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ESA: Government celebrations premature as 'too many wrong decisions being made

11 Feb 2011

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has said the government is premature in celebrating figures from a pilot scheme for sick and disabled people in Aberdeenshire, given that the process behind the scheme has been shown to be deeply flawed. The charity has also said it is ‘disgraceful’ to brand genuinely sick and disabled people as ‘benefit cheats’.

The pilot scheme is aimed at transferring claimants of Incapacity Benefit (IB) to a new benefit system – Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which is intended to help them get into work if they can. However, CAS has previously published overwhelming evidence that many of the ESA assessment decisions are wrong, and are over-turned on appeal.

The government itself has admitted in the past that 40% of ‘fit for work’ decisions are over-turned on appeal. CAS has found that – in cases where the CAB helps a claimant with their appeal – the success rate is 70%.

CAS Chief Executive Lucy McTernan said,

“The government is interpreting these interim figures as a sign of success. But this assumes that every ‘fit for work’ decision is correct, and the record shows that this is simply not a valid assumption to make.

“We have shown repeatedly over the last 2 years showing that the ESA assessment process is deeply flawed and is making far too many decisions which are not standing up to appeal. And every wrong decision is a personal nightmare for the person involved, plunging them into poverty and unfairly labelling them as benefit cheats.

“We would want to know what evidence the government has that the flaws in the assessment system have been addressed. Without that, it is simply wrong to assume that every decision made is an accurate one. The evidence suggesting otherwise is overwhelming.

“We would also want to ask how many claimants in the pilot have failed to complete the assessment process altogether, given that a previous government report found that as many as 36% of claimants were in this category. We are extremely worried about what happens to these people. We believe many of them fail to attend the assessment interviews because they are frightened or confused by the bureaucracy of the process. As a result they have their benefit withdrawn, even though they may still be suffering serious illness or disability.”

Commenting on the increasingly hostile tone surrounding the debate on the welfare reform process, Lucy McTernan added,

“It’s very important to note that the people we are talking about are not benefit cheats or scroungers. Some of the coverage in the tabloid press has been appalling, suggesting that this system is rooting out benefit fraud. In fact these are some of the most sick and disabled people in our community. They have already been found to be too unwell to work by independent medical evidence and indeed by the government’s own tests.

“We’re talking of people with cancer, parkinsons disease, and serious mental illnesses – and many of them have worked and paid taxes and National Insurance for years. To wrongly deprive them of their benefit income is bad enough, but to brand them as benefit cheats is disgraceful”

The figures released by the government are interim findings from their pilot scheme for transferring IB claimants to ESA in Aberdeenshire and Burnley. Details at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/initial-reassessments-of-those-on-ib-in-aberdeen-and-burnley-show-large-numbers-of-claimants-with-the-potential-to-return-to-work

CAS has previously published detailed evidence showing the ESA assessment system to be deeply flawed. Their report on ESA - ‘Unfit for Purpose’ - was published last year and is available to download at https://www.cas.org.uk/Publications/publications/Evidence+reports/unfit-for-purpose-scottish-cab-evidence-on-esa

CAS is now conducting its own analysis of the Aberdeenshire pilot – in conjunction with the Scottish Association of Mental Health (SAMH). The results of this will be published later in the year.

For more information, or to arrange interviews etc., please contact Tony Hutson on 0131 550 1010 or 07774 751655.

ENDS