What is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and who is eligible?

ESA is a benefit which you can receive if disability or ill health limits your ability to work. It's intended to provide you with financial support if you are unable to work.

To be eligible for ESA, you must be:

  • under state pension age
  • have an illness or condition that prevents or impairs your ability to work
  • receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) or Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA).

Three types of ESA

  • Contributory ESA is linked to your National Insurance contributions
  • Income-related ESA is means-tested and can be paid on its own or on top of contributory ESA
  • ‘New Style’ ESA is contributory ESA in a full-service Universal Credit area and depends on if you’re entitled to claim Universal Credit
Check if you’re in a full-service Universal Credit area  

Work Capability Assessment

Approved Healthcare Professionals (AHP) carry out the Work Capability Assessment for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

The assessment has 2 parts. It is intended to find out if you have a limited capability for:
  • work
  • work-related activity
This normally takes place within the first 13 weeks of your ESA claim. You will receive the basic rate of ESA during this time.

Limited capability for work

The first test is the limited capability for work assessment. This considers 17 activities and descriptors: 10 physical and 7 mental, cognitive and intellectual.

Most claimants, except those with the most severe impairment, must complete an ESA50 form. The face-to-face assessment with an approved healthcare professional will advise the DWP whether you're entitled. You receive 0, 6, 9 or 15 points for each activity. There are exceptions for some conditions and if there would be a substantial risk to your health if you work.
  • If you're given 15 points or more, you're thought to have limited capability for work and are entitled to ESA. You'll then have a second test to see if you have a limited capability for work-related activity.
  • If you're given 14 points or less, you're thought not to have limited capability for work and are not entitled to ESA.
See the Limited capability for work descriptors and points awarded for each.

Support group

The second test has a list of activities and descriptions relating to physical and mental, cognitive or intellectual functions. If you meet at least one, you're thought to have limited capability for work-related activity and will be in the support group. You may still be eligible for the support group if there would be a substantial risk to your health. See the limited capability for work-related activities descriptors.

People in this group:
  • get a higher rate of ESA
  • are protected from the benefit cap
  • do not have to do specified work-related tasks

Work-related activity group

If you do not meet at least one activity, you are placed in the work-related activity group.

People in this group:
  • get a lower rate of ESA (if your claim for ESA was before 3 April 2017, you will have the work-related activity component included in your award. New claims from 3 April 2017 cannot be paid the work-related activity component.)
  • are not protected from the benefit cap
  • must do specified work-related tasks including attending work-focused interviews  

Appealing a WCA decision

You must first request a mandatory reconsideration of the decision. You will not be entitled to ESA during this review.

If the mandatory reconsideration results in no change, you can appeal to the First-tier tribunal of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

Find out more about your money and benefits during an ESA reconsideration.

'New Style' and Contributory ESA

If you are on ‘New Style’ or Contributory ESA and in the work-related activity group, your award is limited to 12 months. You may then be able to claim Income-related ESA instead. There’s no time limit if you’re in the support group or claiming income-related ESA.

How to claim ESA

The quickest method of applying for ESA is to call 0800 055 6688. Use this number if you want to apply for Contributory and/or Income-related ESA.

If you live in a full-service Universal Credit area and you want to apply for ‘New Style’ ESA, call 0800 328 5644.

Visit the official government webpage for Employment and Support Allowance for more details about how to claim.

ESA underpayments

Between January 2011 and October 2014 some people receiving Incapacity Benefit and Severe Disablement Allowance had their claims converted to contributory ESA. However, the possibility of whether they may also have been entitled to income-related ESA was not considered for all cases. This means many claimants may have missed out on the payment of premiums. Following a High Court decision in 2018, the Government agreed to pay backdated income-related ESA in cases where they should have awarded this. Extra payments, called premiums, are available only to qualifying customers who are eligible for income-related benefits. These include the Enhanced Disability, Severe Disability, Carer, and Pensioner Premiums.

The DWP estimates that 180,000 people may be due arrears of income-related ESA. They estimate that they will have finished reviewing these people's cases by December 2019.

The DWP has said it will contact claimants to ask them about their circumstances when they moved onto ESA. If they should have received income-related ESA, then the DWP will calculate and pay the arrears in full.

ESA – further help

Contact our helpline

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Online benefits calculator

Calculate your entitlements online.


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