The Labour party is calling on the government to scrap fit-for-work letters sent by welfare officials to GPs, arguing they have had devastating consequences for ill and disabled people.
It comes after the Guardian revealed claimants appealing against fit-for-work decisions had been left without benefits and reliant on food banks.
This is because their GPs refused to provide them with fit notes after being wrongly advised in the letters that they were no longer required to do so.
Marsha de Cordova, the shadow minister for disability, said the letters are depriving disabled people of social security and pushing them into destitution.
A Scrap the Letters petition launched by the charity Z2K, which first highlighted the issue, has garnered more than 66,500 signatures.
Its chief executive, Raji Hunjan, said: “The letter is actively misleading and results in denying the claimant their right to gain the benefits they are not only fully entitled to, but need to survive.”
Claimants who challenge work capability assessment (WCA) decisions can receive employment and support allowance (ESA) worth £73.10 a week while they await their appeal.
However, to get it they must obtain fit notes from their GPs to prove they are too ill to work. The typical wait for an appeal is three to six months.
According to the newspaper, ministers approved changes to the letter that removed a key sentence informing GPs they must continue to provide fit notes if their patient appeals against their WCA.
As a result of the change, the letter now states that GPs “do not need to provide any more fit notes for ESA purposes”. It does not mention the possibility that the patient may appeal, or that a fit note is needed for the patient to obtain ESA payments until the appeal is heard.
The DWP has said the aim of the change was to make the letter simpler and clearer, and that GPs could find the advice about fit notes by following a link printed at the foot of the letter.
A DWP spokesperson said: “These letters are not to dissuade GPs from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes, to claim otherwise is inaccurate. However, we recognise GPs have not found the letter clear on this point. We are updating it with input from medical organisations and intend to clarify this with GPs in the meantime.”