‘Thousands of seriously sick people are being put under pressure by ESA’

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Trade unionists and pensioners marching to defend the Welfare State in April, on the eve of the general election
Trade unionists and pensioners marching to defend the Welfare State in April, on the eve of the general election

On the eve of the new Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s announcement of plans to drive the unemployed and sick off benefits, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) issued a call for an overhaul of the ‘deeply flawed’ Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) benefit.

They say ESA 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 ESA to be reviewed.

The report was mentioned in a BBC Scotland documentary on Tuesday night and was the subject of a debate in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday afternoon.

Publishing the report, CAS spokesman Matt Lancashire said: ‘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 Parkinson’s 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 per cent 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 one in four 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 per cent 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 per cent of claimants who apply for ESA have been found fit for work.

However 37 per cent 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.

Citizens Advice Scotland added that ESA’s controversial medical assessment is based on a points system.

Those scoring 15 or more are entitled to extra money, and support back into employment.

Those scoring less than 15 have to apply for jobseekers allowance, or find work.

Paisley GP, Chris Johnstone, has piloted a back-to-work scheme and said he had serious concerns about the medical.

He believes the medicals are not thorough enough and they ‘don’t appear to cover the areas that the patients want to talk about, often mental health problems’.

Dr Johnstone added that a lot of stress and anxiety had been caused to a ‘vulnerable group of patients’.

The medicals are carried out by private company Atos healthcare which also conducts staff medicals for the civil service.

ME sufferer Vikki Bell was dismissed from her Department for Work and Pensions desk job she had held for 15 years, after an Atos assessment concluded she was too ill for the role, and was unlikely to return in the foreseeable future.

But just three weeks later when applying for ESA, she was told by another Atos assessor that she was fit to work and did not qualify for the benefit.

Atos said the tests undergone by Ms Bell, who has since qualified for ESA after re-applying, were different with different criteria.

An Atos spokesman added that the company was audited by the DWP to ensure a high standard of assessment and that medical advice was correct.

A freedom of information request revealed there are eight thousand ESA appeals heard every month.

This is double the number of the next most appealed benefit, disability living allowance, which has seven times more claimants than ESA.