A controversial new system for assessing whether the sick and disabled are capable of working has seen more than three-quarters of benefit claimants either told to get a job or abandoning their claim.
Charity campaigners warned that the official figures published yesterday by the Department for Work and Pensions showed the new system was wrongly concluding that seriously ill people were ready to work. But the Government insisted the figures proved "the vast majority of people who are applying for these benefits are being found fit for work".
Nearly four out of 10 (39 per cent) of the 686,500 applicants for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have been judged able to work since the replacement for Incapacity Benefit was introduced in October 2008. A further 37 per cent stopped their claims before their assessments had been completed.
Only six per cent of ESA claims (or 40,100 cases) from October 2008 to November 2009 were judged to have such severe disabilities that they were eligible for payments of at least £96.85 a week and exempted from work programmes. A further 14 per cent (or 96,700 cases) were judged unable to hold down a full-time job and received at least £91.40 a week, but were forced to take part in work schemes.
One in three of those judged fit for work appealed against the decision and four in 10 appeals (21,200 cases) resulted in victory for claimants.
Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister, said yesterday he would push ahead with Labour's plan to reassess all Incapacity Benefit claimants under the new system from October. "The vast majority of people who are applying for these benefits are being found fit for work or have stopped their claim," he said. "These are people who under the old system would have been abandoned on incapacity benefits. It is a clear indication of why reform is so urgently needed.
"This is exactly why we are going to reassess everyone claiming incapacity benefits for their ability to work from this October. They will now be given the support they need to get back to work and will be expected to look for work if they are able to do so."
The new ESA system was designed to give greater support to people judged able to return to some form of work. A revised fitness-for-work test, known as a work capability assessment, was introduced at the same time for all new claimants, which aimed to discover what people could do rather than what they could not.
There are 2.2 million people on incapacity benefit and 136,800 now on the new ESA, costing a total of £14bn in 2009-10. However, campaigners believe the new system is flawed. Laura Weir, of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said: "Under this assessment system, more and more people are being found 'fit to work' when in fact they are living with severe health symptoms and disabilities.
"The assessment needs to be independently reviewed to take into consideration long-term, fluctuating conditions with 'hidden' symptoms that are being overlooked, such as fatigue and pain. We need better-trained staff carrying out these assessments, who are aware of the complex nature of conditions like MS, and more exemptions for people with the most severe symptoms."
A spokeswoman for Citizens Advice Bureau said: "We have grave concerns about how the work capability assessment for the ESA is working. We have seen cases where medical evidence has not been taken into account. Seriously ill and disabled people are being found fit for work."
Case study: 'After the medical I burst into tears as I was so relieved'
Andy Grantham, 38, of Worthing, West Sussex, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in November 2006 and has not worked since October 2008. He was turned down for the ESA in February 2009 before having the decision overturned on appeal.
I applaud the idea behind the ESA but I deplore the way it is being implemented. It has been scientifically proven that people who work and have purpose are the ones do better in all sorts of ways. The ones who sit at home doing nothing get depressed and go down hill really quickly. But the way they have brought this in leaves a really nasty taste in my mouth. It really is skewed in the Government's favour to take money from people in very difficult circumstances in order to cut costs. The questions at the medical were very vague and the healthcare professional seemed to have no experience of MS. When I won my appeal I pushed my wheelchair out of the tribunal and burst into tears because I was so relieved. It is really not like me to cry so it just shows the sort of emotional stress I was under.
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