Tens of thousands of people who were “written off” as unfit for work for more than a decade have been found to be suitable for employment after new government tests.
The startling findings – seen by The Sunday Telegraph – have emerged from the huge “reassessment exercise” being carried out on around 1.5 million people who currently claim incapacity benefits.
Claimants undergo a series of physical fitness tests as well as being judged on their mental skills in programmes run by private contractors which last around 13 weeks.
If they are found to be fit for work and cannot find a job, they can lose the main sickness benefit, Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which sees payments of up to £105.50 a week.
They are then likely to go on to the less generous Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), where typical weekly payments are up to £71, although a small minority of severely disabled claimants can have their benefit payments increased.
Ministers have branded the old incapacity benefit regime “broken” and have vowed to do more to help the long-term “sick” find jobs as part of their wholesale reforms of the welfare system.
According to the latest figures, among 431,100 claimants whose claims were fully assessed between October 2010 and February 2012 some 145,000, more than one in three, were classed as “fit for work.” Of these, 39,500 had been on incapacity benefit for more than a decade, including 12,400 who had been on the payments for more than 15 years.
Sources at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said the findings showed ministers had a huge task ahead in helping people back on to the job market after they had been “written off” for such a long time.
Mark Hoban, the Employment Minister, said: “These figures show how broken the old incapacity benefit system was. We’re determined to give people all the support they need to help them on the long road back to work.
“I don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge. For many people it will take time to get back into work but we are determined to do all we can to help.”
Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has launched the £5 billion Work Programme scheme in which the long-term unemployed are helped find work by private sector providers. The new tests were piloted by the last Labour government but were rolled out nationally when the Coalition took office.
In official impact assessment of the new scheme, released earlier this year, judges that it will cut benefit payments by £2.24 billion a year – and lead to about 500,000 fewer claimants overall.
The ESA was also introduced by Labour – but the party now says the way changes are being implemented is unfair on several groups of claimants.
Incapacity benefits are thought to have cost the taxpayer around £135 billion between 2000 and 2010. Ministers blame Labour for “abandoning” tens of thousands to a lifetime on benefits.