64,000 on sickness benefit 'fit to work'

UP TO 64,000 Scots could be forced off benefits after more than 40 per cent of those claiming incapacity benefit were found to be fit for work.

Statistics released yesterday showed that 43 per cent of the 148,000 employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants in Scotland were capable of working, compared with 39 per cent of claimants in the UK as a whole.

The figures sparked claims that Scotland was at the forefront of the UK's "culture of welfare dependency".

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However, the head of Citizens Advice Scotland said the UK government figures were "misleading and are not a true representation of the thousands of people who are incorrectly found fit for work".

Under the UK government's "new work programme", those ESA claimants found fit to work are moved on to job seekers allowance (JSA), where they are compelled to seek work. Claimants who move on to the JSA, which pays up to 67.50 a week for single people aged over 25, can receive it for only a year before they are required to sign up for the government's recently introduced compulsory work programme.

Those who do not join the programme have the allowance withdrawn.

Steve Webb, the Work and Pensions minister, said the government's work programmes for the unemployed, which include placements with firms and voluntary groups in exchange for benefit payments, would give claimants the "help they need".

He said: "These figures show that many people are able to work with the right help. We have strengthened the support now available, tailoring it to individual needs so they can overcome whatever barriers they face."

Yesterday's figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were based on medical assessments of the claimants carried out last year. Across the UK, 517,000 of the 1,342,100 people assessed were deemed to be fit enough to seek work.

The DWP found that in Scotland just 7 per cent of incapacity claimants were unwell enough to receive the allowance on a long-term basis.

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Labour MP Anne Begg, chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, warned against judging individual claimants harshly before knowing the full details of their case.

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She said: "Once people come to the end of their six month's statutory sick pay there's nowhere else for them to go. If someone is put on to sick pay and they still have a sick note from their doctor signing them off, then they can't work, but the system doesn't take that into account.

"There's a problem, because a number of people found fit for work will still be signed off ill. They could be having chemotherapy tests or not have had their illness properly diagnosed yet."

Lucy McTernan, chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland, claimed the figures did not reflect the true picture. She said many people who were geuninely too sick to work had been passed as fit under the ESA.

She said: "The government's figure of those assessed as unfit for work is unrealistic.

"The government's aim here is to get people off benefit and into suitable work where they can. We are fully behind that principle. People who can work should be helped to find suitable work - that is an admirable objective.

"But it is very clear that the ESA is unfit for purpose. Too many people who are genuinely too sick to work, including people with cancer, Alzheimer's disease and serious mental illnesses, are found fit for work."

However, Tory MSP Alex Johnstone said the figures showed that a large number of Scots on benefits were capable of working and should be encouraged to move out of the benefits system and into work. He said: "We have unfortunately developed a benefits culture in the UK and Scotland is at the forefront of this. The UK government is doing the right thing in getting those on benefits into work.

"The reality is that we can only achieve this as we get recovery in the economy. Inevitably there will be disputes over this, and some people asked to work will feel put out.

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"But these statistics indicate a surprisingly large number of Scots on benefits are capable of working. If someone is genuinely fit for work, it is not the taxpayer's job to finance them and their benefits should be stopped."

The figures published yesterday also included some people who had twice unsuccessfully applied for benefit.

The Commons work and pensions committee has already published a report criticising the benefits assessment firm, Atos Healthcare, which tests about 11,000 benefit claimants a week to determine how ill they are and whether they are eligible for benefit payments.

A committee report yesterday said Atos was causing "fear and anxiety" among vulnerable and disabled people, as well as providing a service that was "below the standard" expected.

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