In summer 2021, each month 15,000 or so working-age people started receiving disability benefits (Personal Independence Payment, PIP). That monthly figure had remained little changed for years. By July 2022 (the latest data) it had doubled to 30,000, with no sign of slowing down. The increase in claimants is seen across medical conditions and ages, with the fastest rise among teenagers, where claim rates have tripled. With no change in the number of people seeing an end to their PIP claim (e.g. after recovering from their disability), this implies a growing number of recipients: currently there are 2.8 million claimants, whose payments cost the government £15 billion per year. This sudden increase seems to be driven by a worsening of health across the population – something for which there is now accumulating evidence across a number of sources.

This is from a new IFS report which also finds that:

  • Around a third of the new claims are for mental or behavioural conditions, although among claimants under 25 that figure rises to 70%. The share of claims that are for mental illnesses, has – like other conditions – changed remarkably little during the rapid rise.
  • Rising applications to disability benefits has led to a backlog of around 250,000 people waiting for their claim to be assessed. So far this does not appear to have affected waiting times, though they remain long at 18 weeks on average.
  • Survey data on the working-age population as a whole show that health has been getting worse, with 9.6% (4.0 million) now reporting that their health limits their daily activities “a lot”, up from 8.5% (3.5 million) at the start of 2021. Here too we see an increase across all major types of condition. There has also been a significant rise in the number of (non-COVID) working-age deaths in 2021 and 2022, compared to pre-pandemic years.

Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, a Research Economist at IFS and an author of the report, said, “Almost as remarkable as the rise in disability benefit claims itself is how widespread it is. We see a doubling in claims at essentially every age and for most major conditions, from mental illness to arthritis and back pain. Worsening health seems to be behind the rise, but precisely why health is getting worse is a puzzle of its own. Whatever the cause, significantly greater spending on disability benefits looks like it will be one of the consequences of this concerning trend. Already we spend £15 billion a year on working-age disability benefits – this rise could certainly add several billion more, and indeed the Office for Budget Responsibility have increased their forecast for spending accordingly.”