A TOUGH work test being introduced for 84,000 sickness benefit claimants across the region is spreading “fear and anxiety”, an investigation by MPs warns today.

The crackdown on incapacity benefit (IB) claimants is sharply criticised for wrongly judging that sick and disabled people are fit for work, only for 40 per cent of appeals to be successful.

Ministers come under fire for poorly-explained changes and loose use of language that has led to disabled people being labelled as “scroungers and benefit cheats”.

And Atos Healthcare, the private company carrying out the work capability assessment, is accused of “falling below the standard claimants rightly expect” – adding to people’s mistrust.

Claimants have been turned away when appointments have been overbooked and stripped of benefit after mix-ups that were the result of “administrative errors” by Atos.

Anne Begg, the chairwoman of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said: “The Government’s aim of helping benefit claimants back into work is laudable.

“But the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which surrounds the process. People are suspicious that the Government’s only objective is to save money.”

The test has huge implications in this region, where more than 110,000 people claim IB.

About three-quarters are expected to be put through the assessment over the next three years, excluding only those close to retirement age.

Of those people, 30 per cent are expected to be judged ready for work, on the basis of trials, and be placed on job seekers’ allowance (JSA) instead – losing at least £25 a week in benefit.

A further 40 per cent are likely to be assessed as able to look for work, with support.

That means they will be moved onto JSA after one further year, if they have savings above £16,000, or their partner works. Atos is already testing about 11,000 claimants a week, to determine how ill they are and whether they are eligible for new employment and support allowance (ESA) – the replacement for IB.

Today’s report said “welcome improvements” have been made to the reassessment process since an independent review last year, but concluded more needed to be done to ensure “accurate assessments”.

The high number of appeals was described as a cause of concern – potentially costing taxpayers £50m a year and inflicting long delays at the clogged-up tribunals service.

No fewer than 29,000 claimants who scored zero in the test – 15 points are needed to qualify for ESA – were later granted the benefit on appeal.

The report also urged the government to explore whether those placed on ESA, but judged potentially fit for work, should be given two years – rather than only 12 months – before the benefit was means-tested.