New sickness benefit system reduces number of eligible claimants

The number of people who are deemed fit for work and not eligible for sickness benefit has doubled under the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) system introduced last year by the government, official figures show.

The Department of Work and Pensions statistics revealed that out of the 193,800 people who made an ESA claim between October 2008 and February 2009, 36% were fit to work and not eligible for the benefit.

Under the old incapacity benefit system, an estimated 17% were found fit for work.

The latest findings also revealed 38% stopped claiming benefit before the assessment on them was completed, and 11% were eligible for ESA with work-related activity, such as regular adviser interviews to help them prepare to return to work in the future.

The Work Capability Test, introduced last year, examines whether someone is fit for work or should go onto ESA. It assesses people earlier and involves face-to-face assessments rather than assessments on paper.

The government claimed the figures showed thousands of people were being prevented from being trapped on long-term sickness benefits.

Work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper said: “Those who can work need help to get back into jobs as soon as possible, so they don’t get trapped on long-term benefits. That’s why we’ve introduced this stronger early medical assessment alongside more support in work.”

However, Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman Steve Webb said the government was simply shunting large numbers of ill or disabled people onto a lower level of support by deeming them fit to work.

“This scheme may simply disguise the problem instead of dealing with it,” he said. “The government must track what happens to people who don’t meet the criteria set for these allowances to make sure they are not just left to rot on a benefit with a different name.”

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