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New UK disability claims double in past year, with fastest rise among teens – IFS

<span>Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA</span>
Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Worsening health in Britain has led the number of new disability benefit claims to double in the past year, according to a report.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said claims for the personal independence payment (Pip) benefit had doubled to 30,000 a month between the summer of 2021 and July this year, with no sign of slowing.

Standing in stark contrast to years of relatively little change in the number of Pip awards made by the Department for Work and Pensions, it said the recent increase in recipients had taken place across medical conditions and ages, with the fastest rise among teenagers, where claim rates have tripled.

The IFS said the figures suggested the rise was being driven by worsening health across the population, “something for which there is now accumulating evidence across a number of sources”.

Labour seized on the report as the latest sign that years of underinvestment in the health and social care system and wider public services under the Conservatives was contributing to record levels of sickness among working-age adults, more people on NHS waiting lists, and spiralling backlogs of people waiting for support.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “Ministers can’t ignore these findings. The backlog in assessments for disability benefits must be tackled and employment support must be reformed, as Labour has proposed, to offer specialist help to those who want to find work.”

The IFS said that whatever the causes, the consequences of worsening health and rising disability benefit claims would contribute to higher government spending on welfare. Currently there are 2.8 million claimants, whose payments cost the state £15bn a year.

“This rise could certainly add several billion more,” said Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, a research economist at IFS and an author of the report. “We see a doubling in claims at essentially every age and for most major conditions, from mental illness to arthritis and back pain.”

The study showed about a third of new claims were for mental health conditions, although among claimants under 25 that figure rose to 70%.

Rising applications to disability benefits has also led to a backlog of about 250,000 people waiting for their claim to be assessed. The IFS said that although this did not appear to have added to waiting times, they were already long at 18 weeks on average.

It comes as estimates from the Office for National Statistics showed the impact of Britain’s cost of living crisis was keeping rates of depression at much higher levels than before the Covid pandemic.

Up to one in six adults experienced moderate to severe depressive symptoms last month, according to the figures. Although similar to the rates found in summer last year, it is six percentage points higher than before the Covid pandemic took hold in March 2020.

Linking the elevated levels of depression with the cost of living crisis, the survey evidence showed people struggling with energy bills, rent or a mortgage, or being forced to borrow to make ends meet were more likely to have suffered this autumn.

Tim Vizard from the ONS said: “While levels of depression remain similar to a year ago, they are significantly above pre-pandemic levels. Certainly we continue to see adults who are experiencing difficulties with their finances more likely to have some form of depression, highlighting some of the challenges faced by adults across the country.”

According to the snapshot of the nation’s mental health, rates of depression were higher among adults who were economically inactive because of long-term sickness, as well as among unpaid carers, disabled adults, people living in the most deprived areas of England, young adults, and women.

Up to 59% of adults in economic inactivity due to long-term ill-health had experienced bouts of depression.

The research comes as official figures show a sharp rise in inactivity in the labour market since 2019 linked to long-term sickness, including mental illness and nervous system disorders.

Economic inactivity – when people aged 16 to 64 are neither in work nor looking for a new job – has soared since the onset of the pandemic, contributing to Britain’s status as the only country in the OECD group of advanced economies with overall employment still below its pre-Covid peak.

Leading experts, including the former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane, have questioned whether NHS backlogs and underfunding of health and other public services have played a part.

A government spokesperson said: “There is a strong welfare safety net for people with a long-term illness and disability and over the next three years, the government will invest £1.3bn in employment support for those affected to help more people start, stay and succeed in work.

“We also have a range of employment initiatives to help those with a long-term health condition, including tailored work coach support.”