Assessments under new benefits system investigated

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A BBC Scotland investigation finds that tens of thousands of claimants who are genuinely sick or disabled may have been refused the new Employment Support Allowance.

BBC Scotland investigations correspondent Mark Daly has been examining how the system works in practice.

David McNeish David McNeish says he was shocked he was deemed fit to work

It was heralded by government in 2008 as the answer to the nation's sick note mentality.

Employment Support Allowance was brought in to replace the creaking incapacity benefit system and was designed to help a million people back into employment.

The tough new medical assessment would tackle the something for nothing culture: weeding out cheats and scroungers, whilst those who really needed help, would receive it.

But fast forward just a year and a half, and there are calls for the planned roll-out of ESA to be shelved.

For the past three months, BBC Scotland has been investigating allegations that tens of thousands of genuinely sick or disabled people have been denied the benefits they're entitled to.

Under pressure

One of the first people I met was David McNeish, 34, from South Queensferry. He'd been a successful political lobbyist. But last year, his life began to crumble under the strain. A bout of depression escalated and he was diagnosed with acute psychosis, and assessed as a danger to himself and others.

He said: "It was kind of like a car crash, to be honest - it just came out of the blue. From me going from being, you know, a very capable, very competent person to suddenly seeing things that weren't there, hearing voices, not really being able to function properly at all."

Start Quote

The medicals don't appear to be thorough. They don't appear to cover the areas that the patients want to talk about, often mental health problems”

End Quote Dr Chris Johnston GP in Paisley

David applied for ESA, and was sent for the medical, known as the Work Capability Assessment, which is designed to assess what a claimant can do, as opposed to what they can't.

ESA is based on a points system and is divided into three groups:

  • The support group, which means you are so ill you are unlikely to be able to work - which pays almost £97 a week
  • The work-related activity group, which means you have the potential to work and will get support back into employment, and this pays £91 a week
  • Fit for work category, which means you are not entitled to ESA and must find a job, or apply for jobseekers allowance, which pays £65 a week.

Claimants must score 15 points or more to qualify for ESA, and after providing evidence of his mental health problems, David was sure he would qualify, and was shocked to find he hadn't.

He said: "It was a real shock when we got the letter through to say that I'd been assessed as fit to work, and it was even more of a shock to find out that we'd been awarded zero points, which just seemed completely inconceivable, given what was going on.

"I've been working all my life, I've never not been working, and I felt I needed a lot of help for a short period of time, and I didn't get it. And what I did get, I had to fight for."

'Tougher than expected'

I went to meet Dr Chris Johnstone, a GP from Paisley who'd piloted a back to work scheme at his practice. He agrees with the principle of ESA, but has serious concerns about the medical.

He said: "The problem that the patients are reporting back to me appears to be that the medicals don't appear to be thorough. They don't appear to cover the areas that the patients want to talk about, often mental health problems, and a lot of people who I would have thought are clearly unfit for work, or possibly suitable for further training, are just being deemed fit for work."

The medical was always anticipated to be much tougher than under the previous incapacity benefit regime but the reality has taken even the government by surprise and has found more than two-thirds of sickness claimants fit for work. That's almost 20% more than the DWP had anticipated. And this has been reflected in the number of appeals.

Our Freedom of Information request revealed that ESA appeals are running at about 8,000 hearings a month, which is double the number of the next most commonly appealed benefit, Disability Living Allowance. About 40% of those ESA claimants who do appeal have their decisions reversed.

Professor Paul Gregg was commissioned by the government to design a key element of ESA, the part which provides support for people back into the workplace, and he has serious concerns.

He said: "I think the DWP are surprised at how few people are passing this new test and moving onto ESA.

"I'm concerned in a sense that too many of the people who the system I was designing for are not entering that space and potentially not benefiting from it."

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