A controversial welfare benefit is causing huge “misery and distress” for hundreds of sick and disabled people locally, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
A national report by Citizens Advice Scotland demonstrates the failures of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which was introduced 18 months ago to replace Invalidity Benefit. It was intended to help more sick and disabled people get into work.
But in reality, the CAB report reveals, ESA has failed some of the most vulnerable people in the community – passing them as fit for work when they are in fact nowhere near capable of holding down a job.
Shetland CAB manager Les Irving said: “ESA has been a complete disaster for many sick and disabled people in this area. It was introduced 18 months ago, and right from the beginning it was clear it was beset with problems. For one thing, there are huge delays and administrative problems, so people’s payments are often late. But even worse than that is the high number of claimants who are told they are ‘fit for work’ when in reality they can often barely walk or even stand up.
“Here in our office in Lerwick we have seen people with serious illnesses like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, MS and severe mental illness being told they have to get work or lose their benefit. These are not ‘scroungers’ – many of them have worked for years, paying their taxes into the welfare system because they thought it would be there for them if they were ever unlucky enough to need it. Now they are in that position and they are finding the ‘safety net’ has been taken away. It is deeply unfair.”
Mr Irving said the report revealed that 68 per cent of ESA claimants were judged to be fit for work. That was a huge number, and many more than were claiming the old benefit.
He said: “We accept that some sick and disabled people are of course able to work, and we fully support efforts to get them into a job. But the work has to be suitable for them, and sensitive to their condition. And such jobs are few and far between.
“But even more worrying is the number of people who are told they must find work when they really are not fit enough. The trouble is that the ESA assessment interviews often take no account of the detail of a person’s medical situation, and seem concerned only at ticking boxes so they can pass as many people as possible.
“They reject evidence from the client’s GP, for example, and ask only the most basic general questions – which are often not relevant to the person’s condition. This is why so many people passed as fit to work are in fact anything but.”
Mr Irving said people could appeal against the decisions, and CAB believed the high number of appeals which were successful was a sign of the failing system. Across Scotland 70 per cent of such appeals were successful, with the original decision being overturned, and that figure was borne out locally.
He said: “Over about the past 12 months we have lodged 33 ESA appeals here, which is 65 per cent of all our appeals. A total of 20 cases are still pending, many for over six months, which suggests the tribunal system is in difficulty if not actually in meltdown. Of the remaining 13, we withdrew three appeals, nine were successful and one was lost.
“Of those appeals actually heard this gives us a 90 per cent success rate. Of course it’s good that we get the fair result for the client, but the fact that so many appeals are successful does show that there is something badly wrong with the decision-making process in the first place.
“The time taken up in helping with these appeals is considerable. Our benefits advisers estimate that 50 per cent of their time is taken up dealing with ESA cases alone – and that’s time they cannot give to other clients.
“So we are calling for the whole ESA to be reviewed. As it is, the government plans to expand it to include millions of other sick and disabled claimants. They urgently need to sort out these problems before it does even more damage.
“We need a benefits system that treats people fairly and with dignity. Certainly local people here deserve nothing less.”