let it go. I guess I count as a success with IDS.

  6. joe kane

    Excellent stuff Mike.

    Most people should be familiar with the iatrogenic quackology known as biopsychosocial (BPS) medicine by now given the deaths of tens of thousands of deaths of patients it is responsible for and the harms suffered by hundreds of thousands more, all at the hands of GMC registered doctors working for DWP-Atos.

    Isn’t it incredible that after all the years of ESA regime, and the vast accumulated evidence of criminal fraud and iatrogenic medical harm, that the British medical professional permits BPS medicine not just to continue but to be expanded and a new numerically significant group of patients to be subjected to this lethal pseudo-scientific harmful gibberish?

    It never ceases to amaze me the pre-occupation that exists with the scientific basis of such treatments as homoeopathy in the like of the Guardian newspaper’s science and medical sections for instance. Whatever else can be said about homoeopathy, it is relatively benign and harms no one. Yet you’ll search in vain for any criticism of the unethical and unscientific BPS medicine in its pages in spite of the undoubted nonsense it rests on (mostly just right-wing prejudices) and the undoubted medical harms it causes and the thousands of deaths it is responsible for. If homoeopathy caused the same carnage amongst patients as BPS, its practitioners would be in jail. Instead leading BPS Whitehall medical mandarins inevitably receive knighthoods in recognition for their services to neoliberal disability denial ideology.

    The Whitehall medical mandarin behind this biopsychosocial medicine-based “Atos for workers” service is Dame Carol Black who likened disabled people on welfare benefits to a plague of cholera at a talk she gave as part of symposium on “worklessness at Glasgow University in September 2011. See slide 6 “Turning the tap off” –
    Health, work and well-being – a progress report
    Dame Carol Black
    National Director for Health and Work

  7. foodbankhelper

    Very useful indeed. So glad someone is looking properly at the stuff that’s coming out of the DWP that’s sadly not being questioned by the ‘traditional’ media outlets. Thanks for taking the time to look at this crucial issue. Have just bought your book and am looking forward to reading it.

    1. Mike Sivier

      Thank you very much for the support – both financial and motivational.
      This kind of article doesn’t usually earn me many hits but I do them because I think the facts need to be teased out. I’m glad they’re making an impression on someone.

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