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Chapter 10: Employment and support allowance
This chapter covers:
1. What is employment and support allowance (here)
2. Who is eligible (here)
3. Limited capability for work (here)
4. Amount of benefit (here)
5. Claiming employment and support allowance (here)
6. Challenging a decision (here)
7. Other benefits and tax credits (here)
Basic facts
– Employment and support allowance (ESA) is for people who are assessed as having limited capability for work because of their health or disability.
– There is an income-related and a contributory ESA.
– Part-time students who have limited capability for work and full-time students who get disability living allowance or personal independence payment are eligible for income-related ESA.
– Part-time and full-time students can claim contributory ESA if they have paid sufficient national insurance contributions.
1. What is employment and support allowance
Employment and support allowance (ESA) is for people who have limited capability for work because of illness or disability.1Reg 1 ESA Regs
There is a contributory and an income-related ESA. Contributory ESA is for people who have paid national insurance contributions. Income-related ESA is means tested and is for people whose income and capital are low enough. It is possible to receive one or both types of ESA.
Note: you cannot usually make a new claim for income-related ESA as it is in the process of being replaced by universal credit. However, an exception applies if you get, or got in the past month (and continue to satisfy the rules for it), a severe disability premium (see here) in your income-related ESA, income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance or housing benefit. This exception ended on 26 January 2021. See CPAG’s Welfare Rights Bulletin for updates.
 
1     Reg 1 ESA Regs »
2. Who is eligible
As new claims cannot usually be made for income-related employment and support allowance (ESA) (see above for exceptions), most students getting income-related ESA will be those who were already on this before starting the course, and who are eligible for income-related ESA as a student. If you cannot claim income-related ESA, you may be able to get universal credit instead (see Chapter 18).
To qualify for ESA, you must meet all the basic conditions.1s1 WRA 2007
You have limited capability for work (see here).
You are aged 16 or over and under pension age.
You are in Great Britain (although some absences are allowed – see CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for more details).
You satisfy the rules for contributory ESA (see below) or income-related ESA (see here).
You are not working, although some ‘permitted work’ is allowed. See CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for more details.
 
1     s1 WRA 2007 »
Contributory employment and support allowance
Contributory ESA is not means tested. To qualify, you must meet the basic conditions on here and have paid sufficient national insurance contributions.1s1 WRA 2007 See CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for details on this. There are no special rules for students. The same rules apply if you are taking time out from your course because of ill health (see here).
 
1     s1 WRA 2007 »
Income-related employment and support allowance
Income-related ESA is means tested. You are eligible if you are a part-time student and have limited capability for work. If you are a full-time student, you are only eligible if you get disability living allowance (DLA) or personal independence payment (PIP). The same rules apply if you are taking time out from your course because of ill health (see here).
To qualify for income-related ESA while studying, you must satisfy the basic conditions on here and all the following conditions.1Sch 1 para 6 WRA 2007
You are either a full-time student (see here) who is entitled to DLA (either component, paid at any rate – see here) or PIP (either component paid at any rate - see here), or you are a part-time student.2Reg 18 ESA Regs
Your income is less than the set amount the law says you need to live on (known as your ‘applicable amount’) – see here.
You have no more than £16,000 capital.
Your partner (if you have one) is not working 24 hours or more a week.
You are in Great Britain, satisfy the ‘habitual residence’ and the ‘right to reside’ tests, and are not a ‘person subject to immigration control’. These terms are explained in CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook. Further advice is available from UKCISA (see Appendix 2).
 
1     Sch 1 para 6 WRA 2007 »
2     Reg 18 ESA Regs »
Full-time student
You are a full-time student if you are:1Regs 14-16 ESA Regs
under 20 and a ‘qualifying young person’ (see below); or
19 or over and a full-time student, unless you are aged 19 and count as being a qualifying young person (see here); or
under 19 in full-time advanced education (see here).
 
Under 20 and a qualifying young person
You are a ‘qualifying young person’ if you are 19 or under and attending a full-time course of non-advanced education which you were accepted on, enrolled on or started when you were under 19. If you are accepted on, enrol on or start the course on or after your 19th birthday, you are not a qualifying young person (see below). ‘Non-advanced education’ is anything below degree, Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma level and includes school-level courses. Your course is classed as ‘full time’ for income-related ESA if it is for more than 12 hours a week during term time. These 12 hours include classes and supervised study, but not meal breaks or unsupervised study either at home or at college. You may count as a qualifying young person in a gap between courses or for a period after you have finished a course (see here).
 
