In spite of the risk to claimants’ health, the DWP are wilfully discouraging doctors from issuing fit notes to employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants who need them in order to claim benefits. The DWP claim changes to standard letters to GPs were agreed by the British Medical Association (BMA), but admits there is no written record of any such agreement.
Claimants who have lodged an appeal can continue to receive ESA provided they have a current fit note from their GP.
In the past, when a claimant was found capable of work, the DWP sent out a letter to their GP stating that there was no need to issue further fit notes.
However, the letter went on to say that:
This means you do not have to give your patient any more medical statements for benefit
purposes. But you may have to give your patient new medical statements if:
they decide to appeal against our decision
their condition gets significantly worse
they have a new medical condition.
The new ESA65B tells GPs that their patient has been found to be ‘capable of doing some work’. As a result of this decision, the letter goes on to say:
As a result of this decision, [Title] [Surname] is not entitled to ESA from and you do not need to provide any more fit notes to [select] relating to [select] disability/health condition for ESA purposes.
There is no longer any mention of what to do if the claimant’s health condition deteriorates or if the claimant appeals.
The DWP claim that the changes to the standard letter were made in order to make it ‘simpler and clearer’ and that they were agreed after consultation with the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners.
However, under repeated questioning the DWP have admitted that they have no written records of the meetings at which the changes were allegedly agreed. They have also refused to disclose the names of the people who attended the alleged meetings in an official capacity, claiming that to do so would breach data protection rules.
The DWP have also admitted that no other interested organisations, such as Citizens Advice, CPAG or Mind were consulted before the changes were made.
The DWP’s actions have prompted outrage from claimants organisations and sparked a petition on the 38 Degrees website which has received almost 70,000 signatures.
Frank Field, chair of the commons work and pensions committee responded to the claim that the changes were intended to make the letters ‘simpler and clearer’ by saying that they are “not having the desired effect”, and asking that the letters make it apparent that claimants appealing a decision were entitled to a fit note, adding:
“This simple step could greatly ease the stress and worry that people who are awaiting an appeal experience.”
As matters stand, claimants who cannot get a fit note must either manage without ESA whilst waiting for their appeal to be heard or they must claim benefits as capable of work and meet all the job seeking requirements that entails.
Either route runs the risk of a further deterioration in their health condition.
Yet the reality is that, according to the latest statistics 74% of ESA claimants win their appeal. So, three quarters of those who ask for a fit note whilst appealing will end up being found not to be capable of work.
And, even as this scandal unfolds, another petition is calling on the government to launch an independent inquiry into DWP linked deaths.
One of those supporting the petition is the mother of Mark Woods, whose son starved to death after his benefits were stopped.
How many more tragedies will it take before the DWP takes the trouble to revise even this one letter, let alone its entire working practices.