Employment and Support Allowance

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:01 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:01 pm, 27th May 2010

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-6299, in the name of Hugh O'Donnell, on employment and support allowance, unfit for purpose. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament is concerned about the workings of the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA); notes evidence from the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) Service in Scotland that uncovers serious hardship experienced by ESA claimants across Scotland; considers that sickness benefits should support people in finding employment if they are able to work, but must also provide help for those who are not; considers that ESA is failing to find this balance and is putting pressure on sick and disabled people in Scotland; notes in particular claims that the work capability assessment of ESA is making unsuitable decisions on claimants' fitness for work and that 70% of CAB appeals against these decisions are being upheld, and would welcome a review of ESA aimed at making it work in the interests of the genuinely sick and disabled people of Central Scotland and the rest of the country.

Photo of Hugh O'Donnell Hugh O'Donnell Liberal Democrat 5:12 pm, 27th May 2010

I thank the members who have supported the debate by signing up to the motion and those who are here to contribute to it. I must also thank Citizens Advice Scotland for its help in providing the information that I needed, and congratulate it on the report that it has published—"Unfit for Purpose"—which shows clearly the stark reality of why the employment and support allowance needs to be reviewed.

As the report and the motion say, the purpose of a sickness benefit system should be twofold: it should support people who are able to work and help them into work, and it should give those who are genuinely unable to work the reassurance and support that they need while they are ill. In those two circumstances, the ESA has clearly got the balance wrong. Citizens advice bureaux across my region and, indeed, across the country are finding case after case of people who are clearly too ill to work but who are being threatened with withdrawal of benefits unless they find a job. They are being let down by a system that was supposed to exist to help them.

We need to get one thing clear from the outset: these people are not scroungers or benefit cheats, but ordinary people like you and me who have suffered the tragedy of either short-term or long-term ill health, or who have chronic conditions. That can happen to any one of us. In many cases, they are people who have worked all their lives, in some cases for decades, and have paid into a national insurance system and taxation system, which they legitimately thought would be there for them if they were ever unlucky enough to need it. Now, for far too many people, that day has come and they are bewildered to find that they are being denied the support that they thought was their due.

We are not talking about odd, isolated cases; the evidence from citizens advice bureaux shows that there is an endemic failure of a benefit system that is clearly fundamentally flawed. That must cause all of us some concern.

The ESA was introduced in October 2008 to replace incapacity benefit and income support based on the ground of disability. There are 11 citizens advice bureaux in the region that I represent. They are part of the network of 73 across Scotland, all of which offer an invaluable service to the communities that make up our nation. In the 18 months since the introduction of the ESA, each of those bureaux has reported growing numbers of cases of ESA claimants who have been put through horrendous and inadequate medical assessments, which have often taken no account at all of their actual condition, which have ignored evidence that has been submitted by the clients' general practitioners or those who have been working with the claimants for a long time, and which have resulted in completely arbitrary decisions that have denied claimants the support to which they are entitled.

Crucially, the decision on whether to award ESA is not taken by medical professionals who have knowledge of the client's history. As was shown on the BBC documentary on the subject last night, the process has been farmed out to an independent company that is there to get results. Fundamentally, those results seem to be based on the desire of the Labour Government at Westminster, which introduced the system, to reduce costs.

The system has proved not to be conducive to fair decision making. Repeatedly, we hear of severely disabled people—including cancer patients, people with long-term conditions, people in wheelchairs and people with severe mental health problems—being subjected to five-minute interviews by someone sitting behind a computer who, far from asking them about the detail of their condition, does not even make eye contact with them and is interested only in a box-ticking exercise on the screen in front of them, which allows them to decide that the person is to receive no payment or support.

Some 68 per cent of ESA claimants are found to be fit for work. Of course, many clients appeal those decisions. The Department for Work and Pensions originally predicted that there would be 21,000 appeals against ESA decisions but, in 18 months, there have been 50,000. Of those, 70 per cent have been successful. That is a clear indication that something is wrong with the system.

The time that is taken up by those appeals is enormous. Some CAB advisers have told me that up to 80 per cent of their time is now taken up dealing with ESA appeals. That is time that they cannot spend dealing with other clients. The other issue involves clients whose ESA claims are rejected and who are so distressed or upset that they do not appeal, perhaps because the stress has aggravated their condition. What happens to them? We have heard of awful cases, including more than one suicide attempt. However, that is not the entire issue.

