Citizens Advice Scotland have said the government’s plans to extend a flawed benefit reform to huge numbers of sick and disabled people are ‘deeply worrying.’
Government Minister Chris Grayling has said today that half a million people who are currently claiming Incapacity Benefit could in fact be fit for work. He says the government will press ahead with plans to transfer all Incapacity Benefit claimants on to the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA). This is despite the fact that ESA has been shown to be deeply flawed and makes too many wrong decisions about the fitness of sick and disabled people.
CAS Chief Executive Lucy McTernan said,
“What Mr Grayling is neglecting to tell people today is that government predictions about the ESA process have been consistently wrong since the beginning. Whatever the theory and calculations may say, the actual experience of applying the ESA in practice has caused real misery and hardship for thousands of very sick and disabled people, wrongly finding them ‘fit for work’ and cutting their income significantly. To hear the government talk about putting another 500,000 people through that is very worrying.
“The ‘fit for work’ decisions are based on the ‘Work Capability Assessments’ that disabled people are put through as part of the ESA process. But these assessments have now been criticised as inadequate and insensitive, not just by the Citizens Advice service but by medical experts, leading academics and even by the senior government advisers who devised the system in the first place.” (see notes below)
“The system’s inadequacy is shown by the astonishingly high rate of success for those who appeal against their ‘fit for work’ decision. In Scotland, where CAB advisers have helped people with their appeal, 70% have succeeded in overturning the original ‘fit for work’ judgement. The government itself has admitted that 40% of all appeals across the UK are successful. These figures show that there is something badly wrong with the decision-making process.
“And the consequences of a wrong decision are very significant for those affected. People found ‘fit for work’ have their benefits adjusted, and will lose money - in some cases up to £25 per week. We are talking here about some of the most vulnerable members of our community: people who are already suffering the most debilitating illnesses and already having to get by on a low income. To cut their benefit even further and force them to look for work they are incapable of doing – as well as effectively branding them as benefit cheats – is deeply distressing for them, as well as hitting their finances.
“The government’s aim here is to get people off benefit and into work where they can. We are fully behind that principle. People who can work should be helped to find work - that is an admirable objective and we support it completely. But it is very clear that the ESA is unfit for purpose. The net is trapping too many people who are genuinely too sick to work, including people with cancer, alzheimers disease and serious mental illnesses.
“Given that the system is still so beset with problems, the haste the Minister is showing today is clearly inappropriate. The whole ESA migration process needs to be suspended and re-examined thoroughly, to fix the huge flaws in the system before it is allowed to damage the lives of any more vulnerable people.”
CAS spokespersons are available for interview – please contact Tony Hutson on 0131 550 1010 to arrange.
Notes to editors - click to expand/collapse
ESA – The Story So Far
ESA was introduced in autumn 2008, for all NEW claims from people who were too sick to work. The plan was to let the system bed in, and then extend it to all EXISTING Incapacity Benefit claimants as well. The coalition government continued this policy, un-altered, when they came to power.
Right from the beginning, the flaws within ESA process became apparent, with people suffering from illnesses like cancer and alzheimers disease being told they were ‘fit for work’ after the briefest of interviews which ignored their medical history. People hit by the system have increasingy been coming to their CAB for help, and so CAS has been recording and reporting the problems with the system since it began. (see our detailed report, ‘Unfit for Purpose,’ here)
In 2009 the government responded to growing concerns by setting up a review to look into the problems of ESA. The review, chaired by Professor Paul Harrington, reported last year, and supported many of the criticisms that we have made. It recommended a number of improvements in the system. Many of these were accepted by the government but they have not yet been implemented.
Significantly, even the government adviser who helped set up ESA, Professor Paul Gregg, has now become publicly critical of the system. He says the government is pushing ahead too quickly. Professor Gregg attended a conference of Scottish CAB advisers last month.
Last month the Work & Pensions committee of the House of Commons announced it was holding its own inquiry into ESA. The government has ignored calls to suspend the process of extending ESA until this inquiry has reported.
Today Paul Grayling has said in an article in the Telegraph that half a million people could be wrongly claiming Incapacity Benefit.