19 or over and a full-time student
You count as a full-time student if you are undertaking a full-time course of study at an educational establishment. There are two definitions of ‘full time’ that apply: the first covers mostly courses of advanced education; the second covers most courses of non-advanced education.
Your course is full time if it is classed as full time by the institution. If the institution describes the course as full time, you need convincing evidence to persuade the DWP otherwise, bearing in mind that what matters is the course itself rather than the hours you attend. This definition covers all courses of advanced education and any courses of non-advanced education not funded in whole or in part by government at a further education (FE) college.
Your course is full time if it involves more than 16 hours a week. What matters is the number of hours specified in a document signed by the college. This is often called a ‘learning agreement’, but your college may refer to it by some other name – eg, Passport to Employment. This definition applies if you are at an FE college, not undertaking a higher education course, and your course is fully or partly funded by the government. In Northern Ireland, whether or not your course is full time depends on the institution’s definition. When applying for ESA, a letter from the institution stating that your course is part time should be sufficient.
 
Under 19 in full-time advanced education
If you are under 19 and in full-time advanced education rather than in non-advanced education, the rules on when you count as full time are the same as for those aged 19 or over (see above).
 
1     Regs 14-16 ESA Regs »
3. Limited capability for work
One of the basic rules of entitlement to employment and support allowance (ESA) is that you must be assessed as having ‘limited capability for work’. This means that your mental or physical condition makes it unreasonable to require you to work. You are normally assessed at a medical, known as the ‘work capability assessment’. This also assesses whether you have ‘limited capability for work-related activity’. If you are assessed as having both limited capability for work and limited capability for work-related activity, you are in the ‘support group’ and your ESA includes an amount called a ‘support component’.
If you are assessed as only having limited capability for work, you are in the ‘work-related activity group’. You are expected to attend work-focused interviews and may be required to undertake work-related activity. If you do not do so, your benefit may be reduced. If your claim began before 3 April 2017, your ESA includes a ‘work-related activity component’. If it began on or after this date, it does not.
If you are assessed as not having limited capability for work, you are not entitled to ESA. However, you can challenge this decision if you disagree with it (see here).
Most full-time students who get disability living allowance (DLA) or personal independence payment (PIP) and who are claiming income-related ESA are treated as having limited capability for work and do not have to satisfy this part of the test.1Reg 33(2) ESA Regs However, you must still satisfy the test if:
you are a qualifying young person under 20; or
you are claiming contributory ESA.
All students, unless they are in the support group, must take part in work-focused interviews and may have to undertake work-related activity as a condition of getting full benefit.2Regs 54 and 63(1) ESA Regs
If you are required to undertake full-time study as part of your work-related activity, you can continue to get ESA, whether or not you get DLA or PIP.3Reg 14(2A) ESA Regs
Starting to study may prompt the DWP to call you for a reassessment, although this should not happen routinely. At the next assessment, your ability to perform the set activities is considered in the context of what you can do in a typical day, including your college or university routines. For example, you may be asked questions about your ability to get around campus, your ability to get to and from lectures, how long you can sit comfortably to study, or your ability to hold a pen to take notes or write essays.
The questions you are asked depend on which of the set activities (such as standing and sitting, manual dexterity and understanding communication) are relevant to your condition.
See CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for advice on medical examinations and what to do if you do not pass the assessment.
 
Example
Rachel is 29 and getting contributory ESA that includes a support component. She starts a full-time course of study in August 2020. She continues to be eligible for contributory ESA, but is called for a medical reassessment. Her condition is still the same, she passes the assessment and her contributory ESA continues.
 
1     Reg 33(2) ESA Regs »
2     Regs 54 and 63(1) ESA Regs »
3     Reg 14(2A) ESA Regs »
4. Amount of benefit
Employment and support allowance (ESA) is usually payable after seven ‘waiting days’ (there are temporarily no waiting days for some people due to the coronavirus pandemic). You are paid a limited amount of ESA during an initial ‘assessment phase’. In most cases, this lasts 13 weeks. After this, you are then paid more in the ‘main phase’ that follows.
ESA is worked out as follows.
In the assessment phase, you get a basic allowance of contributory ESA. The amount of income-related ESA you get depends on your needs (your ‘applicable amount’) and how much income you have.
In the main phase, if you are in the support group, you get a support component of £39.20 a week. If you are in the work-related activity group and you claimed before 3 April 2017, you get a work-related activity component of £29.55 a week. If you claimed on or after 3 April 2017, no work-related activity component can be added. For income-related ESA, the component is added to your applicable amount and your income is then subtracted from your applicable amount. For contributory ESA, it is added to the basic allowance.
Contributory employment and support allowance
 
Weekly rate from April 2020 1s2 WRA 2007; reg 67(2) and (3) ESA Regs
Assessment phase, basic allowance (under 25)
£58.90
Assessment phase, basic allowance (25 or over)
£74.35
Main phase, basic allowance (16–24 )
£74.35
Main phase, basic allowance (25 or over)
£74.35
Main phase, support component
£39.20
Main phase, work-related activity component (claims before 3 April 2017 only)
£29.55
Contributory ESA is paid for up to a year if you are in the work-related activity group, or indefinitely if you are in the support group.
 
