As the government prepares to slash incapacity benefits, Rob Ray looks at a report brought out last year which is amongst the starkest examples of how incapacity has been used in recent years to hide much of the country's unemployment problems.
'20 Years on: Has the economy of the coalfields recovered?' examined communities where over 10% of the population had been employed in the mines before the mass closures.
The report, brought out by the Centre for regional and social economic research at Sheffield Hallam university, said:
"Claimant unemployment figures, which are currently relatively low in most former coalfields, give a wholly misleading view of the strength of the local labour market.
Since the early 1980s, the rise in the number of 'economically inactive' men of working age in the coalfields has been twice as large as the fall in recorded unemployment.
In the English and Welsh coalfields in mid-2004, no fewer than 336,000 adults of working age (201,000 men, 135,000 women) were out of work and claiming incapacity benefits, compared to just 67,000 (50,000 men and 17,000 women) claiming unemployment benefits.
The evidence supports the view that in the coalfields, as in some other parts of older industrial Britain, there has been a huge diversion of people with health problems from unemployment to incapacity benefits. Estimates suggest that as many as 100,000 men in the coalfields are currently 'hidden unemployed' in this way."
The report covered the 1981-2004 period, and covered only the English and Welsh coalfields, accounting for approximately 90% of the total. It also only focussed on the experience of men, as these made up the vast majority of those employed in the mines.
In Easington, a district council in County Durham (The huge mining community which experienced 100% job loss) approximately 22% of the working age population are claiming disability benefits, and similar levels can be found in the south Wales local authorities of Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil. The Hallam researchers found that sustained growth in the economy from 1993 onwards had made no difference to the numbers claiming incapacity benefit, which showed a four-fold increase. They concluded that a decision was taken to keep official jobless figures low by diverting people on to incapacity benefit.