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Call to end ‘Misery and Hardship’ for Sick and Disabled

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) are calling for an overhaul of a ‘deeply flawed’ benefit which they say is causing ‘unnecessary misery and hardship’ for thousands of sick and disabled people in Scotland.

In a hard-hitting report, entitled ‘Unfit for Purpose,’ CAS are calling for the controversial Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) to be reviewed. The report was mentioned in a BBC Scotland documentary last night and will be the subject of a debate in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon.

Publishing the report, CAS spokesman Matt Lancashire said today,

“The ESA was introduced 18 months ago as an attempt to get more unemployed people into work. But it was clear from the outset that the system was deeply flawed, and administrative problems have plagued its application throughout.

“As a result, many thousands of seriously sick and disabled people in Scotland have been put under pressure to find work or lose their benefit. Every CAB in Scotland has reported such cases to us, including clients who are suffering from conditions like parkinsons disease, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, bi-polar disorder, heart failure, strokes, severe depression, and agorophobia.

“The people we are talking about are not ‘scroungers’ or ‘benefit cheats’. They are people who have suffered the tragic bad luck of becoming genuinely too ill to work. They exist in every community in this country and they are being let down by the ESA system. It adds insult to injury to imply that they are being fraudulent. All they are asking for is the protection they are entitled to. And in too many cases they are not getting it.

“CAB advisers have helped many clients appeal against inappropriate ESA decisions. Our evidence is that some 70% of these appeals have been successful, which suggests that the original decision-making process is seriously at fault. Unfortunately the hardship and stress suffered by the clients in the meantime has often been considerable. A number of cases of attempted suicide have even been reported to us.

“CAS agrees strongly that people who can work should do so, and that no-one should be able to live on benefits when they are capable of working for a living. However, it is a fact of life that some people are genuinely too sick to work. Our welfare system is supposed to support such people – many of whom have paid taxes into that system all their working lives. The ESA places a heavy burden of proof on them to prove they are not defrauding the system, and then refuses to accept basic medical evidence, like reports from their GP.

“This report gives the new government a full audit of the way the ESA has worked in Scotland and the impact it has had on CAB clients. Our conclusion is that it has been found to be seriously flawed and is heaping unnecessary misery on thousands of the most vulnerable people in Scotland. We are calling for a full, independent and urgent review of the way this benefit operates.”

The CAS report has been sent to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). It’s main points include the following:

  • When the ESA was introduced, the DWP stated it expected an additional 21,000 appeals against ESA assessments in the first year. However, our report suggests there have been over 50,000.
  • Over 1 in 4 ESA decisions are appealed. The DWP initially predicted that 39% of these appeals would be won by the claimant. However, our evidence is that 70% of clients appeals are being upheld.
  • Currently, only ‘new’ applicants for sickness benefits are required to apply for ESA. However, the Government intends to migrate all 2.4 million current Incapacity Benefit claimants onto ESA by 2015. Unless the system is improved then the problems we have outlined will afflict hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled claimants in the coming years.
  • The DWP expects that around half of the claimants who are found fit for work will move to another benefit (JobSeekers Allowance). They also expect a significant proportion will leave the benefit system entirely, with only ‘some into work’. Therefore, a large number of people are being moved out of the benefits system, and no-one currently knows what happens to them.
  • DWP statistics have claimed that 68% of claimants who apply for ESA have been found fit for work. However 37% of claimants have dropped out of the ESA application process before the work capability assessment. The DWP have not tracked these claimants to see if they have found a job, applied for another benefit or fallen out of the benefits system entirely.

Accordingly, we recommend the ESA system be overhauled, with particular reference to the following points:

  • More claimants with serious illnesses or disabilities should be exempt from the assessment process.
  • The format of the assessments should be more flexible to allow claimants to fully describe their condition, with less reliance on yes/no answers.
  • Greater emphasis should be placed on medical evidence provided by GPs and other medical experts.
  • Consideration should be given to why the assessments are finding significantly more claimants fit for work than intended.
  • The recommendations made by ATOS healthcare professionals should be regularly checked for accuracy.
  • The accuracy of the assessments of clients with mental health problems should be reviewed.
  • Consideration should be given to what happens to clients who are found fit for work. i.e. are they finding employment, claiming JSA, or falling out of the benefits system altogether?
  • Plans should be made to ensure the problems in the ESA system are addressed before existing Incapacity Benefit claimants are moved on to the new benefit.

For more information or to arrange interviews etc., please contact Tony Hutson on 0131 550 1010.