Figures released last week prove that the employment and support allowance assessment system is on the verge of complete collapse. The latest quarterly statistics show that just 28% of claims made between nine and twelve months ago have been assessed. The majority of claimants either get better before the DWP gets round to assessing them or are still waiting up to a year later to have their work capability assessment (WCA).
The March 2014 quarterly statistics cover claims made between April 2013 and June 2013. They show that 39% of ESA claimants got better – or possibly died – before the DWP managed to make a decision on their claim. An astonishing 33% are still waiting now for a medical and/or a decision. This leaves just 28% who have gone through the full ESA assessment process.
The proportion kept waiting for an assesment that is supposed to happen within 13 weeks of claiming has risen dramatically in recent years. In the April 2012 statistical release just 16% of ESA claimants were still waiting to be assessed. In the April 2013 release, this figure had risen to 21%. So the current figure of 33% means that the proportion waiting for an assessment has almost doubled in just two years.
In fact, the figure is likely to have climbed still higher since June 2013 claims were made. It was only at the end of January 2014 that the DWP took the drastic step of halting all further ESA reassessment referrals to Atos in the hope of reducing the new claims backlog. So it is likely to be some time yet before the additional capacity begins to cut the numbers left in assessment limbo.
For claimants, the long wait for a decision is not just enormously stressful. It also means that the majority – who will eventually be assessed as eligible for ESA – are having to live on a very low level of benefits. They have to manage without the additional work-related activity component or support component to which they are entitled after 13 weeks of claiming. Any payments owed by the DWP will eventually be made, but in the meantime their health may suffer and many claimants will run up high-interest debts or bank charges which they will struggle to pay off.
Another effect of the backlog is to make it virtually impossible to discern what percentage of recent claimants are getting an award of ESA and which group they are being placed in.
The figures in the March quarterly statistics show that of those assessed:
- 31% were found fit for work.
- 18% were placed in the work-related activity group
- 51% were placed in the support group.
However, it is very likely that the first assessments completed are those that can be done on paper because of the seriousness of the claimant’s condition. This means that the proportion of support group claimants is likely to reduce once the outstanding claims have all been assessed.
In addition, these figures do not include the results of mandatory reconsiderations and appeals. So it is likely to be many more months, if not years, before we will actually know how many claimants from April to June 2013 were awarded ESA and what component they received.
What we do know for certain is that right now the delays in decision making are causing enormous anxiety and real hardship to tens of thousands of sick and disabled people.