The ESA obstacle course

What does the name Maximus mean to you?  The lead character played by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator perhaps?

If you receive benefits (Like Employment Support Allowance, known as ESA) because you are not medically fit for work  (or have need to claim in the future) Maximus could come to play an important part in your life. Not because the government has devised a test for fitness for work based on gladiator combat (not beyond the realms of possibility given the obstacles placed in the paths of claimants in the past).  It is in fact because Maximus is the name of the American company which has been awarded a three-year £500 million contract to carry out assessments of whether people claiming sickness and related benefits are fit for work.

Previously this had been carried out by ATOS, a French company which was widely criticised because of the number of decisions it made regarding people being fit for work which were later overturned by Appeal Tribunals. ATOS withdrew from its contract in March of this year.

Citizens Advice has found that problems encountered with applying for ESA are the most frequently encountered by bureaux across the country.  A national campaign was therefore launched in February of this year directed at the Department of Work and Pensions to make changes to eliminate injustices in the system.

For example, if you are turned down for ESA and feel that you have a case which would be upheld at an Appeal Tribunal, before you can submit the appeal you have to ask the DWP to reconsider your case (even the name given to the process is inaccessible – who is likely to be able to work out what Mandatory Reconsideration actually means?)  There is no time limit on how long the DWP might take to do this (and how long you will be without benefits to which you may be entitled as a result).  The DWP claims that Mandatory Reconsideration gives it the opportunity to correct erroneous rulings on claims without the need for an appeal.

Then there is the ESA50 work capability questionnaire.  It is very important to include all relevant factors when filling out this form.  However the questions it contains are not related to the factors which are taken into account in determining capability for work (known as descriptors).  As a result, advisers in bureaux spend a lot of time helping clients to fill out these forms.

Any assessment of fitness for work should sensibly be based on medical evidence. The relevance and extent of this evidence is obviously crucial – and yet there is no mechanism to pay health professionals for medical evidence in support of benefits claims which frequently means that claimants have to pay for it when they are not in a position to do so.

These barriers seem to have been established to discourage people from claiming benefits such as Employment Support Allowance. There might be an argument to support making the application process as difficult as possible if the majority of claims were false. In spite of claims made in some sections of the national press there is very little evidence to support this. The net effect is that genuine claimants are without benefits to which they are entitled for long periods of time.

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