The CAS report rightly asks that there be an immediate investigation into what happens to people whose appeals are rejected and who subsequently disappear from the system.

The current picture is bad, but it is likely to get a lot worse. By 2015, all of the people who are currently on incapacity benefit will be moved onto ESA, and the problems that have been identified by CAS and by MSPs in addressing the concerns of their constituents are only going to get worse unless the matter is addressed now.

We cannot allow that to happen. We must have an independent review of the ESA, and the DWP must implement the recommendations that have been made by Citizens Advice Scotland in its excellent report. If we do not stand up for the genuinely sick and disabled people of Scotland, what are we here for?

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party 5:19 pm, 27th May 2010

I thank Hugh O'Donnell for bringing this important debate to the chamber. The employment and support allowance came into force from Westminster in October 2008 and replaced incapacity benefit. On the basis of a work-capability assessment, a person who is placed in the support group where there is no requirement to take part in work-related activity will receive £96.85 per week. In the work-related activity group, which is almost self-explanatory, the amount is £91.40. If someone is deemed to be fit for work by Atos Healthcare, the company that is hired to make the assessments on behalf of the DWP, they are transferred on to jobseekers allowance.

As Hugh O'Donnell mentioned, there is widespread concern from, among others, Citizens Advice Scotland, Macmillan Cancer Support and the Scottish Association for Mental Health about the high number of people—almost 70 per cent— who are being refused outright any entitlement to ESA.

Benefits are for people who require support in order to meet the costs of everyday life when they are unable to do so from any other source of income. When people are disabled or ill to the point that they cannot work to support themselves, it is a duty that is incumbent on society to provide such benefits as will alleviate pressing financial need.

It is unacceptable in a civilised society to pressure people off benefits and towards work for which they are unfit, purely in order to cut the number of benefits recipients. However, that is what the Department for Work and Pensions is doing, in conjunction with its partner business, Atos Healthcare.

Citizens Advice Scotland has highlighted the 68 per cent of claimants who have been rejected for the employment and support allowance. It points out that two fifths of its ESA case load is made up purely of those rejections. Macmillan Cancer Support points to the cancer sufferers—including terminally ill patients—who have been told that they are fit for work.

SAMH points out that Atos has made recommendations of fitness for work for people with serious mental health problems without giving consideration to reports from their general practitioners, community psychiatric nurses or psychiatrists. We have heard of one case in which a man with serious mental health problems was passed as being fit for work by Atos, without any reference to his GP. He then took an overdose of pills, as his evidence had been denied and his benefits removed. That is not by any means an isolated incident, but it is utterly intolerable.

The Daily Mail today described all those who were rejected for ESA as "scroungers". That is front-page news for the Daily Mail. It contained no analysis of the evidence, which is nothing new for that newspaper.

The ESA system was launched through Westminster by Labour. Today Iain Duncan Smith announced on BBC breakfast news that the new Conservative-Lib Dem coalition intends to press ahead with reassessing everyone who is on incapacity benefit, under the new ESA rules. We all agree that those who can work must be encouraged to do so. However, when people are genuinely unable to work through ill health or disability, we must ensure that support is available. It is the duty of the Westminster Administration to address the distressing inadequacies of the present ESA assessments and to ensure that the watchwords in applying the benefit procedures are consistency, accuracy and fairness. It is our duty in the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the voices of our constituents who should qualify for the benefit are, in assessment, treated according to those words.

Photo of Margaret Mitchell Margaret Mitchell Conservative 5:24 pm, 27th May 2010

I congratulate Hugh O'Donnell on bringing this important debate to the chamber.

Introduced by the previous Labour Government in October 2008 for new claimants, the employment and support allowance replaced incapacity benefit and was intended to give everyone with an illness or disability the necessary help and support for them to engage in appropriate work, if they are fit to do so. That is an entirely laudable objective, which is why the ESA focuses on the patient's abilities: that is, on what they can do, rather than on what they cannot. However, now that the allowance has been in force for approximately 18 months, it is apparent, as the Citizens Advice Scotland report makes abundantly clear, that there are huge problems and failings, which the new coalition Government is now endeavouring to rectify, starting with a reassessment of all current claimants of the ESA, as well as of those who are currently claiming incapacity benefit and who will transfer across to ESA soon. The reassessment is intended to ensure that claimants who are genuinely in need can access support without encountering problems.

