Not laughing on the way to the #foodbank: ‘Marie’ the carer and her sons

Marie (not her real name) is 53 and is separated from her husband,  although they are still legally married.  Despite her many health issues, she has been his full-time carer for four years.  He has dementia, while she lives with chronic arthritis, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and anger management issues. They have four sons in their 20s – three of whom still live with Marie. All four of her sons have mild to moderate learning difficulties.

Left with no benefits, she came into the London food bank last week with three of her sons for some help. Her employment and support allowance (ESA) – a benefit paid to the sick and disabled if they are unable to work – had been withdrawn.  It was stopped following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos (whose controversial contract with the government to undertake the tests is ending early). She was declared fit for work and her ESA payments officially stopped on October 16th – a day before her 53rd birthday.

In reality, she says her household hasn’t received any money  – other than one  son’s jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)  – since October 7th. When she began signing last week for JSA, she was not informed by staff at Jobcentre Plus when she would receive a payment. ‘I was due a payment on my birthday week, and that’s when I was told I wouldn’t get anything. I was beside myself  – I was crying a lot. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.’ Another son who lives with her has been told he has to go back on ESA, and her third son who lives at home is in the process of applying for ESA.

She’s very concerned about the impact of her dire financial situation on her housing. ‘Before the ESA was stopped they (the housing association) said that if I did not pay a certain amount of money I would be kicked out. They know my situation and I’ve got a month to let them know what payment I’m going to get.’

Marie broke down in tears as she explained her situation. One of the food bank volunteers brought her a cup of tea. She said that she’s the only person in her house who can read and write, and that she’s been trying to explain to Jobcentre Plus about her sons’ learning disabilities. She described a disconnect between what staff there are asking the young men to do and what their mother believes they can realistically manage. She’s also worried about the impact of the staffs’ approach on one son’s state of mind. ‘They had been telling my sons to do certain things – to meet certain criteria. They are trying – but they don’t meet the criteria required by work plans. They’ve got to look on the computer for jobs (on Universal Jobmatch).’

‘What upset me the most was that my youngest son, who’s 23, saw a disability officer at Jobcentre Plus – and she told him that he didn’t know anything. She was implying that my son was thick and that upset him and he was crying.’

Marie has applied for a mandatory reconsideration of the decision to turn down her ESA application. She is most concerned about having to stop caring for her husband, if she has to now actively search for work. ‘I can’t leave my husband, as my sons wouldn’t know what to do then things get tricky. I’m very loyal to him. I get upset because he’s got dementia and his memory is getting quite bad now. The life expectancy for what he’s got is about eight years. Because he’s been my rock, it’s been hard for me. In the past I could go and ask his advice.’

She adds: ‘My husband is on a low budget  – yet he’s been giving us a little money and food. It makes me feel awkward, because he’s on a tight budget himself.’ Her house is cold, she has to use key cards for her gas and electricity and put a little money at a time on them.  To wash, they have to fill up the kettle and use the sink. Her sons and herself suffer from chest problems. Places like the food bank (this is the fourth time she’s had to use it) have ‘ taken the pressure off, but it’s hit my self-esteem and dignity.’ But she says that if it hadn’t been for the food bank she doesn’t know what she would have done – as she has no support network.

A month ago she says she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, ‘because stuff was getting too much and I felt like ending my life – but I’ve got responsibilities to my husband and kids’. She says the stress she’s under is causing her to lose weight and ‘my hair is falling out’. She talks to mental health charity Mind and to her GP. She says her GP, who has known her for 30 years,  is ‘disgusted’ about the way the welfare system has handled her case.

She says she expects a decision on the mandatory reconsideration this week, and that if the answer is another refusal, she will immediately make an appointment with Citizens Advice to discuss next steps.

Marie left the food bank, with her sons helping her carry the bags of food.

This is how what some policy gurus  might call ‘radical changes to  the welfare system in the UK’  are converging to impact one family in London – the capital city of the world’s sixth richest economy by GDP.

