Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country are reporting a massive rise in problems with ESA (Employment and Support Allowance), the benefit paid to people who are too ill or disabled to work.
New figures recently published show that ESA advice shot up by an unprecedented 71 per cent - to more than 97,000 problems - in the three months January to March 2012 compared with the same quarter last year.
This makes ESA the fastest growing advice issue dealt with by CAB advisers, accelerating its steep rise each quarter since it was introduced in October 2008 to replace incapacity benefit for new claimants.
However, the increase in ESA problems more than outweighs the drop in incapacity benefit problems.
The same three month period has seen an 82 per cent increase in advice about appeals against ESA decisions, amounting to over a quarter of all advice given.
A significant proportion of the increase in ESA problems has arisen from the reassessment of people on the old incapacity benefit replaced by ESA, which began in April 2011.
Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy calls this a ‘‘very worrying trend.’’ She explained: "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 over-stretched service.
"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."
This warning follows the research published by Citizens Advice earlier this year which indicated that many seriously ill and disabled people are being wrongly denied benefits because of significant inaccuracies in an unacceptably high number of medical assessment reports used to decide who qualifies for ESA.
And in future, medical assessment reports will be even more crucial in determining who gets help through the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) due to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as part of the government’s welfare reform programme.
Gillian Guy added: "Getting medical assessments right first time is absolutely essential to ensuring that seriously ill and disabled people entitled to support through the benefits system get the right kind of support when they need it.
"It’s vital that regular, independent monitoring of the accuracy of reports is put in place before medical reports are given an even more central role in deciding who is entitled to disability benefits and how much help they get."
Written by Catherine Ridge