The CAS report has identified three main problem areas with the ESA system: the administration of ESA, the work-capability assessment and the experiences of claimants after the work-capability assessment is complete. In the time that is available to me, I will focus on the administration of ESA and the application process. The CAS report reveals that claimants have received inaccurate advice from some Jobcentre Plus staff and that that has resulted in the wrong benefit being claimed. The claim is then rejected, which adds to the problems that are experienced by the claimant and puts them in an even more vulnerable position financially. Difficulties have also been experienced with filling in the application forms and, worse still, documents have been lost by the DWP, which has caused further anxiety for claimants and has delayed their payments.

On top of all that, the processing of the claims has not been efficient, which has led to further claims having to be made from the social fund, or to claimants having to look to relatives or friends for financial support.

Furthermore, as a BBC freedom of information request revealed, under the Labour Government 8,000 ESA appeals were being heard every month. To put that figure in context, it is double the number of appeals that are made in relation to disability living allowance, which is the second most appealed benefit and which has seven times more claimants than ESA. By any standards, it is a bureaucratic nightmare that is taking up valuable resources and adding to stress for all the vulnerable people who are affected.

All of that has prompted a statement from the DWP—barely two weeks into the new coalition Government's tenure—recognising that

"People need much more support to manage their conditions and get help to find work and moving them to ESA is the best way to do that."

In addition, the Queen's speech confirmed that the coalition Government will introduce a welfare reform bill, the purpose of which will be to remove the confusing complexity of the benefits system, which too often leaves people afraid to make changes to their circumstances and can be a barrier to moving from benefits to work. Its purpose will also be to make people see gain when they enter work, through simplifying the benefits system; to reduce the scope for fraud and error by making the benefits system simpler; and to reduce unnecessary administration of benefits.

In conclusion, now that Iain Duncan Smith is the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, vulnerable people can be assured that he will work tirelessly to sort out the problems that he has inherited that are associated with ESA, in an effort to improve the quality of life for the worst-off people in society, starting with a root-and-branch change to the welfare system, which will get tough with those who, by seeking to abuse the benefits system, put vital support for vulnerable people at risk.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour 5:28 pm, 27th May 2010

I place on record my support of CAS for producing its report, which brought to light to an issue that deserves light to be brought to it. However, I recognise that the solution to the problems rests elsewhere, and not in this Parliament. I also recognise—I hope that this view is shared across the Parliament—that the previous system of incapacity benefit did not work. It became a dumping ground for people whose opportunities were taken from them, and their lives were cast aside. They were told that they were incapacitated and unfit for work, and the support system that should have been around them was removed, thereby taking opportunities away from them and their families.

The current system clearly does not work as it should. We all agree that those who are fit to work should be at work and that those individuals need to be identified and supported back into employment. I believe that work brings many benefits, and I am sure that many others share that view. It brings financial and mental wellbeing benefits, and it brings a sense of positivism and confidence to communities. An enduring measure of all Governments of whatever colour is whether they ensure that people are supported back into work.

I have, as convener of the cross-party group on ME, been concerned about the system for some time. People with ME have found the process to be extremely difficult, not just because of their incapacity and inability to work their way through the system, but because of the clear lack of understanding that people on the other side of the table have of their illness. There is a real issue to do with reformation of, and change to, the system. A system must be available to us that identifies people who should be at work and people who could, with support, get back to work and play a productive role in society and the community.

We are discussing reserved matters. As a local MSP, I forward such cases to my United Kingdom MP colleagues, because they are for them to deal with. The debate is not so much about aspects of our work in the Scottish Parliament, although I understand the concerns that have been expressed in the report and by constituents who have come to me. Those constituents were pointed in the direction of their local MP, so that they could raise the matter with them. Let us hope that as this relatively new system develops, people who have been unfairly treated by the process are understood. We must ensure that the right people are given the right decision at the first stage of engagement. It is reassuring that the appeals process works, but it is clear that too many people are being sent through that process to get another decision.

Finally, and most important, people in our communities who are able to work or who can get support from services that will allow them to work, should be at work: that should be the underpinning value of any system. The community that I represent and, I am sure, the communities that other members represent want to ensure that fairness is shown to those who cannot work, and that those who can work are back at work.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 5:32 pm, 27th May 2010

Like other members, I pay tribute to Hugh O'Donnell for bringing the debate to the Parliament, as it is valid to debate the employment and support allowance here. The issue impacts on a number of devolved and reserved matters.

