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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

It appears the Government’s bid to get more long-term sickness benefit claimants back into work is being held up by a backlog of reassessments, appeals and people being deemed “sicker than expected”.

The number of jobseekers enrolling on the Government’s Work Programme – which pays private firms and charities to get people back into employment – has fallen to its lowest levels since the scheme began, official figures show.

Just 47,330 people were sent to the programme by jobcentres in April 2012 - falling from 61,890 the previous month and from a peak of 99,270 in July 2011. The Government said the two Easter bank holidays were likely to have impacted on referral numbers.

More concerning for the Government – and the charities specialising in such back-to-work support – however, is the lack of referrals for claimants on health-related benefits.

Analysis of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion (CESI) shows that volumes for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Incapacity Benefit (IB) customers are significantly below Government forecasts.

Its analysis shows that only 37% of forecast referrals have been made over the first 11 months of the programme, and these customers represent a mere 10% of referrals so far.

The number of ESA and IB referrals showed improvements at the end of 2011 - due to a widening of the referral criteria for ESA claimants and a ramp up of efforts to identify eligible claimants - but have since fallen back.

According to the CESI analysis, monthly referrals of ESA and IB participants have settled around 2,000 per month higher than prior to November last year, but are 'still not at the levels expected when the Work Programme was commissioned'.

The lack of referrals will be causing the voluntary sector providers – specialising in delivering services to ESA and IB claimants – concern as they have brought in extra specialist staff to help support them back into work.

Employment minister Chris Grayling told The Sunday Telegraph last month that its failure to push enough claimants through the new Work Programme was partly because many of the long-term claimants on health-related benefits were classed as “sicker than expected”.

The CESI also highlights that a combination of backlogs in assessments for IB and ESA claimants and the high rate of people appealing such assessments is also likely to have contributed to the low referral rates.

The Government’s response, however, has alarmed health professionals and unions.

Mr Grayling said he would redesign the Work Programme so that those deemed originally too ill to join would be made to do so.

Responding to fears that it could force the long-term ill to prepare for work before they’re ready – harming their recovery – Grayling said the scheme’s providers were capable of helping more people with complex issues back to work quicker.

Earlier this month, the Government was forced to defend the work capability assessments it is using to reassess disability claimants’ entitlement to ESA after it was revealed a man diagnosed with heart failure died 39 days after being found ‘fit for work’ by the French firm Atos Healthcare who is carrying out the assessments.

In another case, an emphysema sufferer – given two days to live by his doctor – was passed fit for work but later successfully appealed the decision.

Ministry of Justice figures highlighted by the BBC's Panorama show that more than 176,000 cases go to appeal tribunals every year costing the taxpayer a further £50m. DWP figures show around 30% of those cases are being overturned, leading to calls the system is “flawed.”

Two years ago the Government appointed professor Malcolm Harrington to independently review the system.

After making recommendations he said the testing system is “better than it was, but only if done properly” – i.e. if decisions taken are not entirely based on a questionnaire and computer programme and that human involvement is part of the process.

The Government strenuously denies it or Atos is working to targets for reassessments.

Mr Grayling told Panorama: “We do not have a financial target for the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit or for the level of new applications for ESA which are successful. Absolutely, categorically, unequivocally there is no financial target.”

Asked about the 30% success rate in appeals, he added: “I think you have to look at why the appeals are successful. I wish the judges sometime looked beyond the first impression and thought – is it really the case that these people could not return to any form of work?”

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