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Employment and support allowance overview

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Disability Rights UK Factsheet F31


This overview explains the basic rules, rates of payment and how to claim employment and support allowance (ESA). It does not give you any detail on the central test to ESA - the work capability assessment; if you need information on this, see our Factsheet F71 – the work capability assessment.

1. What is ESA?

You can get ESA if your ability to work is limited by ill health or disability. ESA has two parts, contributory ESA and income-related ESA. You may receive either one of these, or both together, depending on your circumstances.

Contributory ESA

You need to have paid enough national insurance contributions in certain tax years to be entitled to contributory ESA. Contributory ESA is a flat-rate benefit. It is not affected by any savings or other income you have, except for occupational or personal pensions. Unless you are put in the ‘support group’ (see section 3 below), payment of contributory ESA will be limited to 12 months. See section 8 below for more on the time limit.

Income-related ESA 

Income-related ESA is a means-tested benefit. Your needs (and those of your partner, if you have one) are compared with the money you have, such as your income and savings. Income-related ESA is worked out from this. It can be paid on its own (if you are not entitled to contributory ESA) or as a top-up to contributory ESA (if you are). Income-related ESA can include amounts to help towards mortgage interest payments and some other housing costs.

Unlike contributory ESA, income-related ESA is not time limited.

You cannot get income-related ESA if your (and your partner’s) capital or savings are over £16,000.

Universal credit will replace income-related ESA over the next few years. For more information, see our Factsheet F55 - universal credit.

The benefit cap

ESA is included in the list of benefits to which the ‘benefit cap’ applies. This cap limits the total weekly benefits that can be claimed. The cap will not apply if you have been placed in the support group (see section 3 below). For more information, see our Factsheet F8 – benefit cap.

2. Who can get ESA?

There are common rules that apply to both types of ESA. You must:

  • be aged 16 or over;
  • be under state pension age (ESA stops when you reach that age);
  • not be entitled to income support, jobseeker’s allowance or statutory sick pay;
  • meet the residence and presence conditions (see section 10 below);
  • not be in work; however some types of work are permitted (see our Factsheet F35 – permitted work); and
  • have a limited capability for work. This is tested under the ‘work capability assessment’, see section 3 below.

See section 9 below for the additional rules that apply to students.

3. The work capability assessment

An ‘assessment phase’ will normally apply if you are making a new application for ESA. The assessment phase should last for 13 weeks; although it may be extended if there are delays. Such delays are common, and can last for several months. Until the assessment phase has been completed, you are paid ESA at a reduced rate, the ‘basic allowance’ (whether you get contributory ESA or income-related ESA).

The assessment phase will not be applied if you are terminally ill or if you are reclaiming ESA within 12 weeks of an earlier claim (and had already completed the assessment phase in that claim).

During the assessment phase, you will undergo a ‘work capability assessment’. This is intended to do two things. Firstly, it finds out whether you have a ‘limited capability for work’. If you have a limited capability for work, you can stay on ESA. Secondly, it finds out whether you have a ‘limited capability for work-related activity’. This is used to decide whether you are put in the ‘support group’ or the ‘work-related activity group’.

For more on the work capability assessment, see our Factsheet F71 – the work capability assessment.

The support group

If it is decided that you have a limited capability for work-related activity, you will be put in the support group of claimants. If you are put in this group, you will not have to undertake work-related activities (although you can volunteer to do so if you want). You will receive a higher rate of ESA than claimants who are put in the work-related activity group. If you are receiving contributory ESA, it can be paid indefinitely (as long as you continue to satisfy the conditions for it).

The work-related activity group

If it is decided that you do not have a limited capability for work-related activity, you will be put in the work-related activity group of claimants. You will receive a lower rate of ESA than if put in the support group. You will have to adhere to strict work-related conditions in order to continue receiving the benefit in full. This will involve attending a series of work-focused interviews (see section 4 below) and possibly taking part in ‘work-related activity’. You cannot be required, as part of work-related activity, to apply for a job, undertake work or undergo medical treatment.

If you are getting contributory ESA, the award of this will be limited to 12 months, although you may be able to claim income-related ESA once the award has come to an end.