I also pay tribute to Citizens Advice Scotland and the citizens advice bureaux, which operate throughout Scotland. It is particularly helpful that their reports are informed by their day-to-day experience of dealing with many thousands of individual cases. Those cases are not only to do with the employment and support allowance; there are cases from across the benefits system.

I will make two general observations before I deal specifically with the employment and support allowance. First, from my experience as an MSP and from what people who have come to my surgeries have said, I think that the benefits system is almost at the stage of being totally shambolic. Recently, I had to help an individual who was not at all well off. He had no money, but he still had to make £60-worth of phone calls to try to get to the right benefits centre. He had to determine which benefits centre was the correct one to deal with his case. I ended up phoning for the guy, and spoke to the sixth benefits centre before we got to the right one. We ended up getting the wrong advice. At the end of the conversation, all that we got was a promise that a form would be sent out for my constituent to fill in the following week; it was then to be taken to the local job centre. There are many examples of such things happening. I hope that the new Government will quickly reorganise the whole benefits set-up and make it easier for people to deal with the benefits situation in which they find themselves. People are being left with literally nothing because of the discretionary and discriminatory way in which some benefits are withdrawn, for example.

Secondly, we all share the ambition of getting people off welfare and into work. That is absolutely the right thing to do for the reasons that Andy Kerr outlined and for other reasons. However—and I hope that the new UK Government bears this in mind—it is important that we all try to ensure that there are jobs for people to go into. One problem that we have had in the past, particularly in certain areas, is that, because of concentrated levels of unemployment and much higher levels of unemployment than vacancy, it is not always possible to get people who are fit, able and willing to work into work, because the jobs are not always there. Lanarkshire is a good example of such an area.

All the evidence points to increasing levels of confusion and discontent, particularly in relation to the application of the employment and support allowance, not just in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government takes very seriously the impact that the welfare system has on individuals, families and communities, in relation not just to money but their physical and mental health, which in many respects are even more important.

Irrespective of the administration arrangements that govern tax and benefits, we believe that the following five key principles must guide benefits and tax credits policy if we are to eradicate poverty and reduce income inequalities, not just in Scotland, but throughout the UK. The first principle is that individuals must have a strong degree of confidence about the security of their income. That means that the benefits system must be fair, transparent and sympathetic to the challenges that people who live in poverty face. I do not believe that the ESA meets that criterion.

The second principle is that the benefits, tax credits and employment support systems must work in harmony to support those who are capable of pulling themselves out of poverty through work. For those who can work, the financial benefits of working must be significant, sustained and clearly signposted. To that end, the issue is about not only the benefits system, but the interface between the benefits and tax systems. I welcome the new Government's commitment to increase the personal allowance through time to £10,000 a year, as that will help to reduce the poverty gap for people moving from welfare to work.

The third principle is that successful transitions into employment should never be undermined by financial uncertainty. That means that the system of transitional support must be transparent, responsive, quick and effective. I had a lot of sympathy with the proposal that the Labour Party made prior to the general election that there should be a guarantee that everybody who moves from welfare into work will be at least £40 a week better off as a result of doing so. Such a commitment would be a simple message and a major incentive.

The fourth key principle is that, for some, work is not possible. It is essential that the benefits system does not relegate such people to a life of disadvantage, financial uncertainty and poverty, particularly people who are severely disabled. There are examples—Bill Kidd mentioned some—of individuals who are disabled, in some cases quite severely disabled, being treated appallingly by the people who administer the ESA. Benefits must provide a standard of living that supports dignity, freedom and social unity. That must include female pensioners who are disadvantaged under the current system for time spent caring for dependents.

The final underlying principle is that the administration of benefits and tax credits should be as swift, streamlined and customer focused as possible to avoid administrative complexity that leads to confusion and uncertainty about entitlement and support, particularly when individuals are trying to make a successful transition back into work. I regret to say that my experience of the ESA is that it does not meet that criterion either.

I therefore look forward to what I hope will be a wholesale overhaul of the benefits system. We must tackle those who abuse the system, but we must ensure that, in doing so, we do not penalise those who genuinely want to move from welfare into work. To that end, I hope that the Parliament can unite in sending a loud and clear message to our colleagues in London that the time for change is here, but that the change, as well as being effective and efficient, must be fair and humanitarian.

Meeting closed at 17:40.