The Government has recently announced details of the process for migrating Incapacity Benefit claimants to either Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).
The migration of Incapacity Benefit claimants to ESA will take place in Northern Ireland over the period April 2011 and March 2014. Most existing Incapacity Benefit claimants are to have their claims reassessed and will be asked to attend a medical examination with a Healthcare Professional. As a result not all Incapacity Benefit claimants will pass the test for ESA and many will find themselves claiming JSA instead.
Alex Attwood, Social Development Minister, has warned in the Belfast Telegraph today that up to 76,000 ill people in Northern Ireland face being told they must look for work as part of this process. The Minister spoke about need for some people on Incapacity Benefit to be given “special care and welfare protection”. He also spoke about the need for Government to acknowledge the particular circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland “given the higher rate of deprivation, more severe health conditions and the legacy of the conflict, there are thousands in Northern Ireland who require this care and protection.”
In the year 2009/10 Citizens Advice in Northern Ireland dealt with over 11,400 enquiries about ESA. At present, evidence from our bureau network shows that the current Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for ESA is going wrong in many cases and particularly for those with mental health problems. Often people with mental health problems are being turned down for the benefit at their assessment only to successfully appeal the decision and have the benefit awarded. This could indicate that in some cases the assessment is not fit for purpose. Statistics from ESA show that 28% of appeals are allowed in the claimant’s favour.
Citizens Advice agrees with the Minister’s concerns that many ill people in Northern Ireland may find themselves deemed fit for work through the WCA. The organisation believes that it is vital that people are assessed properly and fairly but that this requires adequate resourcing.
Trying to move large numbers of people from benefits to work gives cause for concern as many could lose out on the much needed support they should receive on returning to the workplace. Recent announcements about budget cuts across the Government departments means that front line services will suffer and therefore the necessary support structures will either be missing or will struggle to cope with demand.
Many people face barriers on returning to work, particularly where they have been out of the workforce for a long time. Making the move back to work will rely on employers who are flexible and willing to take on people with a previous history of disability or mental illness. Evidence from Citizens Advice suggests that many employers do not give their workers their basic statutory rights never mind any additional flexibility which is required for people in this situation.
Given the current economic climate where unemployment is rising and there are few opportunities within the labour market Citizens Advice has concerns that the migration of Incapacity Benefit claimants will lead to hardship for many sick and disabled people who will be forced to look for work without proper support.
Projections from The Appeals Service suggest in 2011/2012 with existing Incapacity Benefit claimants being migrated to ESA an increase of 55% in the number of appeals is expected over a three year period. This will have implications not only for ESA and the Appeals Service but also increase demand for advice and representation from the advice sector.