Employment and Support Allowance


Employment and Support Allowance is a benefit for people who are unable to work because they have an illness or disability and/or who need support in work. 

Successful ESA applicants are placed in one of two groups – the Support Group (people in this group are not expected to look for work or take part in jobsearch activities), or the Work-Related Activity Group or WRAG (people in this group are expected to participate in jobsearch-type or job preparation activities). Unsuccessful ESA applicants (people who are found fit for work) are told that they must sign on for Jobseeker’s Allowance if they wish to claim a benefit. See Jobseeker's Allowance for details.

People are assessed for ESA through the Work Capability Asessment, which generally includes a face-to-face test carried out by the private company Atos. 


The ESA-Atos fit-for-work regime has been extremely controversial. The assessment is widely described as unfair, stressful and inaccurate, and people have died after having been found fit for work. Mark Wood died, probably of starvation, when his benefits were cut off after a fit-for-work decision. Robert Barlow died from a heart defect and a brain tumour – but had been found fit for work even while his doctors were recommending a heart transplant. 

Among people who are found eligible for the benefit, many are placed in ESA’s Work-Related Activity Group, when they believe that they should be placed in the support group and not expected to look for work.

Restrictions have also been placed on the length of time people can receive ESA. Those on contributions-based ESA are now only eligible for that benefit for one year. 

Appeals skyrocketed as sick and disabled people challenged those fit-for-work decisions, and many of Atos’s original assessment decisions have been overturned on appeal

In October 2013, the government introduced “mandatory reconsideration” for ESA claimants who were found fit for work and wanted to appeal that decision. Under these new rules, claimants must wait for decision-makers to reconsider the original fit for work decision. They can only formally appeal the fit for work decision after that mandatory reconsideration period is completed and the fit-for-work decision is returned. 

There is evidence that people have to wait weeks before mandatory reconsideration is completed.

Campaigners are concerned about recent government claims that mandatory reconsideration has led to a drop in appeals. It may be that people are simply being forced to wait for longer periods until they can appeal.

Campaigning against Atos and the ESA work capability assessment has been fierce, with protests, sit-ins, complaints to members of parliament, legal challenges and newspaper campaigns

In early 2014, Atos announced that it would leave the work capability assessment contract with the DWP early, “following widespread public and political anger over the tests, which have been criticised by MPs and campaigners as crude and inhumane,” reported The Guardian

Two years ago, two people with mental health conditions brought a judicial review of the Atos Work Capability Assessment with the support of the Mental Health Resistance Network and Disabled People Against Cuts. 

They argued that people with mental health conditions were disadvantaged by the work capability assessment. The courts agreed. In May 2013, “the judges presiding over the case ruled that the WCA places mental health claimants at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ and that the DWP should make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to alleviate this.” At the time of writing, the DWP is due to return to court in July 2014, where campaigners hope it will explain the reasonable adjustments it will make – or why it hasn't made adjustments.


Atos quits £500m work capability assessment contract early
Guardian report on the private company's decision to abandon its contract after hundreds of thousands of people were wrongly assessed as fit to work.

Atos victims call for immediate halt to degrading fitness-to-work tests after French firm quits contract
Scottish campaign to end the fit-to-work tests after Atos ended its contract – Daily Record.

Campaigners win concessions on WCA recordings after court case
Kate Belgrave and Alan White investigate the problems arising from outsourced face-to-face assessments – New Statesman.

Disabled man takes government to court over benefit test
Guardian report, based on research by False Economy, of a successful legal challenge to Atos’s flawed assessment claiming that he was fit for work.

Do Atos mental function champions really make WCAs “better”?
Where are the Atos mental function champions? Kevan Jones takes questions to court – False Economy.

Dying Merseyside man was told by benefits assessors ‘you’re fit to work’
Liverpool Echo report of a disabled man who died penniless when he lost his benefits after being judged fit to work.

ESA and the fate of the Work-Related Activity Group: Fulfilling Potential
Report from Mind on why the ESA fails to get disabled people into paid work.

ESA Appeals increase by 40% – What the newspapers won't print
Appeals statistics from Disabled People Against Cuts.

ESA appeals more than double – and decisions in the claimant’s favour are increasing
Analysis of government figures on rocketing appeals against Atos work capability assessment decisions, and increasing tribunal decisions in favour of the claimant.

Help To Work? HAHAHAHAHA. More stories from the jobcentre
From Kate Belgrave’s huge and growing fund of experiences described by claimants.

How Norms Become Targets
Investigating the real reason for the misery of "fit for work" assessments.

Mandatory reconsideration FAQs
From Benefits and Work who aim to provide independent and accurate information about how to claim and keep your benefits.

Minister welcomes sharp fall in appeals against benefit decisions
DWP press release claiming that mandatory reconsideration has discouraged appeals. 

Mental Health Resistance Network
Facebook community page.

There’s no such group as the “deserving poor…”
The story of Clifford Poole: “After working for years and sustaining an industrial injury, I can only get ESA for one year.”

Vulnerable man starved to death after benefits were cut
Guardian report of 44-year-old man who died months after sickness and housing benefits were stopped following an Atos fitness-for-work assessment.

Work Capability Assessment Judicial Review for Mental Health Claimants Substantial Hearing 7, 8 and 9th July 2014, Royal Courts of Justice, London
Report of the vigil and the background to the case.