 

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Kestna’s #WCA and other reasons not to be cheerful

 

Kestna Marsh is disabled. He was forced to the foodbank after a tribunal upheld a  DWP decision to stop his benefit.
Kestna Marsh is disabled. He was forced to the foodbank after a tribunal upheld a DWP decision to stop his benefit.

Kestna Marsh was 62 this week. At the moment he probably feels he has little cause for celebration.

This former construction worker struggles to walk  as he has arthritis in his right knee,  left leg and left shoulder.  He can’t lift anything with his left arm. On the day he came into this London food bank with his voucher, his mobility was obviously restricted and he struggled with his walking stick  to move from room to room. Because of his mobility issues I felt hesitant about asking him to move even a few steps into a quieter room. Kestna walked that distance because he wanted to share his experience of Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

He was left without the money to buy adequate food after a tribunal hearing at the beginning of  last month (September) upheld the outcome  of his 2013 face-to-face ATOS WCA. He attended the tribunal on his own, without the support of a legal or welfare expert, and there were two people on the panel – a doctor and a solicitor.  The WCA awarded him zero points for his health issues, and Kestna immediately challenged this. But following the outcome of the appeal his employment and support allowance (ESA) claim was closed on September 13th. He thinks that as a result he ceased getting housing benefit on the same date. He now has to reapply for housing benefit. He’s been told by Jobcentre Plus to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), but he says he has been told by Jobcentre Plus that any claim for JSA wouldn’t be processed until October 17th.

He explains here how his health problems affect his life and how he feels about losing his tribunal appeal (apologies for the unconventional presentation of the video – camera operator in training!).

His Disability Living Allowance (DLA) of about £215 is paid monthly, but the payment in mid-September of about £50 a week has gone mainly on bills. What about food?  “I’ve been eating salad, beans, cheese and the odd sandwich here and there. I can’t do a proper food shop. If you gave me stuff to cook my gas is more or less onto nil. I haven’t got a penny to my name.”

Kestna added: “They expect me to go back to work. They’ve told me that if another illness emerges then I can apply for ESA again. Since my original assessment (in 2013) my problems have got worse. I can’t use a computer and I can’t sit too much or walk too far for too long. What sort of job do they expect me to do? I previously worked in construction and I know that for me to sit in an office would require retraining.”

The serious difficulties he faces because of his obvious ill-health and the stopping of his ESA are compounded by his council housing situation and the difficulties in building up a relationship with a GP at his new surgery who can get to know him properly.

He lives on his own, and has recently moved from one part of the Royal Borough of Greenwich  to another. He wanted to move to a ground floor flat, so he was offered one. But this new flat hasn’t been adapted to meet his mobility needs, so he is not entitled to the rent rebate that would accompany such an adaptation. He says that because the council moved him into a two bedroom flat instead of the one bedroom flat he wanted, the council has classed the flat as under-occupied. So because he’s been deemed as having an extra room, he’s having to pay an extra £12 a week towards the bedroom tax – for a flat that hasn’t even been adapted to meet his physical needs.

Kestna also says that there is apparently some discrepancy arising from his move from another flat in the borough, meaning that the council may have been paying him housing benefit for both flats. He also has council tax arrears of £112.

He left the food bank with contact details for welfare and housing rights experts.

He also left promising that he would make an appointment with his GP. “I’ve just moved into the area, so I don’t have a relationship with the GP yet. I must have had at least four or five appointments with different doctors.”

How did the tribunal decision leave him feeling? “I was really angry. I’ve never been through the food bank stuff. I always stuck to relying on my doctor. I got the certificate and sent it in on time. To find that they closed my claim without even informing me they were doing it, in my circumstances –  I feel quite disgusted really.”

Many thanks to Kestna for speaking up.

 

 

 

Life after #Atos: Good news for Deborah

Life after #Atos: Good news for Deborah
Deborah successfully challenges the decision by #Atos to deem her 'fit for work'.
Deborah successfully challenges the decision by #Atos to deem her ‘fit for work’.

What a difference a couple of days can make. Last week Deborah came into this London Trussell Trust food bank in despair . She ‘d had  a face-to-face Atos work capability assessment (WCA) back in June, and despite her multiple chronic health problems, she was awarded zero points. This meant that from July 24 this year, she lost her employment and support allowance (ESA). This single parent of 51 – with one of her four children still at school and a dependent – was forced to accept a voucher for the food bank from a social worker.

