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Independent review ‘A welcome step forward’

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) has broadly welcomed the findings of the UK government’s independent review of the controversial Employment & Support Allowance (ESA).

Responding to the publication of the Harrington Review this morning, CAS Chief Executive Lucy McTernan said,

“ESA is such a flawed system that it needs a lot of work to reform it. But on the face of it today’s anouncement is a welcome step forward. We will of course be looking at the report in more detail. But our initial reaction is that the review has taken on board a number of the recommendations we made, and that if these are implemented the system will be improved in some fairly significant ways.

“We are particularly pleased that the official ‘decision-maker’ will be required to take a much more thorough approach to reviewing the evidence presented in each case. Until now the decision-makers have rubber-stamped 98% of the recommendations made by ATOS (the private healthcare firm that undertakes the assessments). With 70% of claimant appeals being successful, it was very clear that this part of the process was simply not working. These recommendations will hopefully change that and lead to a drop in the number of seriously ill people being wrongly passed as fit to work.

“We also welcome the fact that specialist medical professionals will now be part of the assessment process for those with mental health problems, and that the whole tone of communication with the claimants will be much more sympathetic. Until now people have reported being treated with very little empathy or personal consideration, both in the assessment interviews and in the correspondence they have received. The review has listened to our concerns on this and from now on now claimants will receive personal telephone calls explaining the assessment decisions, rather than starkly-worded letters. These sorts of changes mean people will be treated with dignity rather than being made to feel they are a nuisance or worse still, a fraudster.

“We still have a number of concerns. Quite a lot of the report is lacking in detail, and we will of course want to monitor very closely how these changes are implemented. As the report itself acknowledges – some of the big questions have not been addressed. It is still a huge concern, for example, that claimants that are found fit for work are not receiving adequate support to actually find a job in today’s tough job market. With ESA about to be rolled out to hundreds of thousands more sick and disabled claimants in just a few months time, that is obviously a big problem.

“ESA has been a catalogue of misery and despair for too many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. That is not going to change overnight, and there are many people who are still suffering because of bad decisions made. But these changes will at least soften the edges of the system. What matters now is that the changes are implemented properly, and that the reform of the system doesn’t end here. This must only be the start of the process of making ESA properly fit for purpose.”