Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit paid if your ability to work is limited by ill health or disability.

This page covers:

For full details, read our guide, Claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

If you have been refused ESA, you can appeal against the decision. See our page on how to appeal an ESA decision for more information.

What is ESA?

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit for people who find it difficult to work due to a health condition or disability. If you are unable to work because of your MS, you may be entitled to ESA.

ESA has two parts:

  • Income-related ESA, which is means-tested (ie your income and savings are taken into account and affect the amount of ESA you receive).
  • Contributory ESA, which is dependent on the National Insurance contributions you have paid. Contributory ESA is only payable for 12 months if you are in the work-related activity group.

Note – contributory ESA is sometimes called contribution-based ESA.

To claim ESA you must:

People claiming ESA are split into two groups:

1. The support group

If you are placed in this group you will receive a higher rate of ESA than if you are placed in the ‘work-related activity group’. Furthermore, you are not expected to work or to look for work (although you can volunteer to do so if you want).

2. The work related activity group

You will be placed in this group if you do not qualify for the support group.

In this group you must meet work-related conditions, including attending work-focused interviews. If you fail to meet the conditions, your ESA payment may be reduced or stopped.

If you receive contributory ESA and are in the work-related activity group, your ESA is only payable for 12 months.

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The ESA assessment

When you first claim ESA, you will undergo a 13-week assessment period, during which time you will be paid ESA at a reduced rate known as the ‘basic allowance. At some stage during this period you will face a work capability assessment.

The work capability assessment is a key part of ESA. It decides:

  • whether or not you can keep getting ESA after the 13-week assessment period
  • which of two different groups you are placed in: the support group or the work-related activity group. This determines how much ESA you receive and what you need to do in order to keep getting the benefit.

The work capability assessment is split into two parts – the ESA50 questionnaire, which you fill out, and a face-to-face assessment with a health care professional. Not everyone will have to do both parts. The work capability assessment is used by the DWP to decide whether you have a limited capability for work (which means you will be placed in the work-related activity group), or a limited capability for work-related activity (which means you will be placed in the support group).

Whichever group you are placed in, the DWP can reassess you after three years, or in some cases even earlier. 

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Applying for ESA


To get started, you can call the Jobcentre Plus claim line on 0800 055 6688 or textphone 0800 023 4888.


In England, Wales and Scotland, you can download the ESA1 application form from the government website. You also have the option of filling it out electronically. However, you will still need to print and post the ESA1, as you cannot submit your claim online.

In Northern Ireland a paper form is available to print out; it can’t be completed on the computer.

Paper claim

You can get a paper copy of the ESA1 from Jobcentre Plus offices.

The ESA50 form

Once Jobcentre Plus has checked the details you gave them - either by phone or on the ESA1 form - they will send you a customer statement to let you know if your initial claim has been successful and that you can move on with the application process. They should tell you within three weeks, but it can sometimes take longer.

Next, you will be sent a limited capacity for work questionnaire – the ESA50. This is used to assess your ability to do a number of physical and mental-cognitive tasks.

Before you fill this in, find out what they are looking for by reading the ESA descriptors and using them to answer the questions as fully as possible.

For a question-by-question guide to filling in the ESA50 form, and a list of descriptors, see our booklet  Claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)


  • To make your assessment as accurate as possible, be honest but realistic about how your symptoms affect your ability to work. Tell them about what happens on your worst days as well as your good days – and how often these good and bad days happen.
  • When the forms asks for ‘other people that you would like us to consider contacting on your behalf', you can list healthcare professionals who know you (eg your MS nurse, neurologist or GP) and/ or a carer.
  • You can send a letter with your ESA50 form from a health care professional explaining how your MS affects your ability to do the activities listed (the descriptors). This may help explain how your symptoms affect you day to day.

If possible, you should also send a letter from a healthcare professional explaining how your MS affects your ability to do the activities listed (the descriptors). It is a good idea to send this in with your ESA50 form to the Jobcentre Plus Office. Keep photocopies of everything you’ve sent, in case it gets lost.

The face-to-face assessment

Once you’ve sent the ESA50 form, you may be asked to attend a face-to-face assessment.

This means you will meet with a DWP-approved health care professional who will speak to you about your MS. They may also ask you to perform basic tests so they can assess how your MS affects you.

If you can’t get to the assessment centre, you can ask for a home visit instead. You may need a letter from your doctor to explain why you are unable to travel.

If you do not attend the medical and don’t give a good reason for not being able to attend, your benefit and your claim will be stopped.


  • You are allowed to take someone with you to the assessment. This may be helpful as they can jog your memory and record what was said in the assessment.

  • Most of the tests do not take into account how unpredictable MS can be, so it may be useful to explain what the bad days are like and how frequent they are. You can look at the ESA descriptors before the assessment to think about which ones apply to you and try to make sure you give information relevant to those descriptors. For a list of descriptors, see our booklet Claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

  • If you don’t understand a question or why they are asking it, you can ask for an explanation.

  • If you are asked whether you can do a certain activity, explain whether you would be able to do it several times, or what effect this would have on you. For example, would doing it cause fatigue, pain or anxiety?

You can ask for a copy of the report after your assessment, even if you agree with the decision. This gives you a chance to make corrections or you can keep it for any future assessments. 

Work-focused interviews

If you have been placed in the work-related activity group, you will usually be asked to attend a work-focused interview some time following the work capability assessment. In this, a personal adviser will discuss your work prospects, the steps that you are willing to take to move into work and the support available to you.

Read more about how to claim ESA or appeal a decision in our booklet Claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

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Page last updated: 01 Oct 2014

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