Tough Times Ahead for Sick and Disabled with Back Door Benefit Changes in Welfare Reform Bill
Advice NI, an advice charity, has uncovered the true extent of potentially far-reaching proposals contained within the Welfare Reform Bill which could have extreme consequences for the most sick and disabled across Northern Ireland.
This has opened up a new raft of issues which local MLA’s will need to address in the coming weeks in the NI Assembly.
Under a particular clause in the Bill, the “power to require consideration of revision before appeal”, a new mandatory reconsideration stage will be introduced for claimants wishing to challenge a decision to disallow benefit. Advice NI has learned that uniquely in terms of Employment & Support Allowance (ESA), the main benefit payable for those unfit for work, what is changing is that there can be no appeal until there has been a mandatory reconsideration and there can be no payment of ESA during the mandatory reconsideration stage.
Speaking about the possible future change, Bob Stronge, Advice NI Chief Executive said: “This change will have a huge impact on Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) claimants. Currently claimants can appeal a decision to disallow ESA and they can continue to be paid ESA at a ’pending appeal’ reduced amount until the outcome of their appeal. Under these proposals claimants will see their ESA payment stop during the mandatory reconsideration stage.
“Our advisers see people on a daily basis who have severe health problems who have been disallowed ESA. Some serious questions have to be asked: how are they going to cope financially; what are their options; why has this issue not been discussed and debated during the deliberations at the NI Assembly.”
The issue has been the subject of some debate in Great Britain, where concerns have been raised in respect of delays and the length of time sick and disabled people could be without any means of financial support; the contradiction and waste of resources involved in sick and disabled people being forced to claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) for the period in question; and the concern that many of these people may not even be able to satisfy JSA conditions of entitlement.
Bob Stronge added: “If taken forward, we think this is an unnecessary measure which will cause untold distress for claimants and may well ultimately discourage many from challenging potentially incorrect ESA decisions. We also believe that it will create unnecessary additional workloads for Social Security Agency staff and ultimately for our advisers who will have to support clients through all of this.
“We have to question why this issue has not come to light sooner and why it has not been fully debated as the Welfare Reform Bill has progressed through the Assembly including the Social Development Committee. We believe this change represents a fundamental shift which could cause unreasonable delay, hardship and suffering. It requires proper scrutiny and a full understanding of both the intended and unintended consequences.”
The Welfare Reform Bill has completed it’s Committee Stage in the NI Assembly. Further debate will take place in the coming weeks.
Advice NI For further information in relation to Advice NI’s Briefing Paper on the Welfare Reform Bill please log on to www.adviceni.net
DSD Responds to Advice NI
In a response to the statement from Advice NI, a spokesperson from the Department for Social Development commented: ” Whilst the statement from Advice NI is correct in that claimants will not receive any entitlement to Employment Support Allowance during the reconsideration period, this does not represent a change from existing arrangements for those claimants who choose to challenge a decision to disallow Employment Support Allowance by opting to have a reconsideration undertaken of the original decision.
“In these cases payment of Employment Support Allowance ceases until the outcome is known although the claimant is able to claim Job Seekers Allowance thereby ensuring they will receive payment of a social security benefit. If the outcome from the reconsideration process is in the claimant’s favour, then the entitlement to Employment Support Allowance is re-instated from the date of disallowance.
“The proposals in the Welfare Reform Bill currently going through the Assembly is for the introduction of a mandatory reconsideration process. This change is intended to help reduce the number of people who have to go to appeal by introducing a formal review stage allowing them to submit additional information and having the case reviewed by someone not involved in the original decision. This change means that in the future all claimants who are disallowed Employment Support Allowance must go through the reconsideration process before being able to progress to appeal.
“Whilst claimants who are disallowed Employment Support Allowance will still be entitled to claim Job Seekers Allowance whilst the reconsideration is taking place, the Department recognises the practical difficulties which claimants may experience in moving between benefits and discussions are continuingwith the Department of Works and Pensions in London on the practical implications of this change.”