Citizens Advice buckling under volume of calls over new benefits | The Guardian | 4 July 2012

July 4, 2012

Already overstretched service pushed to breaking point by requests for assistance with incapacity benefit, says CAB

From The Guardian, Wednesday 4 July 2012 (story by Amelia Gentleman).

Advice centres are struggling to cope with a surge in requests for help because of rising problems claiming employment and support allowance (ESA), the new sickness and disability benefit, according to Citizens Advice, which responded to 97,000 requests for support on this issue alone in the first three months of 2012.

The charity said its “already overstretched service” had been put under severe pressure by the problems connected with ESA, and the controversial computer-led fitness test, the work capability assessment (WCA), which determines eligibility for the benefit.

Problems connected with ESA were the fastest-growing area of need among people who consulted a Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in the first quarter of this year, rising by 71% on the same quarter last year. There was an 82% rise in requests for help in mounting an appeal against a decision not to award the benefit. Around 38% of appeals against a refusal of the benefit are currently being overturned in the claimant's favour.

The rise is explained in part by the fact that last April, all former incapacity benefit claimants began to be reassessed for the benefit, which was introduced for new claimants in 2008; the increase in demand for help will be linked to claimants' lack of familiarity with the new process. Overall requests for help with benefit claims rose by 6% in that period, making this the largest part of the charity's work, making up 34% of all advice given by CAB.

The charity warned that its advisers were already struggling to cope with the huge rise in applications for support, and would find it extremely difficult to handle a further surge in requests for help next year when fundamental changes to the welfare system arrive with the introduction of Universal Credit.

Gillian Guy, CAB chief executive, said:

“This is a very worrying trend. ESA is giving rise to a far higher volume of appeals than any other benefit. As well as the huge additional stress and hardship this causes our clients, it also puts severe pressure on our already overstretched service. Our specialist advisers in bureaux are being overwhelmed by the volume of these complex and time-consuming appeals.

“Things are likely to get even worse when sweeping legal aid cuts come into force next spring. These will have a devastating impact on our capacity to provide specialist welfare benefits advice and casework – just as the biggest shake-up in the benefits system since the welfare state came into being begins to get underway.”

Chris Grayling, the employment minister, said:

“Given the comparison of the two periods, a rise in contacts to the CAB is not surprising when you consider that along with all the new ESA claimants, we are reassessing 1.5 million people over three years.

“We are determined to ensure the process is fit for purpose, which is why we are implementing all the recommendations made by our independent reviewer to make it better and fairer.”

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