Questions and Answers for Employment and Support Allowance Advisors

What is ESA?

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit that focuses on what a person can do, as opposed to focusing on what they can’t do.  With Incapacity Benefit, there were figures to show that someone on the benefit for two years was more likely to retire or even pass away than to get back into work.  ESA aims to correct this by ensuring no-one is written off or ignored and that everyone has a good chance to get back into work where possible.

The aim of the benefit is to help those with an illness or disability to move into work, rather than being stuck on benefits.  ESA offers personalised support and financial assistance for people who cannot work with the medical assessment being a central part of the system, deciding who can work and who cannot.

The Work Focused Interview or WFI is a key part of the return to work process for those claiming ESA.  It is arranged with an Employment Service Adviser and is where people discuss barriers to returning to work.  A package of support is then agreed to help them progress and eventually move into work where possible.

The aim of ESA is to offer fairer financial support to people, paying the work-related activity or support component after 13 weeks rather than waiting for 28 or even 52 weeks as was the policy with incapacity benefits.

Is ESA forcing people into work?

ESA does not force people into work but does require them to take part in some kind of work-related activity.  This is more about offering them help and support to see what they can do and where this might take them. People with the most severe conditions get more financial help through the Support components but can still volunteer for appropriate support if they want.

What safeguards are in place, so people aren’t sanctioned incorrectly under the Work Related Activity component?

Under ESA, the benefit can be sanctioned if someone doesn’t attend or participate fully in a work focused interview.  But there are safeguards in place that ensures the system is fair and that people with mental health conditions are visited before any sanctions are imposed.

Work Capability Assessment and Medical Evidence

Why Does ESA require customers to attend a medical assessment?

This system is actually much the same as what was in place under the previous Incapacity Benefit system.

The Work Capability Assessment or WCA is a professional assessment of the eligibility of someone for ESA based on what they can do, as opposed to what they can’t do.  The criteria for Incapacity Benefit included a personal capability assessment but focused primarily on what someone couldn’t do. Created back in 1995, it has proved outdated in relation to the changes of the modern workplace as well as the development in medical therapy and understanding of conditions that are common.

The WCA is a more robust and accurate assessment that helps to identify people with health conditions that mean it is unreasonable to expect them to work.  They can then get the support they need.

The key change to the system is where it identifies people who can take part in work related activity and the support and interventions that are needed to help them to get back into employment.  It also helps to understand the limitations of their condition and looks as if it would be unreasonable to ask them to undertake work-related activity in the foreseeable future.

Does everyone have to go through a WCA?

Most new customers to ESA need to go through an assessment.  Sometimes a decision may be made with documentary evidence for those with the most severe conditions and disabilities who are placed in the Support group.

Why does GP provide medical certificates and reports?

Under the terms of the General Practitioner contract, they are required to supply paperwork that helps ESA to decide about a customer.

What happens if you don’t attend?

If someone doesn’t attend a medical assessment, ESA will write and ask for an explanation.  This is then passed to a Decision Maker who will decide if they have a good cause for not attending or not.  If they decide a good reason has not been provided, the ESA benefit can be stopped.

Are the assessments carried out by experts in the condition?

The assessments are carried out by professionals who have the training to understand the effect that a condition has on a person and their abilities.  They don’t need to have specific knowledge of the exact nature of the condition but in the analysis of their abilities.

Why is there no disability premium under ESA?

ESA works differently from the old benefits and this means that there is no a concept of a disability premium.  However, the benefit does understand the needs of people with disabilities and instead looks at these in a different way.  Other benefits don’t include a work related activity or support component. Those who come under the work related activity category are there because they can do some form of activity and will benefit from it.

Does this system make it harder to get the benefit?

The aim of ESA is not to make it harder to get the right benefit but ensuring that the assessment is still relevant today, considering changes in workplace condition, health conditions and general medical knowledge.  It contains a fairer and more accurate assessment of a person’s abilities with their condition and to identify those who can carry out some form of work.

