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Monday, 27 November 2017

Sickness and disability benefits reform criticised by Labour and campaigners

Written by Jon Vale

Labour have joined campaigners in rounding on a flagship reform to sickness and disability benefits, after it emerged 18,000 new claimants with the worst conditions each year will no longer face reassessments.

The figure, confirmed after a Freedom of Information request, is equivalent to between 6% and 12% of people placed in the support group of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in recent years, according to analysis by the Press Association.

The support group is for those whose condition the Department for Work and Pensions believes is too serious for them to work.

The DWP confirmed in September that it was ending reassessments to claim ESA for those with the most severe conditions.

"It's hard to believe this figure represents everyone with the most severe conditions, as the previous secretary of state intended," said Phil Reynolds, senior policy and campaigns adviser at Parkinson's UK.

"The Government should not yet be claiming this as a success for disabled people and should now focus on making the process fit for purpose."

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke (pictured) told the Conservative Party conference last month the exemption would apply to around twice as many people as thought originally.

The DWP said in response to an FOI request it estimated that 18,000 initial work capability assessments would be affected by the changes, compared with original estimates of between 5,000 and 10,000 tests.

DWP figures show that more than 350,000 initial work capability assessments have been carried out in each of the past three years.

In 2014, 200,400 people were placed in the support group; in the following year 290,700 people were put into the group, and in 2016 the figure was 154,700.

Using average figures over the past five years, the 18,000 people exempt from reassessments would be the equivalent of one in 10 people placed in the support group every year.

"Sick and disabled people waited a year for the Government to announce specific conditions that would be exempt from punitive reassessments and instead were offered with a vague statement with no specific guarantees at all," said Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary.

"This is a far cry from the Government's promise to take a significant step away from punitive reassessments."

The DWP said it did not have an estimate of the number of people already claiming ESA who would be affected by the changes, as this will depend on what is found during assessments and reassessments.

Laura Wetherly, welfare and employment policy manager at the MS Society, welcomed the change.

But she added: "These figures only tell us how many new ESA claimants will be exempt, but there are thousands of people with MS already in the welfare system.

"It's disappointing that the Government has made no assessment of how many of them this change will help. This really needs to be a priority."

The DWP said it based its severe conditions criteria on a person's capability for work and not on a list of specific medical conditions.

A spokesman said: "We're making sure that people with severe health conditions or disabilities who are unlikely to ever be able to move into work, no longer need to attend routine assessments to receive the benefits they're entitled to.

"We've worked closely with healthcare professionals, disability charities and a number of other stakeholders to develop clear criteria and guidance.

"Each year, we expect 18,000 new ESA claimants to meet the severe conditions criteria, and this number will grow as people already receiving ESA are also moved into the group."

Last year, 65% of ESA decisions that went to appeal to an independent tribunal were overturned, according to Ministry of Justice figures.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2017, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire.