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6 January 2020

Citizens Advice Plymouth

Training voluntary sector agencies on how to support people applying for the Employment & Support Allowance.
Strengthening Civil Society

About the project

The Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) is a sickness benefit for people who are ill or disabled and unable to work. Cutbacks to legal aid has made specialist welfare benefits advice difficult to come by and people often have to negotiate the claims process for ESA without support. We gave Citizens Advice Plymouth a grant in 2016 to run a training programme for voluntary sector organisations in Devon to help them help their service users navigate the ESA application system.

This grant was one of a number we have given to legal organisations to collaborate with voluntary organisations in their sector or locality to help them recognise when a rights-based approach or a legal intervention might help their service users.

Citizens Advice Plymouth

Plymouth Citizens Advice is delighted to have been awarded grant funding from the Baring Foundation to launch its innovative ‘Do Know Harm’ training initiative across Devon.

Entitlement to ESA is in most cases decided on a ‘points’ basis whereby claimants are scored in a Work Capability Assessment according to their physical and or mental health limitations. However, our research suggests that substantial numbers of vulnerable people are ending up in the wrong category and inappropriately assessed fit for work.

There is evidence from both local and national research that shows that people inappropriately found fit for work can be driven to self-harm, express suicidal thoughts, or find that their physical conditions are pushed beyond limits to the detriment of their health.

There are ‘exceptional circumstance’ regulations within the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit (UC) regulations which should be protecting those deemed most at risk. However, these regulations are not well known about and numbers qualifying into this category are dropping.

Our Do Know Harm project delivered awareness raising and training sessions to over 300 frontline voluntary sector workers across Devon and Cornwall on a specific area (‘substantial risk’) of the exceptional circumstances regulations. As well as raising awareness about how this can be used to support clients, participants could also receive bespoke training on how to challenge decisions.

Feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, with 98% either strongly agreeing or agreeing that they had improved their knowledge of how to use the exceptional circumstances legislation to challenge benefit decisions, as well as how to support vulnerable clients at substantial risk of harm.

Participant feedback

It has made me think differently about how I approach work with vulnerable clients.”