More claimants ‘fit to work’ under new sickness benefit regime

More people are being deemed ineligible for sickness benefits and fit to work under the new system introduced last year by the government, according to figures released today.

The Department for Work and Pensions statistics showed that over twice the proportion of applicants for employment and support allowance (ESA) were being assessed as fit to work than under ESA’s predecessor, incapacity benefit.

This means they are being put on to jobseeker’s allowance which at £64.30 a week is worth £25 a week less than ESA and involves less support.

Lib Dems warn of benefit shunting

The government claimed the figures showed thousands of people were being prevented from being trapped on long-term sickness benefits, however, the Liberal Democrats accused ministers of “shunting” disabled people on to lower levels of support.

Under reforms introduced last year, new sickness benefits claimants have been subject to a work capability assessment (WCA), replacing the personal capability assessment test for incapacity benefit, and designed to determine how able people are to work.

Benefit cuts warnings

The WCA assesses people three months after a claim, rather than six, as previously, and involves face-to-face assessments rather than assessments on paper, but has proved controversial with disability groups who see it as a way of cutting the benefits bill.

Today’s figures show that of the 193,800 people who made a claim for ESA between October 2008 and February 2009, 36% were found to be fit for work, compared with 17% of previous incapacity benefit claimants. 

The Department for Work and Pensions said part of the explanation for the difference was that IB claimants were assessed six months after their claim, meaning those with lower-level health problems may have returned to work in the meantime.

5% deemed unfit to work

The figures also showed:-

  • 5% – those who are the most severely ill or disabled – were deemed eligible for the ESA support group, meaning they are not expected to undertake work-related activity, and paid up to £95.15 a week.
  • 11% were found eligible for the ESA work-related activity group (£89.80 a week), meaning they are required to have regular interviews with job centre advisers on how they can prepare themselves for work.
  • 38% stopped claiming benefit before the assessment was completed.
  • 10% were still being assessed as the statistics were compiled.

‘May disguise problem’

In response, Lib Dem shadow work and pensions secretary Steve Webb said: ““The government is shunting large numbers of ill or disabled people onto a lower level of support by deeming them ‘fit to work’.  This scheme may simply disguise the problem instead of dealing with it.”

He urged the government to track those deemed ineligible for ESA to ensure “they are not left to rot on a benefit with a different name”.

However, work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Those who can work need help to get back into jobs as soon as possible, so they don’t get trapped on long-term benefits. That’s why we’ve introduced this stronger early medical assessment alongside more support in work.”

Autism concerns

The figures came on the day that the National Autistic Society released a report warning that autistic adults were being failed by the benefits system, and that their particular needs were not being picked up by the assessment, leaving them ineligible for ESA.

The figures were released alongside the launch of the government’s 10 Fit For Work pilots which will involve employers, GPs and councils in helping people with medical conditions or disabilities stay in work. 

Related stories

People with autism: the struggle to gain benefits and find work

Why employment and support allowance is now a battleground

Bill offers ‘right to control’ for disabled but tougher benefits regime

Expert guide to ESA



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