Belfast Telegraph

Benefits scheme complaints up 34%

The number of complaints about a key benefit change designed to help people back to work in Northern Ireland has increased by a third, the Citizen's Advice Bureau said.

Claimants of state payments because illness or disability affects their ability to get jobs are being reassessed to determine their ability to work. If suitable, assistance is given to find a post through the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Those found unfit are placed in a support group.

The CAB said almost 28,000 ESA-related issues were raised last year criticising how officials deciding claims communicated with people and how the disabled were treated during medical tests.

"Citizens Advice has found that client complaints are often not treated in a way that would reflect the seriousness of their concerns," it said.

"This runs the risk of further undermining confidence in the Work Capability Assessment and the migration process. Complaints about the assessment should be properly acknowledged and responded to, to reassure clients that their concerns are being treated with the requisite respect."

In 2011/12, Citizens Advice saw 27,767 ESA-related issues. This constituted 17% of benefit issues and represented a 34% increase from 2010/11.

Benefit queries continue to be the single largest area of the CAB's work, accounting for over 55% of total issues dealt with by advisers, the organisation said.

An evidence paper from the CAB added the increasingly complex nature of work undertaken reflects the effects of welfare changes, squeezing of household budgets and reductions in working hours on people during the economic crisis.

The Government is migrating claimants of state payments like incapacity benefit to ESA by testing their fitness to work. The decision is often communicated to individuals by telephone.

The CAB said: "This was a marked improvement from a system that only allowed for letters to be sent to claimants and has resulted in better communication between ESA and individual claimants. This change also allowed for a more personable approach and consequential improved relations."

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