The Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) has been plagued with problems and has been the subject of much criticism for several years. Memos from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are now reporting that the ESA scheme has not proceeded on its planned deliverables, one of which was to facilitate more people returning to the workplace. The government did not anticipate the growth in numbers of applicants, nor did it expect such a high proportion of claims to be assessed as eligible.
Following months of debate and criticism it was announced in March that Atos Healthcare, the supplier responsible for delays in processing assessments for ESA, would have their contract terminated early in August 2015. The extensive delays are currently affecting around 712,000 people who are seeking the allowance for illness or disability. Some cases are taking months for the assessment to be carried out and a decision made. Of the 712,000 delayed cases, 394,000 are new applications, while the remaining 234,000 relate to existing claimants who are having their cases reviewed to identify whether they will continue to receive the allowance.
The process for claiming ESA begins with an assessment from the GP, who provides a note to the effect that a person is unfit to work. The next step is the Work Capability Assessment, the outcome of which is used by the DWP in deciding whether the person is entitled to ESA. ESA was first introduced in 2008 as a replacement for Incapacity Benefit, and the processing of the Work Capability Assessment was subcontracted to the French company Atos Healthcare.
Many people have criticised the Work Capability Assessment, accusing the government of using it to reduce the amount paid out to people with chronic illness or disability. Atos have rejected criticism for the content and nature of the medical assessment, stating that this is determined by the DWP.
Problems with the system have been growing for some time. Delays were reported back in 2012, when more than 35,000 people were kept waiting for over 13 weeks for their ESA claim to be processed. Now the problem is being exacerbated by increasing numbers of applicants for ESA, at a time when the backlog has already risen so sharply. With Atos set to conduct the assessments for over a year until a new contractor can be put in place for August 2015, it is unlikely that backlogs will be cleared quickly. Meanwhile, disability campaigners will be urging the government to appoint a more competent replacement contractor, and continuing to lobby for a reform of the system.