Deborah Ruby struggled into this London Trussell Trust food bank with her voucher. She’s a 51-year-old lady with multiple health issues. These include, but are not limited to, arthritis in the lower spine, hips, neck and knees, depression, severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome and congenital heart problems. She has been separated from her husband for 12 years and has four children – the youngest of whom is still at school.
A social worker gave her a voucher for the food bank after her employment and support allowance (ESA) was stopped on July 25. This stoppage followed her ATOS work capability assessment in June. Atos Healthcare is of course making an early exit from its contract to carry out “fit for work” tests on disability claimants. If Deborah’s experience is typical, the ATOS assessment process is if possible leading to ever more unfair outcomes for individuals. She describes the worst sort of bureaucratic bungling, and a medical report that appears to bear little resemblance to Deborah’s account of the ATOS medical interview it was based on.
Given what Deborah says happened at the medical, it’s hard to see how she wouldn’t succeed in her appeal. But the likelihood of a successful appeal at some future date isn’t any consolation to someone in her position. For nearly eight weeks she’s had no ESA and no money for food. Her sister – the only sibling who could help – had been able to offer some assistance over the summer. But now she’s had to go back to her home outside the UK. So last week Deborah hit a full-blown crisis – and has no idea if or when she will receive any benefits again. Now that her ESA has been stopped, her housing benefit has also been stopped – pushing her into arrears.
Deborah says she brought along a letter from her doctor to the Croydon medical, describing all her medical conditions. She says that at the medical, she was having so much difficulty moving around – she needs two knee replacement operations – that the doctor had to help her on and off the couch. She was in pain throughout the assessment.
The letter that followed informing her of the decision and the medical report was both contradictory and wrong, says Deborah. While there was a statement at the top of the letter from the Department for Work and Pensions saying that she would be receiving an award and that they would write to her in due course, the assessment and medical report contained in the correspondence told her that she had failed the medical and had in fact been given zero points. She would have needed 15 points to keep her ESA award. According to Deborah, “the report said she could get on and off the couch and she was not in pain, and it said I had no problems putting on my coat myself – but I didn’t have a coat with me. The assessment referred to my depression and other illnesses with the exception of fibromyalgia – but they feel that I’m fit for work. It referred to my incontinence, and she (the doctor) acknowledged that, but said that I can still go out. It seems that in the report they put down the things they wanted to put. The doctor’s report also says ‘she was well enough that she made it here’ and I feel she glossed over and downplayed everything.”
Though initially confused about the contradictory letter, Deborah said that when a follow-up letter did not arrive within a few days, she then sent back a copy of the assessment form as part of an appeal, indicating where she disagreed with the doctor’s assessment. The DWP sent a letter back saying that it had read her challenge, but that it agreed with the ATOS decision. It told her to apply for jobseeker’s allowance (JSA). She has been back to her GP to get medical certificates saying that she cannot attend work-related programmes or work because of her health, and an NHS psychologist is also liaising with her GP ahead of the appeal. Meanwhile, Deborah is having to deal with letters from the council about her stopped housing benefits.
While it at least appears as if she has got past the reconsideration stages and lodged an appeal successfully, she has no idea when it might be heard and has been left stranded with no support while she waits.
According to the latest tribunal statistics, there has been a drop of 92% in employment and support allowance (ESA) appeals and a 93% drop in Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) appeals in April to June 2014 compared to the same period last year. A new system of mandatory reconsiderations before appeals was introduced by the DWP for ESA and JSA at the end of October 2013. Figures have yet to be published by the DWP to show how many reconsiderations result in a change of decision.
We do of course need to know much much more about the people who don’t get as far as an appeal. Precisely how many people are left destitute or dead because they’ve abandoned – or been abandoned by – the system at this most tortuous stage?