Jobcentre chiefs have issued around 150,000 copies of a controversial ‘fit for work’ letter that doctors warn could endanger patients’ health.
The huge total ramps up pressure on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) just a day after the letters were blasted by GPs.
The row revolves around the DWP’s treatment of people who are denied sickness benefit Employment Support Allowance (ESA) after being found ‘fit for work’.
Each time someone is found fit for work, the DWP sends their GP a standard letter informing them of the decision.
But the wording of this letter changed in 2017 to say GPs “do not need to provide any more fit notes” to their patient – even though these are needed to keep claiming benefits during an appeal.
Campaigners say these new letters leave some claimants stranded without cash, and the Royal College of GPs warned they are “potentially endangering [patients’] health.”
The DWP said it recognises GPs’ concerns, has issued interim guidance and is drawing up a revised letter to be used from this summer.
But Mirror analysis of official figures shows huge numbers of ‘fit for work’ letters have already been sent since the new wording launched in August 2017.
Government statistics show people were found ‘fit for work’ 146,500 times from September 2017 to September 2018.
The real total is likely to be higher, as figures for the last six months are not yet available.
The DWP has not confirmed the number of letters it sent, but said a letter is generated automatically each time someone is found fit for work.
That suggests all 146,500 fit-for-work decisions in that period led to a letter to a GP.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, told the Mirror: “It has become clear that the wording on the current ESA65B letter has had unforeseen consequences – and as this analysis shows, could potentially have affected a significant number of people.”
She added: “Patients appealing a decision require a fit note to be able to continue to receive benefits.
“Without this document, their finances – and ultimately their health – are potentially at risk.
“No GP wants that, and it only serves to threaten the long-standing trust that patients have in their family doctor.
“As doctors, our concern is the health and wellbeing of our patients.
“We are not benefits assessors and must never be used as barriers for patients to receive benefits when they are entitled to them, as ultimately, this can have a detrimental impact on their health.”
Shadow Minister for Disabled People Marsha De Cordova said: “These figures reveal the shocking scale of the problem caused by these letters.
“It is outrageous that the misleading information sent to GPs in these letters will have wrongly deprived sick and disabled people of social security they should have been entitled to.
“The Government must immediately act to scrap the letters and prevent any further harm.”
Raji Hunjan, chief executive of welfare advice charity the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, said: “It is incredibly worrying that potentially thousands of claimants are being denied their disability benefits because the DWP are sending these damaging letters to the claimants’ GPs.
“These letters are pushing people into poverty.
“The DWP have the power to put an end to this and we urge them do so with immediate effect.”
Commons Work and Pensions Committee chairman Frank Field said: “Though nearly three quarters of ESA decisions are being overturned by appeals, the DWP still manages to make this disastrous situation worse by sending out hundreds of thousands of the letters that GPs say are putting patients’ health at risk.
“Rather than confusing and dissuading GPs from giving patients the fit notes they need to keep them going while these masses of appeals grind on, perhaps DWP should focus on getting it right in the first place?”
We drew our figure from DWP statistics on the outcomes of ESA fit-for-work tests by month, and a Freedom of Information reply which dated the change to August 2017.
The numbers peaked in January 2018, when 15,200 decisions were made to find claimants ‘fit for work’. The lowest number was in September 2018 when 7,000 people were found fit for work.
DWP sources accepted some GPs “found the revised letter confusing” and have issued interim guidance.
But they stressed only a minority of claimants would be hit by the issue, because the majority do not launch appeals.
And they said standing guidance has always been to keep issuing fit notes if someone is appealing a benefit cut.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We want to ensure that people with health conditions and disabilities get the support they’re entitled to.
“‘In the minority of cases where a claimant is found not to qualify for ESA we will advise them on the appeal process.
“A small minority of claimants do choose to appeal and while our standing guidance has always been clear, we have issued an update to GPs to ensure these claimants get the support they need.
“Where most claimants do not appeal, we will support them to claim other out-of-work benefits.”