Trends in out-of-work benefit claimants in Britain

As long-term readers will know, I’m intrigued by people’s beliefs about the benefit system, and their truthfulness or falsity of these beliefs. Later in the summer, I’ll talk about a new aspect of this: people’s perceptions of how many out-of-work benefit claimants exist, and whether they think this has risen or fallen. In preparing for this, though, we need to look at actually how many out-of-work benefit claimants there are – which is what I describe in this short (and unusually commentary-free) post.

Before beginning, it’s worth noting that the phrase ‘out-of-work benefits’ seems to be a relatively new one. At least at the moment I think it’s a relatively clear and non-perjorative phrase – it’s a far cry from the Express’ systematic policy of referring to ‘handouts’ rather than benefits – but if you disagree, then let me know in the comments.

Anyway, returning to the data, I’ve assembled the picture from the following sources:

  • The regular Labour Market Statistics briefings by ONS include a table – labelled BEN01 – that has recent trends in out-of-work benefit claims. ‘Out-of-work benefits’ includes unemployment benefits (JSA), incapacity benefits (ESA/IB/SDA), single parents (IS), and a small number of other claimants (on IS or PC).  As well as telling us the total number of claimants, it also expresses this as a share of the 16-64 population. I’m using the April 2015 release, which goes up to August 2014.
  • To get figure for before 1999 though, we need to use another source – nomis. (Nomis is without doubt the most useful website for official statistics that I know!). This includes figures from a 5% sample of all benefit claimants, with figures going back to 1995. ‘Out-of-work benefits’ is here defined in the same way as the previous point, by looking at combinations of benefits and excluding those claiming solely DLA. The figures differ slightly between the two sources for 1999, so I’ve made the trend unbroken by attaching the nomis 1995-1999 trend to the ONS 1999 data.
  • These figures conventionally exclude claimants of Carer’s Allowance (CA). CA is not strictly an out-of-work benefit, but in practice it is – partly because it is only available to those caring 35hrs/wk, but predominantly because it further has a low allowable earnings limit (see Berthoud 2010). [ADDED 23rd June: The DWP say that CA claims are excluded from out-of-work benefit counts as’the Department does not pursue active labour market policies for this group’ – but this doesn’t seem like a strong argument to me]. I’m using the figures from the Budget 2015 (Table 1c). This includes the number of CA claims in payment, so it excludes people who are caring but are also claiming another out-of-work benefit (or at least, it excludes most of them).

[ADDED 23rd JUNE: I should note that I can’t find any data on the overlap of Carer’s Allowance claims with other benefit claims – which seems slightly crazy to me.  However, the DWP say that the number of claims of IS alongside CA has been constant at around 85k/pa – which suggests that most CA claims do NOT include one of the other out-of-work benefits here. This is further supported by discussions of the fiendishly complex ‘overlapping benefits’ rule, which has been helpfully explained by the House of Commons library for pensions, alongside their wider briefing].

Out-of-work benefit claims in Britain

To play the ‘perils of perception’ game, now stop and ask yourself: ‘out of every 100 working-age people, how many are claiming out-of-work benefits? And is this more or less than the numbers claiming fifteen years ago?’

No cheating!

The actual figures, putting the sources above together, look like this:

out-of-work bens trend

That is, 10% of the working-age population are currently (August 2014) claiming out-of-work benefits – or if we include Carer’s Allowance, this rises to nearly 12%.

On either measure, though, this is fewer than the proportion who used to claim. Under Labour 1997-2010, claims (inc. CA) fell from 15.8% to 13.7% of the working-age population, despite the recession. Under the Coalition 2010-2014, claims fell further from 13.7% to 11.8%.  If we think back over fifteen-years, then claims have fallen by 2.5 percent of the population, and have fallen by as much as 6.5% percent of the working-age population since 1995 (our slightly arbitrary starting point for this series). To see the exact figures for each year, you can download them here.

(If you’ve read this far, you may also be interested in Paul Gregg’s longer-term trend series, which are fascinating but a bit trickier to create for yourself, or indeed to know exactly how they’ve pieced it together… The latest version of this is on p17 of his 2015 Resolution Foundation piece with Adam Corlett, and shows that the 1995 level is unusually higher over a longer perspective. I’ll try and interrogate this a bit more in a future post, as there’s some inconsistencies between data sources in the level of incapacity claims in the 1970s and early 1980s).

In terms of whether people perceive this correctly or not – well, that’s something we’ll come back to on the blog in July…


7 responses to “Trends in out-of-work benefit claimants in Britain”

  1. * In 2015-6, spending on benefits, pensions and tax credits is expected to total £220bn * *State pensions and age-related benefits*, such as winter fuel allowance and free TV licences, will account for £95bn * *Child tax credits and working tax credits *- £30bn * *Housing benefit -* £26bn * *Disability and incapacity benefits* – £37bn * *Child benefit* – £12bn * *Pension credit* – £6bn * *Jobseekers Allowance and income support -* £5bn

    Source: Institute for Fiscal Studies

    Kind regards

    Geoffrey & Azma Ahmad-Pearce 0044 (0)1582 965293

    • Yes, this is exactly the sort of thing that I look at too! I’ll write more about this over the summer, after reviewing all of the available data on people’s perceptions.

    • A really interesting point, thanks Steve! I’ve just looked at the link you sent, and the trends are indeed very similar (correlated r=0.95, and separated by 4-5 percentage points every year 1996-2014).

      There’s a further interesting point here about the extent to which benefits are increasingly being targeted on people who have no other ways of supporting themselves (i.e. an increase in means-testing in the benefits system) – but that’s for a separate project…

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