1     s2 WRA 2007; reg 67(2) and (3) ESA Regs »
Income-related employment and support allowance
The amount of income-related ESA you get depends on your circumstances and the circumstances of your partner.1s4 WRA 2007; reg 67(1) and (3) ESA Regs The amount also depends on your income and capital. Go through the following steps to work out the amount of ESA to which you are entitled.
 
1     s4 WRA 2007; reg 67(1) and (3) ESA Regs »
Step one: capital
If your capital is over £16,000, you cannot get income-related ESA (see here). Some kinds of capital are ignored. For details, see CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook.
Step two: work out your applicable amount
This is an amount for basic weekly needs. It is made up of:1Reg 67 and Sch 4 ESA Regs
personal allowances (see here);
premiums (see here);
a support component or, for claims before 3 April 2017, a work-related activity component (see here);
housing costs (see here).
 
1     Reg 67 and Sch 4 ESA Regs »
Step three: work out your weekly income
Chapter 22 explains how your loan, grant or other income is taken into account for ESA and how to work out your weekly income.
Step four: deduct weekly income from applicable amount
If your income is less than your applicable amount, your ESA equals the difference between the two.
If your income is the same as or more than your applicable amount, you cannot get ESA. You can claim again if your income decreases – eg, during the long vacation.
Income-related ESA tops up contributory ESA if you are entitled to both and the income-related amount is higher.
 
Example
Doreen is 25 and has cerebral palsy. She gets the standard rate of the daily living component of personal independence payment (PIP) and housing benefit (HB) which includes a severe disability premium. In August 2020 she leaves her job and starts a full-time National Certificate course. She claims ESA - she can still claim ESA, and cannot claim universal credit (UC), because she gets a severe disability premium in her HB. She is eligible for both contributory and income-related ESA.
Assessment phase:
Step one Doreen has no savings or capital.
Step two Her applicable amount is:
Basic allowance for herself = £74.35
Severe disability premium = £66.95
Step three Her weekly income is:
£74.35 contributory ESA (PIP is disregarded).
Step four She gets income-related ESA of £66.95.
Main phase:
Doreen is assessed as having limited capability for work and work-related activity and as being in the support group.
Step two
Her applicable amount is:
Basic allowance for herself (£74.35) and support component (£39.20) and severe disability premium (£66.95) and enhanced disability premium (£17.10) = £197.60
Step three Her weekly income is:
£113.55 contributory ESA (£74.35 + support component of £39.20) (PIP is disregarded).
Step four She gets income-related ESA of £84.05.
Applicable amount
Your applicable amount is worked out by adding together your personal allowances, premiums, the component that applies to you in the main phase and any eligible housing costs. It is usually possible to find out what the new rates will be from the beginning of December. Check the DWP website at gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-work-pensions for a press release on social security uprating. The rates below are from April 2020.
 
Personal allowance
Your personal allowance is paid at either the single, lone parent or couple rate depending on your situation. The amount depends on your age and whether you are in the assessment phase or the main phase (see here).
Assessment phase
£pw
Main phase
£pw
Single
Under 25
58.90
74.35
25 or over
74.35
74.35
Lone parent
Under 18
58.90
74.35
18 or over
74.35
74.35
Couple
Both under 18 (higher rate)
89.00
116.80
Both under 18 (not eligible for higher rate)
58.90
74.35
One under 18, one 18 or over (higher rate)
116.80
116.80
One under 18, one 18–24 (not eligible for higher rate)
58.90
74.35
One under 18, one 25 or over (not eligible for higher rate)
74.35
74.35
Both 18 or over
116.80
116.80
If you are both under 18, you get the higher rate if:
one of you is responsible for a child; or
you and your partner would both be eligible to claim income-related ESA if you were single; or
your partner would qualify for income support (IS) if s/he were single; or
your partner would qualify for income-based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) or severe hardship payments of JSA.
If one of you is under 18 and the other is 18 or over, you get the higher rate if the younger partner would:
qualify for IS or income-related ESA if s/he were single; or
qualify for income-based JSA or severe hardship payments of JSA.
 
