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Why disability benefit claims are surging in the UK

Illustration by Tracy Worrall

7 min read

Disability benefit claims have surged in the last two years, taking in multiple health conditions and all age groups. Is it the effect of the pandemic, the consequences of NHS waiting lists, or in response to rising living costs? Chaminda Jayanetti digs into the data. Illustration by Tracy Worrall

The numbers are stark. In 2019 the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) processed just under half a million new claims for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) disability benefit – both successful applications and rejected ones. The figure in 2020 was virtually the same. In 2021 it rose to 585,000. In 2022, it surged to 858,000 – a rise of 72 per cent since 2019, and 47 per cent in just a year.

The rise in PIP claims has dovetailed with older people leaving the workforce due to long-term sickness, sparking fears that Covid and NHS backlogs are taking a continuing toll on the nation’s health – with long Covid, respiratory diseases and mental health issues at the forefront.

“My prior before we looked into it would have been that it was Covid-related illnesses [driving the rise in PIP claims],” said Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, who co-authored an Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report into the issue last year. “But it’s really all sorts of different things – obviously mental health, but also musculoskeletal diseases and things you wouldn’t really think would be very linked.”

The IFS analysis of DWP data found that PIP claims had risen sharply across all age groups and a variety of illnesses and disabilities. As of July 2022, 70 per cent of claimants under 25 were claiming for mental and behavioural disabilities such as PTSD, depressive disorder and autism, compared to just 20 per cent of those aged 55 or over. Some, though not all, of these could be linked to the impact of successive lockdowns – but that is harder to identify as the cause of increased musculoskeletal (MSK) claims.

The IFS concluded that the rise in PIP claims was most likely down to worsening ill health among the population, based on Labour Force Survey (LFS) data which found the share of people who said they had a condition which limited their activities “a lot” rose significantly from early 2021 – just when PIP applications started to rise.

“It looks like a broad-based worsening of health feeding through to greater numbers of PIP applications,” the report concluded.

Another potential explanation might be economic factors. The first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020 saw a surge in Universal Credit claims as people were laid off amid the economic shutdown. But PIP is not means-tested or limited to those who are out of work, and the big rise in applications didn’t begin until 2021 – just as the cost of living crisis emerged.

Ray-Chaudhuri is sceptical that this is the main driver. “I think it’s most logical, in my head at least, that … those people who are induced by some external shock to then take up [PIP] would probably be those who aren’t maybe suffering [from illness or disability] so much,” he said. His argument is that if the main driver was economic, the more recent PIP applicants would be less ill or disabled, and would be more likely to see their PIP claims rejected by the DWP. Instead, the percentage of DWP PIP assessments that went in the applicant’s favour has only slightly declined, from 53 per cent in 2019 to 50 per cent in 2022.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that at least part of the surge in PIP claims is due to rising living costs.

“There isn’t this or that reason, it’s just all kind of systematic”

Svetlana Kotova is director of campaigns and justice at Inclusion London, which supports disabled people’s organisations in the capital.

“We spoke to organisations a couple of months ago, I think five said that they had to put a stop on all new referrals because they just couldn’t accommodate the demand on advice around eligibility for benefits,” she said. “We come across people who were eligible [for PIP] but claimed it for the first time in the last couple of years, just because of [their] financial situation.

“There isn’t this or that reason, it’s just all kind of systematic,” added Kotova. “Covid, impact of lockdown, pressures on the NHS, and just difficulties to access early help … that definitely has an impact. But from our experience working with organisations that provide advice in communities, people are just trying to do what they can to maximise their income.”

Recent research by the Resolution Foundation, and funded by fellow think tank the Health Foundation, found that disabled people are struggling with living costs to a greater degree than non-disabled people.

“I think there will be a number of factors at play that means it’s very hard to say it’s one specific cause that’s driving these increases [in PIP claims],” said David Finch, assistant director at the Health Foundation.

Different conditions can have different causes behind higher PIP applications. Claims based on anxiety disorders more than quadrupled between 2019 and 2022, rising to nearly 20,000 – an increase that can be linked to both the pandemic and greater awareness. Charity Parkinson’s UK attributed an 80 per cent rise in related PIP claims as mostly probably a response to the cost of living crisis.

Claims based on MSK diseases – such as arthritis, back pain and joint problems – doubled between 2019 and 2022, making up around a quarter of all new PIP claims last year, albeit with a declining application success rate over time.

“Musculoskeletal conditions tend to be a very big factor in the PIP claims. The prevalence of that in survey data is actually fairly flat, but the ages at which that tends to be a more prevalent condition – people in their 50s and early 60s – you have demographic effects as that population gets bigger,” Finch said.

“You’ve got more people at the older end of the working age population, so without any change to prevalence you’d just have more people with those conditions. And then there has been a rise at younger ages, particularly for mental health conditions.”

Dr Wendy Holden, medical adviser to charity Arthritis Action, said there were many pandemic-related drivers of the 127 per cent rise in osteoarthritis PIP claims, but highlighted the crisis in the NHS.

“During lockdown, most routine orthopaedic surgery was either stopped completely or dramatically reduced for many months,” she said. “This led to enormous waiting times for joint replacement surgery – sometimes up to two to three years in some parts of the country.

“Prior to lockdown when waits were several weeks or months, many people continued to be able to work with their pain and then returned to work six weeks after joint replacement. During lockdown, physiotherapy went almost entirely remote for a year or more, often by telephone, with a knock-on effect of patients becoming very deconditioned and gaining weight, which further contributed to disability. Routine appointments for simple procedures like joint injections, orthotics, splints etc, also came to a standstill, all with a knock-on effect on disability and employment rates.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “The rise in the caseload of disability benefits is due to many different factors, including a growing and ageing working age population, steadily increasing disability prevalence, and the effect of the pandemic.”

“We are working with assessment providers to increase capacity while also reducing customer journey times and we are making constant improvements to achieve this and to deliver a more efficient service.”

The answer isn’t to tighten the criteria to get PIP or introduce means testing. Many people The House spoke to warned PIP is already too restrictive, with a complex application process that is hard to navigate.

“There’s a need for the right support to get to people to help with their current status,” said Finch, “but also policies to help support people’s health and prevent their health from deteriorating, which requires long-term action and investment across a range of areas. And realistically that may not show very quickly in the data that we’re talking about, but should over the long term help to change some of those trends.”

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