4. Work-focused interviews

If you are put in the work-related activity group, you will be asked to attend one or more work-focused interviews. At each interview, a ‘work coach’ will discuss your work prospects, the steps that you are willing to take to move into work and the support available to you.

The interview can be waived if you are likely to be starting a job or returning to work. The work coach can also defer an interview if, because of your condition, it would be inappropriate at that particular time.

You will not be required to take part in a work-focused interview if you have been placed in the support group.

If you fail to take part in a work-focused interview without good cause, your ESA may be sanctioned. For more on sanctions, see our Factsheet F70 – sanctions.

5. How to claim ESA

You should phone the Jobcentre Plus claim-line:

0800 055 6688 (textphone 0800 023 4888)

0800 085 6318 (textphone 0800 328 3419) for Northern Ireland

The claim-line will put you through to a regional Jobcentre Plus contact centre. You may be asked to claim universal credit instead, depending on which Jobcentre you are referred to.

You can also get a claim form (ESA1) from your local Jobcentre Plus office or download it at www.gov.uk/employment-support-allowance

You need to provide medical certificates from your doctor, known as fit notes, until you have passed the limited capability for work assessment (see section 3 above).
If you are working but do not get statutory sick pay (or it is ending), you will also need to send in form SSP1 as well as a fit note. You can get this form from your employer.

6. How much is contributory ESA?

For the first 13 weeks of your claim, the assessment phase, you are paid the basic allowance. This depends on your age:

Assessment phase                        per week

Aged under 25 years                       £57.90

Aged 25 years and over                  £73.10

Once you have undergone the work capability assessment (see section 3 above) and have been found to have a limited capability for work, you will move onto ‘main phase’ ESA. With this, you will get the basic allowance plus an ‘additional component’ if you are placed in the support group (see section 3 above).

Main phase                                      per week

Basic allowance                               £73.10

Support component                         £36.55

If you receive an occupational or personal pension that pays more than £85 a week, your contributory ESA will be reduced by half of the amount over this limit.

7. How much is income-related ESA?

Your income-related ESA is calculated by comparing your needs with your resources (ie any capital and income you have). Set amounts for different needs are added together to reach the total amount the law says you need to live on: your ‘applicable amount’. Any income (including any earnings) you have is deducted from your applicable amount. This leaves the amount of income-related ESA you are entitled to.

Income-related ESA only provides support for you and your partner. If you have children, claim child tax credit. For more information on this, see our Factsheet F9 - a guide to tax credits.

Your applicable amount

Your applicable amount is made up of the following:

  • a personal allowance; 
  • premiums;
  • an additional component; and
  • housing costs (generally this helps with the payment of mortgage interest plus other allowed housing costs. For details, see the Disability Rights Handbook).

You can view the current benefit rates for income-related ESA on our website.

Personal allowance

This is a basic allowance. The amount you get depends on your age, status (ie if you are single, a lone parent or in a couple) and whether you are in the assessment phase or the main phase of your claim (see section 6 above).


You can get extra amounts or ‘premiums’ if you satisfy certain conditions. There are four in all:

  • enhanced disability premium; 
  • severe disability premium
  • carer premium; and
  • pensioner premium;

Details of the qualifying rules for these are in the Disability Rights Handbook.

Additional components

After the 13-week assessment phase, if you are found to have a limited capability for work you will get an additional component, if you are put in the support group.                 


You cannot get income-related ESA if your (or your partner’s) capital or savings are above an upper limit of £16,000. There is also a lower limit, normally set at £6,000. If your capital is between the lower and upper limits, a ‘tariff income’ is assumed: £1 a week for every £250 (or part of £250) above the lower limit is included as your income in the income-related ESA calculation.

Disregarded earnings and benefits

Earnings from ‘permitted work’ are not taken into account when working out income-related ESA. For more information on what work is permitted, see our Factsheet F35 – permitted work.

Some benefits are not taken into account when working out income-related ESA. These include child benefit, attendance allowance, disability living allowance, personal independence payment and armed forces independence payment. 