Premiums
Qualifying for premiums depends on your circumstances. You can qualify for the following.
Pensioner premium. You or your partner must have reached pension age (see here). If you are in a couple and one of you is over pension age and one of you is under pension age, you get £148.40. In the main phase, these amounts are reduced by the amount of the work-related activity component (if applicable) or support component for which you qualify.
Carer premium of £37.50. The qualifying conditions are the same as for IS (see here).
Enhanced disability premium. You qualify for this if you or your partner get the highest rate of the disability living allowance (DLA) care component, the enhanced rate of the daily living component of PIP or if you get the support component of ESA. You get £17.10, or £24.50 if you are a couple.
Severe disability premium. This is for severely disabled people who live alone, or who can be treated as living alone. You qualify if you get the middle or highest rate of the DLA care component or the daily living component of PIP paid at either rate, and no one gets carer’s allowance for looking after you. You do not get the premium if you live with another person aged 18 or over (eg, a friend or parent), unless s/he is separately liable for rent, you only share a bathroom or hallway, or in some other circumstances. See CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook for details. If you have a partner, you do not qualify unless your partner also qualifies in her/his own right or is certified as severely sight impaired or blind. If you both qualify, you get two premiums. The rate of the premium is £66.95.
 
Components
In the main phase (see here), you receive either the support component or, if your claim began before 3 April 2017, the work-related activity component (see here). The work-related activity component is £29.55. The support component is £39.20.
 
Housing costs
ESA can include help with certain service charges and some other housing payments, after a waiting period. Usually help only starts once you have been getting ESA for 39 weeks, although there are some exceptions to this.
If you own your own home, the DWP may offer you a loan to help with the cost of your mortgage interest payments.
Normally you have to live in the home you own to get a loan, but there are exceptions for full-time students (and some others). You can still get a loan for mortgage interest if you have moved elsewhere to study but are not paying rent or a mortgage at the term-time address. If you pay for both places, you can get a loan for both if you are a couple and it is unavoidable that you live in two separate homes. Otherwise, you can get a loan if you are away from your home temporarily and have not let it out and are not likely to be away for more than 52 weeks.1Sch 3 para 4 LMI Regs Note: these loans are not part of your ESA.
If you have rent to pay, you must usually claim UC (or sometimes HB) for help (see Chapter 11 or Chapter 6). For full details, see CPAG’s Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook.
 
1     Sch 3 para 4 LMI Regs »
5. Claiming employment and support allowance
How you claim employment and support allowance (ESA) depends on your circumstances. Check what kind of ESA you should apply for and how to claim at gov.uk/employment-support-allowance/how-to-claim.
Either member of a couple can make a claim for income-related ESA for both, but whoever claims must be eligible in her/his own right. You claim contributory ESA for yourself only.
You are usually interviewed after you claim. You must provide medical certificates from your GP until you are assessed under the work capability assessment.
Claims for ESA can be backdated for up to three months.
6. Challenging a decision
If you think a decision about your employment and support allowance is wrong, you can ask the DWP to look at it again. This process is known as a ‘mandatory reconsideration’. Provided you ask within the time limit (usually one month), the DWP notifies you of the decision in a ‘mandatory reconsideration notice’. If you are still not happy when you get this notice, you can appeal to the independent First-tier Tribunal. If it was not possible to ask the DWP to reconsider the decision within a month, you can ask for a late revision (within 13 months), explaining why it is late. You can also ask the DWP to look at a decision again at any time if certain grounds are met – eg, if there has been an official error.
7. Other benefits and tax credits
You cannot get employment and support allowance (ESA) if you are getting statutory sick pay (SSP) from an employer.1s20 WRA 2007 SSP runs out after 28 weeks, after which you can claim ESA.
You can claim contributory ESA and have this topped up by universal credit (UC). You cannot get ESA if you are getting income support (IS) or jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). You can claim contributory ESA if your partner is getting IS or JSA. You are excluded if you get joint-claim JSA.2s1(3)(f) WRA 2007 You cannot get income-related ESA if your partner gets UC, IS, income-based JSA or pension credit.
Income-related ESA passports you to maximum housing benefit, free school lunches and social fund payments. It also passports you to free prescriptions, dental treatment, sight tests, vouchers for glasses, and to Healthy Start vouchers and free vitamins if you are pregnant (see Chapters 11 and 15).
If you have a child(ren) and a partner and you get contributory ESA, you may be eligible for working tax credit if your partner works 16 hours or more a week, rather than the usual 24 hours.
ESA is taken into account when calculating whether the benefit cap applies, unless you or your partner get a support component in your ESA. If this is the case, you are exempt from the benefit cap (see here and here).
 
1     s20 WRA 2007 »
2     s1(3)(f) WRA 2007 »

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