Regular readers will know about the Elephant Trap on which I’ve blogged on several occasions. You fall into the trap when you use the term ‘new jobs’ to describe net growth in employment. Things like ‘Most new jobs are in the public sector’ or ‘Half of new jobs are taken by migrants’. There is a variant of the trap when a change in characteristics is mistaken for a change in employment, like ‘Record number of UK nationals in work’ resulting from people already in work getting UK nationality rather than out-of-work UK nationals getting jobs or ‘Older people turn to self-employment’ resulting from self-employed people ageing rather than oldsters newly taking up self-employment.

Almost without exception those falling into the traps are seeking to make a political point and regular interventions by the UK Statistics Authority (with a notable slap-down of Prime Minister David Cameron) do seem to have led to a general improvement in understanding and the traps claiming fewer victims. But they are still there for the unwary. and a few weeks ago this popped up on my timeline. Looks like great news, with the Conservatives’ focus on breaking down barriers to work for disabled people seeming to have resulted in nearly a million more disabled people finding jobs since 2013.

As part of its UK Labour Market Report, the ONS publishes on a quarterly basis Table A08: Labour market status of people with disabilities, most recently on 19 February 2019. This appears to be the source of the assertion and these ONS statistics show that the number of Harmonised Standard Definition Disabled people in employment increased from 2,897 thousand in Oct-Dec 2013 to 3,906 thousand in Oct-Dec 2018. Clearly this is the rise of 930,000 quoted and this compares with an increase of 1,165,000 in the number of people in work who are not disabled. The classic trap would be to say that nearly half of new jobs since 2013 had gone to disabled people, but the Conservatives do manage to avoid this.

It all certainly seems a real success, especially when looked at on a percentage basis, as the number of disabled people working increasing by nearly a third while the rest of the working-age population saw employment go up by less than five per cent.

Now as the Conservatives imply that this has something to do with them ‘breaking down barriers to work’ and seeing people in jobs they love, one would of course expect to see some sort of corresponding fall in the number of disabled people who are unemployed or inactive. After all, it is explicitly stated that ‘Almost a million more disabled people have found a job’.

So let’s look at that. First here’s the picture for numbers who aren’t disabled showing a rough balance between increase in employment and reduction in unemployment and inactivity. The kind of thing you’d expect to see as people out of work move into work.

But what about those who are disabled? Hmm…. a very different picture. Yes there was an increase of 930,000 in the number of disabled people in employment, but over the same period the number of unemployed disabled people reduced by only 86 thousand and the number of inactive disabled people by only 3 thousand. If ‘barriers to work’ have been broken down by the Conservatives, and nearly a million have ‘found a new job’ as a result then surely the inactive and unemployed disabled should have shrunk by nearly a million?

There are only a few possible theoretical explanations. One is that there has been a large increase in the number of disabled people entering the potential workforce. The figures are for working-age people, so theoretically loads of healthy people could have reached 65 and disappeared from the data while being replaced by lots of the youngsters who are disabled turning 16. That doesn’t seem very likely, as it would only work if a quarter of people turning 16 during 2013 and 2016 were disabled and all went straight into employment. The other major source of new potential workforce entrants is people from abroad, so theoretically loads of disabled people could have made their way to the UK and found jobs here. But this seems even less likely as it would only work if almost every additional worker from abroad over the past five years had been disabled.

Instead, it should be obvious (though apparently it wasn’t to the Conservatives) that the increase in the number of disabled people in work is not likely primarily due to disabled people newly finding jobs since 2013, as (issues of churn aside) it will include those already in work who develop a condition meeting the disability criteria or who become aware of such a condition.

Thus it seems actually far more likely a result of more people in work becoming disabled rather than disabled people out of work getting a job. This is certainly the implication of data on the nature of disabilities affecting working people. Notably, the number of people working with a disabling mental health condition has nearly trebled since 2013.

There is plenty of evidence that this is because of increasing mental health issues among existing workers, for example as highlighted in the most recent CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work survey of employers.

For these reasons it is simply wrong to suggest that the ONS statistics show “Almost 1 million more disabled people have found a job since 2013” and at best misleading to say “930,000 more disabled people in work since 2013” if the implication is that this is a result of ‘breaking down barriers to work’.

I wrote to the Office for Statistics Regulation to draw this to their attention as I felt it a significant mis-statement about official statistics which done by the official Twitter account of the Conservative Party with around a third of a million followers was likely to be seen as making an authoritative statement of the statistics rather than merely expressing an opinion. They are very good with looking into these things when concerns are raised, and replied quickly…

One can only hope that the Conservatives (and other victims of these traps) take that very sound advice.

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