A sudden government move to cut the length of time benefit claimants have to fill in a lengthy medical questionnaire will make it harder for them to obtain the support they need, say campaigners.
Disabled people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA), the new out-of-work disability benefit, previously had six weeks to fill in the lengthy ESA50 questionnaire as part of their claim.
But the government has now cut this time limit from six to four weeks, without warning.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said the move – on 10 October – would deny many disabled people the opportunity to gather the information they needed.
He said it would lead to disabled people being forced to undergo unnecessary medical assessments at the hands of the government’s much-criticised contractors, Atos Healthcare.
The House of Lords merits of statutory instruments committee has also been critical of the sudden move, and said the government had failed to explain how the change would benefit either the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or ESA claimants.
Coyle said: “The DWP is making an already difficult process harder for disabled people and risks wasting considerable sums of public money.
“Disabled people who cannot get their health consultant to respond in the short time permitted may now have to attend a pointless [Atos] assessment no matter how ill or what the impairment is.
“This wastes limited time and money and the government should focus instead on ensuring appropriate timeframes are used and on delivering the recommendations to improve the assessment process promised last year which are not only undelivered but are now also undermined in further arbitrary time limiting.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “The timescales were previously based on those for incapacity benefit, which included an additional 14 days for claimants to contact their GPs to make an appointment.
“This is not needed for ESA claims and it is therefore reasonable to reduce the timescales.
“We recognise concerns about the effects on vulnerable people, especially those with mental health problems.
“As a consequence, we are retaining all existing safeguards for those claimants who demonstrate that they had good cause for failing to return the questionnaire on time.
“Decision makers must consider the claimant’s state of health, nature of disability and whether they were in Great Britain before deciding if the claimant has good cause for not completing the questionnaire on time.”
3 November 2011