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Employment and Support Allowance (Appeals)

Volume 563: debated on Monday 20 May 2013

3. What financial support his Department makes available to sick and disabled people while their claim for employment and support allowance undergoes mandatory reconsideration prior to the formal appeal. (155861)

Jobseeker’s allowance is available to those found fit for work. Alternatively, employment and support allowance can be paid for those who subsequently decide to appeal. ESA can be backdated to include the reconsideration period. Those who are put in the work-related activity group, but appeal because they want to move to the support group, will continue to be paid ESA at the assessment rate, as now.

I thank the Minister for that answer. A number of my constituents who have claimed for JSA have been told that they are not fit for work—they have a medical certificate—and are therefore not eligible because they are not available for work. What are people supposed to do in that situation? Will it not drive them into the hands of payday lenders?

First, if someone is found fit for work, they should be eligible for jobseeker’s allowance. The hon. Lady will be aware, as I am, of some of the hardship arrangements that are in place to help people, but it is absolutely right to try to encourage those claiming incapacity benefit to be reassessed, to ensure that those who are fit for work can get back into work, rather than be written off and face a lifetime of inactivity, as happened under previous Governments.

More broadly, when the Select Committee on Work and Pensions looked at this issue, we were interested in claimants’ experience of face-to-face interviews and, in particular, claimants with mental health problems. Will the Minister update the House on his assessment of those areas?

As a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend speaks knowledgeably about this issue. When the employment and support allowance was introduced under the previous Government, a third of those with a mental health condition received it. As a consequence of the reforms we have introduced, that number has now gone up to 43%.

Is the Minister aware of the representations that I have made to the Secretary of State about a constituent of mine who has been suffering from mental illness for 13 years? Three months before his Atos test, he tried to commit suicide. Nevertheless, he was immediately refused a continuation of his benefit and was put into the limited liability group. Does the Minister not realise that there are some horrendous cases of punitive action being taken against people who are completely innocent in this respect? That constituent was without any visible means of income, and I had to refer him to the food bank in order to prevent him from starving. Is the Minister proud of such consequences of his policies?

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he was in the Government who introduced the work capability assessment and the employment and support allowance. I have set out the improvements that we have made to the system that we inherited from the previous Government, which was not working. We are continuing to make reforms, and that is demonstrated by the fact that the proportion of people claiming employment and support allowance has tripled under this Government.

I am afraid that appeals to tribunals following refused ESA claims are taking far too long. The Leicester office, which deals with appeals from my constituents, now has a waiting list of 40 weeks. I know that this is not the responsibility of the Minister’s Department, but will he liaise with the Ministry of Justice to get this sorted out as quickly as possible?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the whole process is taking far too long. We are working closely with the Ministry of Justice to reform the system and ensure that appeals can be heard more quickly. We are also working with charities to see what additional support we can give to people claiming employment and support allowance, to ensure that the right information is made available as soon as possible to enable claims to be processed as quickly as possible.

What would the Minister say to my constituent, Philip Gillespie, who served our nation in Afghanistan and lost his right leg in an explosion there? Last month, he lost his disability living allowance and was told that he would be caught up by the new military system that is soon to be put in place. I hope that he will be caught up by it, but will the Minister ensure that this never happens again, and that a soldier serving his nation is never refused a benefit to which he is entitled?

I am not familiar with the details of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but we are working on arrangements with the Ministry of Defence and, in future, such cases will be dealt with by the Ministry rather than by the Department for Work and Pensions. However, the assessment is about functionability, not about someone’s condition. The old system, under which people were judged on their condition, resulted in many people being written off for decades because of their illness.