Channel 4 News Social Affairs Editor Jackie Long finds the government’s employment support allowance is being dogged by endless and repeated appeals as claimants are found fit, then unfit, for work.
In terms of going for the populist vote, it was never going to be a hard sell. Ending the “sicknote culture” and the “something for nothing society”, were tough-ounding promises – easy to make, but proving much harder for the government to deliver.
There are around two and a half million people on some sort of sickness-elated benefit in the UK. Transforming the system is one of the cornerstones of the coalition’s welfare reforms.
It introduced employment and support allowance to replace incapacity benefit and insisted that all claimants undergo a medical, the controversial work capability assessment.
But we’ve discovered that the new benefit is being dogged by endless – and repeated appeals. Claimants are being bounced between being told at assessment that they are fit for work, to being found unfit at appeal then sent straight back in for a new assessment where – you’ve guessed it – they’re found fit for work again.
The number of appeals for employment and support allowance (ESA) heard by the Tribunal Service, has quadrupled in two years, rocketing from 68,000 in 2009 to a projected 240,000 by the end of this financial year. The cost to the taxpayer is staggering: £80m so far, and rising.
Rosanna was cleared fit for work and not entitled to benefit. She appealed. She won, scoring almost top marks during the appeal’s medical assessment. Her benefit was reinstated.
The appeals are dominating the caseloads of Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country and putting enormous pressure on GPs too.
But what this new benefit system isn’t doing, is getting people back to work in anywhere near the numbers predicted – or needed – to make the government’s much vaunted work programme, work.
Channel 4 News has spoken to some of the private providers and charities who are running the Work Programme for the gvernment. They’ll be paid for every person they get into work, or at least, make “work ready”.
But they’ve told us they have serious concerns about the lack of people moving through from ESA and onto the work programme.
Kirstie McHugh, from the Employment Related Services Association, an umbrella group for Work Programme providers, told Channel 4 News: “We were expecting that 25 per cent of the referrals coming through overall would be people on eployment and spport alowance but we are finding only 3-5 per cent, so a significant proportion lower than we thought.”
Rosanna Cartwright is exactly the sort of person who was supposed to have moved onto the work programme by now. She’s been on sickness benefit for the past two years after developing musculoskeletal problems, forcing her to give up her job as a barmaid.
You go through the benefits system and they are telling you, you are fit for work. But your GP and the doctor in the hospital say you are not fit for work. So who are you to actually believe in the end? Wayne Allingham
As part of her claim for ESA she had to undergo one of the new medicals. Claimants are given a point for any health issue which might be deemed disabling and prevent them from being able to work.
Rosanna scored zero so was categorically cleared fit for work and not entitled to benefit. She disagreed and appealed. She won, scoring almost top marks during the appeal’s medical assessment. Her benefit was reinstated.
However the process had taken so long that within just a few months it was time for her to be reassessed. This time she was found fit to work again.
“I did get upset about it, ” she said. “I cried a bit when I got home. But my husband said appeal again.” That is exactly what she’s doing. And she is not alone.
Channel 4 News contacted 30 advice centres across Britain and every single one said they had clients on their second or even third appeal. Jude Hawes is the welfare benefits manager at Stoke CAB.
She says every day they’re dealing with clients appealing against ESA decisions, many of them for a second time. “I’ve worked in welfare benefits since 1983 and… we’ve never had one benefit one sort of appeal that just dominates the landscape like this.”
Even people who lose their appeal and so have been found fit for work twice are heading straight back into the system.
Wayne Allingham is a Falklands veteran who has suffered mental and physical health problems since leaving the army 30 years ago.
In April, a medical assessment for ESA found him fit for work. A tribunal later came to the same conclusion. But as the process has taken more than six months he’s entitled to make a new claim for ESA on the same grounds.
He denies that he’s “playing the system”, insisting that it’s the system which isn’t working. “You go through the benefits system and they are telling you, you are fit for work. But your GP and the doctor in the hospital say you are not fit for work. So who are you to actually believe in the end?”
Back in Stoke CAB, benefits manager Jude Hawes, says whatever the rights and wrongs of individual cases, one thing seems clear to her.
“Very, very few people are getting moved on into jobs, which is really what this is meant to be about. It’s meant to be about people being better off because they are being moved into work, but that’s happening to very, very few people in this area.”