“We’re one of the most generous countries in our support for disabled people”
That was the claim from Conservative leadership hopeful Esther McVey on Monday’s Victoria Derbyshire programme. So is she right?
What does her team say?
We asked Esther McVey’s office to show us the source for her claim that the UK is “one of the most generous countries in our support for disabled people”.
Her office declined to provide international comparisons to back it up, but a spokesperson told us: “we’re very happy for you to fact check and see where the UK ranks in the world for this”.
What does the government say?
We approached the Department for Work and Pensions, where Ms McVey was secretary of state until November.
A spokesperson told us “we spend £55 billion on benefits to support disabled people and those with health conditions — more than ever before”. That’s consistent with analysis from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which found government spending on disability benefits rose by £5.9 billion in real terms between 2007 and 2017.
How does this compare internationally?
So UK spending on disability benefits has risen in the last decade. But that wasn’t Ms McVey’s claim: she was making a comparison with other countries.
Citing 2015 data from the OECD club of large economies, the DWP told us that “as a share of GDP, the UK’s public spending on disability and incapacity is higher than all other G7 countries bar Germany”. (The G7 group comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.)
But when we look across the full range of OECD members, the picture’s more complicated.
The UK may be second among the G7, but we rank 24th out of 36 in the OECD as a whole.
Spending just under 1.9 per cent of GDP on “sickness, disability and occupational injury”, the UK is very slightly below the OECD average.
Breaking the figure down, the UK ranks 16th out of 36 for “benefits in kind” spending, which includes things like assisted vehicles or services for people with disabilities.
And when it comes to disability-related cash payments, like tax credits and Personal Independence Payments, the UK languishes near the bottom of the table in 27th place.
How many people are in need?
When we’re thinking about whether the UK’s disability benefits system is “generous”, we need to compare the total amount spent with the number of people who need help.
Frustratingly, we don’t have official figures on how much different countries spend on each person with a disability. But we do have some data that might put the UK system in context.
Stats compiled by the European Commission show that in 2012, the UK had had the third highest rate of disability in the European Economic Area, out of 27 countries where data was available.
Some 23 of those countries also show up on the OECD database. Among those, the UK ranks 19th in terms of disability spending as a proportion of GDP.
Putting these datasets together, it seems the UK has a relatively high rate of disability but spends relatively little on supporting disabled people compared to our European neighbours.
Esther McVey said the UK is “one of the most generous countries in our support for disabled people”.
Her office couldn’t provide any evidence to back up the claim. But her former Whitehall home, the Department for Work and Pensions, pointed out that as a share of GDP, the UK’s public spending on disability and incapacity is higher than all other G7 countries bar Germany.
This is true but ignores some key points.
By the same measure of disability spending, the UK ranks 24th out of 36 among the OECD club of major world economies.
We don’t have any like-for-like figures on how much governments spend on each person with a disability. But OECD and European Commission figures suggest that the UK has one of the highest rates of disability in Europe, yet spends relatively little on supporting disabled people compared to our continental neighbours.