29/04/2019 00:01 BST | Updated 29/04/2019 09:01 BST

Doctors Tell DWP: We Didn't Approve Wording Of 'Misleading' Benefits Letter

"Patients and claimants are suffering and continue to suffer as long as these letters are sent out."

Ministers have been slammed by doctors unions for suggesting they agreed to the wording of a controversial letter which told GPs not to provide benefits officials with proof that seriously ill patients were unfit for work.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been urged to change the wording of the letter, called the ESA65B, which is sent to family doctors when patients are denied benefits after being deemed able to work.

People denied Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are entitled to receive the benefit during an appeal of the decision – but only if their GP confirms their medical condition means they cannot work.

The letter sent to GPs, a template for which was seen by HuffPost UK, read: “Please do not give [the claimant] any more fit notes relating to [their] disability/health condition for ESA purposes.”

In response to HuffPost UK’s report on the letter last month, the DWP said in a statement that the document’s wording “was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners”.

But both organisations have now dismissed the claim.

Handout/HuffPost UK
A screenshot of a letter template, seen by HuffPost UK, shows the wording of the document.

In a letter, the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors, said that rather than “clearing” the wording, they had simply been shown the letter template during a meeting at the DWP.

“The BMA considers that sight of this letter was for the purposes of information sharing and did not agree or otherwise sign off the content of the letter,” the union wrote in a letter to veteran MP Frank Field, the chair of the Commons work and pensions committee.

The Royal College of GPs (RCGP) meanwhile has told Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, that the letter “does not clearly indicate that there are exceptions to this wording, including if a claimant is appealing against the decision”.

The Royal College raised fears that vulnerable patients awaiting the outcome of appeals may further harm their health by trying to meet the requirements of other benefits such as Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Raji Hunjan, of the charity Z2K, which is campaigning for the ESA65B to be scrapped, said: “We welcome the RCGP and the BMA’s deep concerns and their call for immediate action.

“Patients and claimants are suffering and continue to suffer as long as these letters are sent out. We do not believe any such letter should exist, and that the ESA65B must be withdrawn with immediate effect.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We have regular discussions with the BMA and RCGP to ensure we deliver effective support to disabled people and those with health conditions.

“The wording of this letter was discussed as part of these meetings, as both organisations confirm, as was the release of the final letter.

“Of course we recognise the concerns of GPs which is why we are discussing a revised letter with the BMA and RCGP and have issued clear guidance for GPs in the meantime.”