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Sheila Gilmore MP.

Sheila Gilmore MP.

The number of sick and disabled people wrongly declared “fit for work” after taking the Atos-run work capability assessment for Employment and Support Allowance could be far higher than previously thought, it has been revealed.

It seems the Coalition government has been artificially inflating its figure for the number of people initially awarded the benefit by including the results of informal appeals, known as ‘reconsideration’.

The dodge was uncovered by Labour MP Sheila Gilmore, who sits on the Commons Work and Pensions select committee. She raised concerns about the figures in September.

A reply by Tory Employment Minister Esther McVey has admitted that figures covering the number of people initially awarded the benefit have been artificially boosted by the reconsideration process, in which people who have been found “fit for work” ask DWP civil servants to re-examine their cases.

If the decision remains the same, claimants can lodge a formal appeal with HM Courts and Tribunal Service. Separate statistics have been published on the number of people reaching this stage – but not on the number seeking reconsideration.

In her letter, Ms McVey admitted figures are “not clear” and promised to “ensure greater clarity in future”.

ESA replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008. The assessment process often involves a face-to-face assessment, and data on the number of people awarded and refused the benefit is published every three months.

“I regularly meet sick and disabled people who are unable to work but who have been declared able to do so following a flawed ESA assessment,” said Sheila Gilmore

“Up to now we thought that the assessment was getting about one in ten fit for work decisions wrong – far too many in most people’s eyes – but now we know the Government have been fiddling the figures, the reality could be much much worse.

“Up until today Ministers led us to believe they were publishing figures that showed the number of people awarded benefit immediately after assessment and before any appeals. It now turns out that informal appeals to officials – as opposed to formal ones to judges – were being taken into account.”

She said: “This has clearly masked the true extent of the failings in the ESA assessment process.”

The latest revelation follows the omission of the number of successful appeals from October’s round of figures.

“Taken together, these events suggests that rather than trying to fix the test to reduce the number of incorrect decisions, Ministers’ priority is to fix the figures to downplay the extent of the problem,” said Sheila Gilmore.

Her letter to the Department for Work and Pensions, dated September 27, 2013 can be found here.

Esther McVey, Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, replied on November 2, and her letter can be found here.

Statistics on the number of people successfully appealing Fit for Work decisions were absent from the release in October 2013. The relevant tables were blank but for this statement: “An update of these statistics is currently unavailable. Please see the July 2013 release for the latest statistics on outcomes of appeals.”