What is Employment and Support Allowance?

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit for people under State Pension age who cannot work because of illness or disability. If you have cancer, this may affect your ability to work.

New-style ESA may be available if you have paid enough National Insurance. This used to be called contribution-based ESA. You may also be able to apply for Universal Credit if your income and savings are low.

Find out more information about other benefits and financial support.

How do I apply for ESA?

When you apply for ESA, you will usually have to provide a medical certificate called a fit note. If you meet the initial medical requirements, you will be paid an assessment rate for 13 weeks. This is currently:

  • up to £73.10 a week if you are a single person aged 25 or over
  • up to £57.90 a week if you are a single person aged under 25.

You may be able to get more if you:

  • have a partner
  • are a carer
  • have a severe disability.

You can apply for ESA if you are employed, self-employed or unemployed. If you are a student there are some exceptions, so it is a good idea to speak to a welfare rights adviser.

How will I be assessed?

You will need to have a work capability assessment when you apply. This is to find out how your illness or disability affects your ability to work. You will also need to be assessed if you cannot work due to illness or treatment and apply for Universal Credit.

Your work capability assessment usually happens in the first 13 weeks of getting ESA. You will be sent a questionnaire called an ESA50. This will ask you about your health condition, your treatment and how it affects you. It is important to make sure you complete and return the questionnaire. You can ask for more time if you need it. You may also want to send in additional medical or social care letters.

If you are waiting for, having or recovering from cancer treatment, you will not usually need to complete the whole form. But a health professional such as your clinical nurse specialist (CNS) must complete the last page of your ESA50. This is to confirm your treatment and how it affects your ability to work.

The Centre for Health and Disability Assessments does the assessments. They will contact you to tell you if you need an assessment and where it will be.

You can find more information about assessments at chdauk.co.uk/your-assessment

If the assessment shows that you qualify for ESA, you will be placed in one of two groups:

  • The support group is for people with an illness or disability that makes working very difficult. It pays a higher rate.
  • The work-related activity group is for people who can do some activities that could help them work in the future.

We have more information about these groups below.

Some people may not have any assessments. For example, this could be if:

  • you are waiting for, having, or recovering from chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • you are terminally ill, and you may be expected to live for less than 6 months.

If you are having cancer treatment, you will not need to have an assessment, and will go into the support group after 13 weeks.

If you are terminally ill, you can claim ESA under special rules. This means your claim should be fast-tracked. You will be placed straight into the support group from the start of your claim. This is so that you receive additional money sooner.

Support group

You will be placed in the support group if your illness or disability makes it very difficult for you to work. This includes if you are waiting for, having or recovering from certain cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

People in the support group get an extra weekly payment of £38.55, in addition to the assessment rate. You will not have to do any work-related activities.

Work related activity group

The assessment may suggest there is some work-related activity you could still do. In this case, you will be placed in the work-related activity group. You will need to have regular work-focused interviews with an adviser. After an interview, you may have to take part in a work-related activity. This could mean writing a CV, going on a training course or doing a work placement. However, you will not need to apply for a job.

People in the work-related activity group will get the assessment rate only.

Time limit for contribution-based ESA

You can only get contribution-based ESA (or new style ESA) in the work-related activity group for 1 year. After 1 year, the benefit will stop unless you do one, or both, of the following:

  • claim and qualify for Universal Credit
  • ask to be placed in the support group and get accepted for it.

If you are worried that this time limit might affect you, speak to a welfare rights adviser as soon as possible.

What is permitted work?

You might be allowed to do a certain amount of work while claiming ESA. This is called ‘permitted’ work.

Permitted work can be any job where you either:

  • earn less than £20 a week
  • earn up to £131.50 a week and work less than 16 hours a week.

You can also do ‘supported permitted’ work. This must be one of the following.

  • Work as part of a treatment programme. This is done under medical supervision in hospital. This applies only if you earn £131.50 or less a week.
  • Work that is supervised by someone whose job is to help arrange work for disabled people. This applies if you earn £131.50 or less a week.

You can also do unpaid voluntary work or unpaid work experience. This must be approved by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or the Department for Communities (DfC).

If you are going to start doing permitted, supported permitted or voluntary work, you must tell the service that provides your benefit. It is a good idea to speak to a welfare rights adviser about permitted work before you start. They can talk to you about how it affects your benefits.

How do I claim ESA?

To make a claim, you can contact your Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) support centre.

If you live in England, Scotland or Wales, you can call 0800 328 5644 or use textphone 0800 328 1344.

If you live in Northern Ireland, you can call 0800 085 6318 or use textphone 0800 328 3419.

How do I challenge a decision?

If you are unhappy with a decision about ESA, you may be able to ask for it to be looked at again. This is called a mandatory reconsideration.

If you disagree with the mandatory reconsideration, you can then appeal. Your case will be heard by an independent tribunal. It is a good idea to speak to a welfare rights adviser first.

How we can help

Macmillan Grants

If you have cancer, you may be able to get a Macmillan Grant to help with the extra costs of cancer. Find out who can apply and how to access our grants.

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