Advice bureau “overwhelmed” by people seeking help with appeals against sickness benefit entitlements in Hartlepool

MOUNTING DEBT: Joe Michna from the Citizens Advice Bureau. (IRN
MOUNTING DEBT: Joe Michna from the Citizens Advice Bureau. (IRN

CITIZENS’ advice chiefs say they are struggling to cope with the number of people seeking help with appeals against their sickness benefit entitlement.

Hartlepool Citizens’ Advice Bureau, in Park Road, is “being overwhelmed” by the large number of people appealing against their entitlement known as the Employment & Support Allowance (ESA), according to officials.

The cash-strapped advice agency, which had its funding cut by Hartlepool borough Council last year, is currently advising and helping 91 residents with their appeals and during the year 2011-12 – the bureau helped more than 400 residents seeking advice on challenging decisions on their fitness for work.

People receiving ESA have to undergo periodical medical examinations known as ‘work capability assessments”, which can last between 15 and 40 minutes.

The medical practitioner then prepares a report which is then passed to the Jobcentre Plus for a decision on whether the person is fit for work or not.

People who are declared fit for work can appeal this decision to an independent tribunal.

The medical assessment is a points based system and to pass the test, a person has to be awarded 15 points and points can be awarded for either physical or mental health problems.

Joe Michna, bureau manager, said the most common medical conditions that people they speak to suffer from are some form of arthritis or a combination of depression and anxiety.

Mr Michna said: “We are reaching breaking point in trying to advice and assist so many local residents with ESA appeals.

“Due to a loss of grant income, we no longer employ any dedicated welfare benefit caseworkers so I have to help out and deal with many of the local residents who seek our help.

“I am currently offering advice and assistance to 91 residents who have lodged an appeal and on average I will have at least three interviews with each of these clients in the run-up to their appeal being heard by a tribunal.

“We are literally being overwhelmed by the number of ESA appeals that people are seeking advice with.

“We do receive many complaints about the way in which the medical assessments are conducted and we always advice people on the ATOS complaints procedure.”

ATOS is the company who carry out the medical assessment.

Mr Michna said they are “simply unable” to accompany people at their tribunal hearings but do everything possible to prepare people about the procedure.

He added: “We are urgently seeking to secure the financial resource needed to employ a welfare benefit caseworker to help with these appeals but currently we have to rely on the resources that are available to us.”