The WCA is a comprehensive assessment of mental, cognitive and intellectual functions with a scoring system being removed to make sure there is no perceived bias against those with mental health conditions versus physical health conditions.

Why have descriptions been changed?

Descriptions have been changed in line with many of the activities carried out by employees.  When descriptions were no longer relevant, new ones were brought it. They also reflect a new view of mental health assessment, taking into account things such as learning disabilities.

Work has been done with medical experts to ensure that descriptions and scoring are more accurate and ensures that if it is unreasonable to expect people to work, the assessment clearly shows this.

Are people with mental health issues penalised as they can’t provide information requested?

ESA advisers understand that people with some mental health conditions may struggle to provide information required.  All efforts are made to help them with this and they would not be sanctioned for not providing information until a carer or health care professional has been contacted and all efforts made to help them understand.

What are the conditions of work related ESA?

People who are not in the support group may be required to take part in work-focused interviews.  Under the Welfare Reform Act 2007, there is a provision for additional work-related activity, it has not been introduced to ESA so far and further regulations would be needed for this to happen.  There is currently no intention to make applying for or attending job interviews a compulsory part of the benefit.

Is ESA a waste of time and resources?

Employment numbers have been steadily improving in recent years but there are still plenty of vacancies out there and the Employment Service can help fill those roles.  With the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, people were often written off and put onto inactive benefits that did little to help them get back into work when the economy improved.  The aim of ESA is to offer support and help to avoid this problem happening again.

That’s why ESA has return to work support, personalised support for disabled people or those with health conditions and other systems to help people see what they can do.  The Disablement Advisory Service also offers a range of services that include work placements, training, employment and retention in work services for those with disabilities.

Are staff trained to support those with learning disabilities?

ESA advisers are trained to have skills, knowledge, techniques and confidence to help anyone with learning disabilities and illnesses.  There are also condition management programmes that are delivered by qualified health professionals where needed.

When are WFIs waived or deferred?

This tends to be done when the person is close to returning to work and has an imminent start date for a new job, so the interview would be pointless.

Deferrals can happen for a wide range of reasons and time frames.  A short term problem could see a simple rearrangement for another date.  Longer term problems could see a deferment of months if needed.

What is the potential effect of imposing work focused interviews on vulnerable people, particularly any with mental health conditions?

There is a full range of safeguards in place to protect people who are vulnerable and have mental health problems.  This includes home visits, encouragement from a support worker being present and pre-interview contact with the ESA advisers, so people completely understand the process.  There can be times when mandatory intervention is the best option but, in most cases, those with the most severe conditions will be in the Support group and not required to attend WFIs.  ESA advisers can also defer interviews where the person cannot attend or take part for those with changing or fluctuating conditions.

Does the stress of work-focus interviews act as a disincentive?

People who take work focused interviews are very sensitive to the needs of the people they are dealing with, especially those with mental health problems.  But it has been shown that engaging in some form of work-related activity can be very beneficial for all groups.

Are sanctions needed under a more attractive support system?

Existing programs have shown that it is important to engage people because this impacts their aspirations about returning to work.

On the experience from Pathways to Work, for example, sanctions are not widely used.  However, it is necessary to have a system in place to ensure that people comply with the rules for the small minority who don’t.

What about people with the most severe conditions?

Anyone who is assessed as having the most severe disabilities or health conditions will go into what is known as the Support group.  They will be exempt from Work Focused Interviews.

Support group people are those who have illnesses or disabilities that mean it is unreasonable to the requirement to them get involved with work-related activity as part of them receiving ESA.  Support group customers need to have a medical assessment review every three years at the most. That’s because some medical conditions can improve with treatment while others may decline despite treatment.  Depending on the outcome of the WCA, people will be placed in the Support group or may then be moved into the Work Related Activity Group or vice versa.

ESA focuses extra resources on those with the most severe disabilities.  This means they can be around £17 a week better off than under previous types of benefits with the new ESA system.

Who are the target group for ESA payments?

The benefit is designed to help people whose capacity for work is limited by either physical of medical conditions and the limitation is such that it is not reasonable to require them to work.