I have been contacted by a number of constituents as part of a 38 Degrees campaign concerning 'fit for work' (ESA65B) letters issued by the Department for Work and Pensions.
This followed the Zacchaeus 2000 (Z2K) Trust uncovering that these letters are being sent to the doctors of all Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants who are initially unsuccessful in their claim, telling doctors to withhold sick notes from ill and disabled people appealing the decision, thereby preventing significant numbers of low-income claimants from accessing financial support - which they would be able to do whilst appealing as long as they have a sick note from their doctor.
The ESA65B letter is automatically issued by the IT system to GPs in every case where an ESA claimant has been found ‘fit for work’.
I share the concerns raised over the wording of the ESA65B letter, which was changed to remove advice given to GPs that they may still provide fit notes where an ESA claimant is appealing against a fit for work decision. This has undoubtedly led to many claimants from accessing the financial support that they desperately need whilst waiting for their tribunal hearing. This is even more shocking when you consider that many people are currently being forced to wait an average of six months for their appeal to be heard. When decisions are finally made, they strongly favour the claimant: seven out of ten PIP and ESA claimants received a decision in their favour, demonstrating that many original decisions are wrong.
Justice delayed is justice denied, and when people are waiting six months on average, that is a denial of justice. Waiting six months for an appeal when in many cases the person has been pushed into financial distress is intolerable. It is difficult to understate how traumatic the experience of waiting so long for a tribunal decision can be - particularly when they are then unable to access financial support whilst they wait as a result of the ESA65B letters being issued by the DWP.
It is essential not only that waiting times for appeal are brought down, but that the wording in letters issued by the DWP is clear in what claimants are entitled to and does not lead to them being pushed into further financial distress.
I wrote to Amber Rudd MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to put forward the concerns raised with me by constituents over ESA65B letters and I include below a copy of the response I received.