The proportion of benefit claimants waiting longer than the government’s target to receive support has soared in the past two years as the worsening delays “wreak havoc” on the lives of thousands of disabled people.
Ministers have been accused of “sitting on their hands” after it emerged one in five (20 per cent) employment support allowance (ESA) claims took longer than the government’s own target of 10 working days last year – compared with 13 per cent in 2015/16.
More than 90,000 claimants were left waiting longer than 10 days for the benefit, which is paid to people who have limited or no ability to work. Of these, 33,340 (7 per cent) took more than three weeks to process.
The growing delays come despite the fact that there has been a considerable decrease in the number of people claiming ESA – as more people transfer onto universal credit – with the overall figure down from 793,526 to 448,930.
Labour MP Frank Field, who obtained the figures, described them as “truly horrifying”, saying the delayed payment of benefit had become a “recruiting sergeant for food banks and money lenders”.
“What these figures show is that this source of injustice is not just found in universal credit. Delays across the board are inflicting misery on hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need of help from the welfare state,” he added.
Rachel Hickman, senior parliamentary and public affairs adviser at Parkinson’s UK, said assessment delays “wreak havoc” on the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease.
“Vital payments are delayed, and a huge amount of stress is piled on top of handling their often already difficult living situations,” she added.
“We hope this confirmation of the staggering scale of the failure will provide further incentive for the government urgently to work with us to improve the system and, by extension, the lives of thousands of vulnerable people.
“The government has sat on its hands for too long – the time to act is now.”
Minesh Patel, policy and campaigns manager at disability equality charity Scope, said: “It’s imperative that the government acts to ensure our welfare system works for disabled people.
“This needs to begin with reducing waiting times and overhauling the work capability assessment so it accurately identifies the barriers to work that disabled people face.”
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already been under scrutiny for its handling of ESA claims in the past year, after “shoddy administration” meant about 180,000 people did not receive benefits they were legally entitled to.
There is also growing concern that universal credit, which is gradually replacing income-related ESA, is causing hardship as delays in the new system leave disabled and unemployed people without support.
The Independent revealed last week that delays in benefit payments or cuts to their income under the welfare reform have left hundreds of families forced into begging for money online.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We process claims as quickly as possible and the vast majority are cleared within 10 days, when this takes longer it is often because we are working with claimants to get more information to ensure they get the correct support.”