By last Friday, things had improved massively. Deborah came into the Greenwich food bank to tell us that her application for a mandatory reconsideration has been successful. Following this review of  her health issues and the original assessment, she’s now been awarded 18 points (she needed 15 to remain entitled to ESA).  Deborah believes that an intervention made by an NHS psychologist  who became aware of her difficulties has made a difference. That person  worked with her GP to supply more information about the impact of her many health difficulties on her ability to work.

This is of course a very positive development. But a key puzzle remains unanswered. How did Deborah end up with no points first time round, given the range and complexity of her health conditions? These include arthritis in the lower spine, hips, neck and knees, congenital heart problems, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and long-term depression. Deborah described being having to be helped on and off the couch at the WCA by a health service professional that she assumed was a doctor. She says she was in pain throughout the assessment. In the written assessment that person claimed Deborah had no problems getting on and off the couch and wasn’t in pain. There was also the strange matter of the coat. Deborah says her assessment referred to her being able to take her coat on and off. But she insists she was not wearing a coat that day.

Isn’t Deborah’s case an example if one more were needed of just how slapdash (at best) and unfit for purpose the WCA process has become? Yes, the original decision may have been revised. She will now get ESA again, but she is waiting to see if that will be backdated from late July. She has been placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) for 18 months from 24 July 2014. Deborah was ‘luckier’ than some – she still had some money coming in during this time – her disability living allowance (DLA). Her sister was also able to keep an eye on her for a few weeks.

But this wasn’t enough of a safety net to stop her from needing emergency food aid, with all that this involves for someone with depression and in  poor  physical health.

The new system of mandatory reconsideration before appeals introduced in October 2013 seemed to pick up the flaws in Deborah’s assessment. It may be the case that the drop by 92% in ESA appeals in April to June 2014 is mostly down to changes of decision in favour of  prospective appellants. But we don’t yet have the figures to show how many reconsiderations result in changed decisions.

People like Deborah appear to be having to wait for six to eight weeks – maybe this is ‘fast’ – do you know better? – for the outcome of mandatory reviews. If the review outcome leads to the decision being overturned,  it looks like they spend a minimum of  six to eight weeks without the benefit they depend on. If the review is unsuccessful then how long they are languishing and at what cost? We know only too well what can happen when the benefits of the chronically ill are stopped. In Deborah’s case she lost her benefit because of a failed ‘fit for work’ test. David Clapson, a former soldier, died after he lost his JSA as a result of a sanction. But the effect on people’s lives is the same – access to the means of survival is vastly reduced temporarily or completely blocked permanently. ‘Lucky’ Deborah had a social work who became involved and offered a food bank voucher. The psychologist and Deborah’s GP liaised to provide health information that appears to have made the difference. However the evidence suggests that many others are too vulnerable by this stage to fight on for their benefits or to access basic means of survival – such as a food bank voucher .

As the author of this Guardian article about David Clapson points out, ‘I’ll resist calling Clapson’s death a tragedy. Tragedy suggests a one-off incident, a rarity that couldn’t be prevented. What was done to Clapson – and it was done, not something that simply happened – is a particularly horrific example of what has, almost silently, turned into a widespread crisis. More than a million people in this country have had their benefits stopped over the past year. Sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people have risen by 580% in a year. This is a system out of control.’

Some advice on WCA assessments has been offered by readers. Welfare rights consultant Jim Strang reminds those going through the process that they can inform the assessor that they would like their assessment recorded. This should be requested in advance. He adds that anyone whose ESA is stopped can also make a fresh claim for housing benefit, based on income.

Paul Trembath says that those who go ahead with an ESA appeal following mandatory reconsideration (and the Department for Work and Pensions have had confirmation from the Tribunals Service) can ask for ESA to be paid again even if they are claiming JSA – ‘they have to ask, the DWP will not suggest’.

Many thanks to Jim and Paul for their advice – and a big thanks to Deborah for speaking out.