The Con-Dems' Machiavellian cuts
Tony Aitman, Advice worker
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a replacement for Incapacity Benefit, was introduced in 2008 for paying benefits to those too ill to work or with a disability.
One of the aspects of ESA is that it is a benefit for people with long term illnesses or disabilities. Typically, this means that someone on ESA will have higher expenses than others. This has been recognised by making the rate of ESA higher than Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA).
On ESA, those in the Work Related Activity Group (Wrag) currently get £28.75 more. Now, leaked reports from the government suggest that they are considering reducing this to only 50p a week more, as part of a plan to cut billions off the welfare bill, which already includes freezing benefits for two years.
To qualify for ESA, claimants must go through a work assessment interview, previously carried out by the disgraced Atos company. There can be three outcomes of this: you could be found fit for work and told to claim JSA; you could be found to have limited capability for work and put in Wrag; or you could be put in the support group.
Thousands who were either denied benefit or put in the wrong group have had the decisions overturned on appeal. The cost of appeals has tripled to £66 million in three years.
Last year, over 40% of appeals against Atos decisions were successful. That figure has dropped, not through better decision making but because the government has introduced new measures to prevent those on benefit from receiving it.
Previously, if you disagreed with a decision, you could go straight to appeal. Now, you have to ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration - where the decision is looked at again by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decision maker.
Of course, you can't claim benefit while the Mandatory Reconsideration is being made, so claimants are driven into absolute poverty, forced to go to charities just to get vouchers for food.
Additionally, someone on ESA or JSA can also receive Housing Benefit. However, if it is stopped, Housing Benefit also stops, with the threat of homelessness.
At the agency where I work, the typical homeless person we saw in the past was an older man, with either drug or drink problems. Now, increasingly, it is younger people, having no benefits or driven out of their homes by the 'bedroom tax'.
There is an extra Machiavellian twist to the government's benefits cuts. A claimant denied ESA receives no benefit while the Mandatory Reconsideration is being considered. And the DWP's advice? Claim JSA in the meantime.
However, to claim JSA means that the claimant is admitting that they are looking for and capable of work - and therefore ineligible for ESA!
Benefits claimants are given a programme by the DWP, outlining how many jobs they have to apply for each week. If they fail to meet these conditions, they are sanctioned - their benefits are stopped, often for indefinite periods. Particularly hard hit by this are those with mental health problems.