Skills training and lifelong learning for different groups of adults with disabilities and long-term sickness  

By Paul Bivand

The number of disabled people aged 16-64 who are economically inactive has risen rapidly to 4.1m, with 3.3m claiming some form of incapacity benefits. 

Plans are in place to change the assessments which determine whether adults with long-term sickness who claim incapacity benefits can work or not.  

For long-term sick adults who are judged to be able to work, the question is whether they require access to skills training and work-related learning as a pathway into jobs, and especially good jobs. 

And for those who are judged not to be able to work, the question arises whether access to lifelong learning might improve their well-being and quality of life, thereby potentially reducing calls on scarce NHS resources including mental health provision. 


Disabled 16-64-year-old people 

Nearly 10m people aged 16-64 are disabled in the UK (see Chart 1). More than 5m are in work, around 0.4m are unemployed and 4.1m are economically inactive. And so, there are more economically inactive disabled 16–64-year-olds than unemployed disabled 16–64-year-olds.  

Chart 1 


Economically inactive disabled 16–64-year-old people 

The 4.1m disabled people of working age who are economically inactive fall into two large categories. About 2.6m report that they are disabled or long-term sick (Chart 2).  A further 1.5m are disabled or long-term sick 16-64-year-olds who are also students or retired or classified as other (including those shielding from Covid in the past). 


Disabled and long-term sick 16–64-year-old people 

There has been a large increase in the number of people who are economically inactive because they are long-term sick or disabled. Up to early 2019, there were years when it was mostly below 2m. Since a low point in February to April 2019, the number of people inactive for this reason has shot up to over 2.6m. 

Chart 2 


The previous high point was in 2001, when it approached 2.4 million. The current rise started before the pandemic, and continued through it, with, if anything, a pause in the rise.  


Disabled and long-term sick adults on welfare benefits 

The total number on sickness and incapacity benefits is 3.3 million (Chart 3). 

From 1996 to 2008, the main benefit was Incapacity Benefit (IB), and from 2009 to 2019 Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and now, for new claimants, Universal Credit (UC).  

Employment and Support Allowance remains for existing claimants, who are being moved to Universal Credit in stages, and for those with recent work history who can claim on their National Insurance payments.  

Chart 3 


Disabled and long-term sick adults claiming ESA and UC 

The journey of ESA and UC claimants results in being assigned into different groups (although they are broadly similar across both benefits). 

New claimants in ESA are in the Assessment Period group. New claimants in UC are in the Live Fit Note group. 

Both ESA and UC have a Work Capability Assessment. Claimants then fall into two groups.   

The first group are those who are assessed as having a potential to become fit for work within an individually defined time frame. In ESA these are the Work- Related Activity Group, and in UC these are the Limited Capacity for Work Group.  

The second group are those who are assessed not to have a potential to become fit for work. In ESA, they are called the Support Group, and in UC the Limited Capacity for Work and Work-Related Activity Group. 

Health conditions of disabled Universal Credit and Employment Support Allowance claimants 

There is currently no data on the health conditions of UC claimants.  

Of ESA claimants, 49% had mental or behavioural disorders, 12.5% had musculoskeletal conditions, 8% had diseases of the nervous system, 8.9% had 'symptoms, signs etc.’, with the remainder spread over 18 further categories. 

Age of disabled Universal Credit and ESA claimants  

By age group, ill-health tends to increase with age.  

For UC (Health) claimants, 9.1% are aged 20-24 and 11.8% aged 55-59. For ESA claimants, 11.7% were aged 25-34 (a 10 year group), rising to 21% in the 5-year group 60-64.  

The difference by age is apparent in the ESA data but not in the UC, probably because the ESA claimants have been claiming since before UC applied to new claims.  

Additional benefits 

In addition to ESA/UC, another source of benefit support is Personal Independence Payments. PIPS are aimed at dealing with some of the additional costs faced by disabled people with mobility and/or care needs. They can be paid to people either in or out of work and, for the mobility element, for motability cars or disability scooters. PIPs can be claimed regardless of any claim for UC on health grounds or ESA.  

DWP employment support 

Employment support through Jobcentre Plus is where the work activity ‘middle groups’ on ESA and UC are supposed to be preparing for work if and when they are able.  

This is monitored by Jobcentre Plus Work Coaches.  

The Work and Health Programme is available, apparently voluntarily, but will meet the work preparation requirements.  

DWP also funds the Access to Work programme. This pays for adjustments in the workplace and personal support workers. 

Skills training and lifelong learning 

For adults with disabilities and long-term sickness who are claiming UC and ESA and are deemed fit to work to some degree, the ultimate aim of targeted support is to help claimants find employment. But for some moving into the fit to work groups, skills training might be appropriate in the first instance.  

DfE and DWP should undertake a review of progression from the fit for work groups to skills bootcamps and full-time work-related learning lasting twelve months under the Train and Progress programme, considering the potential adjustments disabled and long-term sick adults might need. Links between skills bootcamps, Train and Progress and Access to Work should also be examined. 

Even though disabled and long-term sick adults might be deemed to be fit for work sometime in the future, they may not immediately because their conditions fluctuate day to day. DWP needs to provide support to assist people in the potentially fit for work groups to learn how to manage their conditions, so they are able to work or participate in training and retraining. 

There is also a risk that where disabled and long-term sick adults claiming benefits are assessed as fit for work and that work could take the form of working from home, mental health problems increase. Work, and for that matter training, offers an opportunity to get out of the house, meet new people and reduce isolation.   

Many disabled and long-term sick adults claiming UC and ESA will not be deemed fit for work. Participation in adult education – on-site and on-line – can be a way of improving quality of life and well-being.  

Recently, the Adult Education Budget has become more narrowly focussed on what is needed for work. Provision for people with health problems to engage with other people through learning has fallen away.  

Engagement in learning by claimants who are not fit for work could nonetheless reduce the use of our stretched national health and mental health services. 

A learning entitlement for disabled and long-term sick adults claiming benefits is an ‘invest to save’ model the Treasury should urgently assess. 


Paul Bivand is a Labour Market Consultant