8. Time limiting of contributory ESA

Unless you are put in the support group (see section 3 above), payment of contributory ESA is limited to 12 months. However, there are options if your contributory ESA is terminated at the end of the 12-month payment period.

You may be entitled to income-related ESA instead of contributory ESA. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should contact you before the benefit ends to ask if you wish to be considered for income-related ESA. If you have not heard from them, contact them directly (0345 608 8545; textphone 0345 608 8551).

If you can’t get income-related ESA, you can still be given national insurance credits as long as your circumstances do not change. National insurance credits can help you satisfy the conditions for other benefits, including state pension.

If your condition gets worse in the future

If you can’t get income-related ESA, you may be able to claim contributory ESA again in the future if your condition gets worse – as long as the DWP considers that you have continuously had a limited capability for work since your contributory ESA ended.

To make sure this happens, once contributory ESA ends, you should ask the DWP to continue to assess you as having limited capability for work. Then, if your condition does get worse, you can make a new claim for ESA. You will probably be referred for a work capability assessment. If it is accepted at this assessment that you have a limited capability for work-related activity (and can thus be moved into the support group) you can be awarded contributory ESA again. This will continue to last as long as you stay in the support group.

9. Students

If you are a student, you can claim contributory ESA if you have paid enough national insurance contributions.

As a full-time student (whether your course is advanced or non-advanced), you can only get income-related ESA if you are also getting disability living allowance (DLA), personal independence payment (PIP) or armed forces independence payment (AFIP).

If you are a part-time student, you can claim contributory ESA if you have paid enough national insurance contributions. You can also claim income-related ESA if you are on a low income; you do not also have to be getting DLA, PIP or AFIP.

If you are a postgraduate student on income-related ESA, 30% of your degree loan is taken into account as income. Any special support loan you get is disregarded.

For further information on the above and the support that is available for disabled students, contact the Disabled Students Helpline: tel: 0800 328 5050 or email: students@disabilityrightsuk.org

10. Residence and presence conditions

To claim income-related ESA, you must:

  • be present in Great Britain;
  • be habitually resident in the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands, the Republic of Ireland or the Isle of Man; and
  • have the right to reside in the UK.

To claim contributory ESA, you must be present in Great Britain.

The term ‘right to reside’ is not defined but is dependent on your immigration status and nationality. There is no legal definition of ‘habitual residence’. The test will be applied if you have been living abroad. Relevant factors are where you normally live, where you expect to live in future, your reasons for coming to this country, the length of time spent abroad before you came here, and any ties you still have with the country where you have come from.

For more information, see the Disability Rights Handbook.

11. What if you are already getting incapacity benefit or income support?

ESA replaced both incapacity benefit and income support paid on the grounds of incapacity for new claims from 27 October 2008.

If you are still receiving incapacity benefit or income support paid on the grounds of incapacity, you may continue to get those benefits, rather than ESA, for the time being. However, at some point in the future, you will be reassessed under the work capability assessment (see section 3 above). If you are found to have a limited capability for work in this assessment, you will be moved (or migrated) onto ESA. If you are not found to have a limited capability for work, you will need to consider claiming jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) instead or challenging the decision. For more information on JSA, see our Factsheet F46 – jobseeker’s allowance.

Those who are moved onto contributory ESA and are placed in the work-related activity group will have their benefit time-limited to just 12 months from the point of conversion (see section 8 above).

You can find out more about the migration by going to the Incapacity Benefits migration page on our website.

12. Where can I get more help or information?

This factsheet is a basic overview of employment and support allowance. You can find out more detailed information in our Disability Rights Handbook. This and all our other publications are available from our shop at https://www.disabilityrightsuk.org/shop. You can also place orders by contacting Disability Rights UK.

You can get help and information at your local advice centre, such as a Citizens Advice Bureau. You can get more information about where to get personal advice from our Factsheet F15 - Getting advice. All our factsheets are free to download on our website at disabilityrightsuk.org.

We have an ESA resources page on our website which includes links to regulations (via the ‘ESA claimant journey’) and the WCA Handbook (guidance for healthcare professionals who undertake the work capability assessment) and information on the migration from incapacity benefits.

Ian Greaves
27 April 2017

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