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3 December 2009

Keyboard and stethoscopeTaxpayers are unfairly paying out many thousands of pounds, and claimants health may be being put at risk, due to employment and support allowance assessments being carried out scandalously late.

ESA claimants are supposed to undergo a work-focused health-related assessment (WFHRA) just minutes after they have had their medical test to decide whether they qualify for ESA.  

This second assessment, administered by the same health professional, is intended to look at what work the claimant might still be able to do and what steps they could take to improve their employability.  This might be things like looking for part-time work or work with flexible hours, attending a pain management course, having training to increase their confidence or being provided with special equipment.

The assessment is not part of the process to decide if the claimant is eligible for ESA and the DWP decision maker does not see the report.  Instead, it is passed to a personal adviser whose job it is to help the claimant move into work via a series of six Pathways to Work interviews.  A copy of the report is also sent to the claimant’s GP.  The personal adviser is supposed to use this report to help them draw up an action plan with the claimant to move them towards employment.

According to the DWP, claimants should have these medical assessments at around day 43 of their claim for ESA, before their first Pathways to Work interview.

However, increasing evidence is emerging that thousands of ESA claimants are not being called for their medical until many weeks, or even months, after it should have taken place.

What is worse, an increasing number of claimants are not even having their WFHRA at the same time as their delayed ESA medical.  Instead, they are summoned back for what they are told is a ‘second medical’ - sometimes weeks later.

This means that the WFHRA report is not being given to the personal adviser until long after an action plan has already been drawn up.  In fact, in some cases, according to evidence given to MPs by a private sector welfare-to-work provider, they may not see the report at all whilst they are supporting the claimant.

Work Directions claim that after 28 weeks an astonishing 50% of all their clients have yet to be told whether they are eligible for ESA.  Most of these claimants will have drawn up an action plan and completed at least three work-focused interviews without their personal adviser seeing a WFHRA report.  (See Claimants who try lose benefits)

The DWP’s failure to ensure that claimants are assessed at the proper time means that the taxpayer is being ripped off by the DWP in a variety of ways.

For example, Work Directions claim that, in one of their offices, no fewer than 50% of all those who started having interviews with the company failed their ESA medical and left the Pathways programme.  Some had actually completed all six interviews before discovering that they had been found fit for work.  The company still gets paid for all these interviews by the taxpayer even though the claimant would not have had any of them if they had been assessed at the proper time.

Other claimants are likely to be placed in the support group when they finally have their medical assessment.  Again, these claimants will have been through a series of Pathways interviews funded by the taxpayer, even though as members of the support group they should not have been subject to any of them.  After all, these are people who, in the view of the DWP, have no reasonable prospects of finding paid employment.

Finally, many claimants will have been through some or all of their Pathways interviews before the WFHRA report is created.  As a result, a report that should be used by the private sector personal adviser from the very first interview will only be available for a few – or sometimes none – of those interviews.

Most worryingly of all, however, is the fact that the opinions of a health professional  which should have been taken account of by the personal adviser from the outset are often not available.  As a result, claimants may volunteer for, or feel under pressure to agree to, work-related activities that are potentially harmful to their physical or mental health. Without the WFHRA, the personal adviser is in no position to judge what activities it is safe to ask the claimant to undertake, yet the claimant will lose benefits if they fail to participate in the Pathways process.

For the sake of both claimants and the taxpayer, it’s time for the DWP to admit that ESA is a disaster for all concerned. But as they are highly unlikely to do so, claimants who have had enough of the chaos that is ESA may wish to bring this matter to the attention of their MP.

We’d be very happy to hear from anyone who does.

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