The unemployment statistics show a rise of 80,000 in the months leading up to July this year, meaning a total of 2.51 million people are officially unemployed in the country. That is 7.9 percent, with dramatically bigger rises in London and the North East. But do people know what the statistics actually mean? And how about those workshy ESA claimants, swinging the lead and pretending to be ill, that we heard so much about recently in some papers?
Employment and Support Allowance is the controversial replacement for Incapacity benefit, brought in by the Labour government in 2008 for new claimants, and gradually extended to all Incapacity Benefit claimants. After the first 13 weeks of the claim, the claimant is reassessed, usually involving a medical administered by an employee of ATOS, a private company that has won the government contract but is dogged by accusations of corruption and lack of care. The claimant is then put in one of three categories – fit for work (at which point they must find a job or migrate to jobseekers allowance), work related activity group (or WRA) and support group. Only 7% of claims are awarded support group status – ie judged completely incapable of work. This is an issue for another post, but all of these claimants started off with a sicknote from their own GP, yet an unfamiliar doctor or nurse has deemed the GPs opinion invalid. 36% of claims are abandoned before the 13 week point, mostly due to recovery from a short term illness, and 39% are judged fit for work. There is a high level of successful appeals to these decisions, but for now, let’s take the word of ATOS.
17% of ESA claimants are placed in the WRA group. This amounts to over 400,000 people who are judged to be fit for work if appropriate adjustments are made or in the near future. These people are required to attend work focused interviews where they will discuss how they will get back into work, and can have their benefits docked if they fail to attend. These are the people who were described as “workshy scroungers” in certain papers when the latest set of ESA claimant data was released. Yet they are not included in the latest unemployment statistics.
“Unemployed” people are jobless, have been actively seeking work in the past four weeks and are available to start work in the next two weeks; or they are out of work, have found a job, and are waiting to start it in the next two weeks. As ESA claimants in the work related activity group are not required to actively seek work, only prepare to seek work, they are not counted. Yet they are legally required to prepare for work. So, which are they? Are they incapable of work, and so not included in unemployment statistics, just the“economically inactive” group (more on which later), or are they able to prepare for work, as they are legally required to do? This may sound like a dry statistical question, but those 400,000 people in the WRA group are facing uncertainty about their lives – the status is causing confusion and anger amongst some of the most vulnerable sectors of society.
Economically inactive group is, by the most up to date statistics, 23% of the population. These are people who are without paid work, but are not classed as unemployed. They may be sick or disabled, carers or not seeking work for some other reason. This does not mean that they don’t wish to work, only that they are not counted as seeking work. They may in fact be looking for a job, but unable to start in the next two weeks due to other responsibilities. They may wish to work, but are prevented by disability or high costs of childcare. Or they may be stay at home parents or carers. Of course, some will be rich kids living off trust finds, but somehow I doubt that counts for 23% of the population.
Another group to consider is those who are in part time work, but are looking for full time work. This figure increased by 70,000 in three months to reach 1.28 million, the highest figure since comparable records began in 1992. Here are more people who are looking for work, but unable to find it, and are not included on the unemployment statistics. Workers on low wages are still entitled to many income related benefits, and can even sometimes receive more in welfare benefits than someone out of work. Many part time jobs are unreliable and low paid, yet the workers are not counted in the unemployment statistics. In many ways, these can be the most exposed to the twists and turns of the economy, as they face placing new or changed claims if they lose the jobs they do have, but are without the small security that having an established claim can provide. They find themselves without enough work, but not “unemployed enough” to become a target for the limited amount of work finding schemes that are available.
The unemployment statistics may be awful, but they hide an even more shocking truth. There are simply not enough jobs in this country, and the statistics show more than we are being led to believe.