‘John’, schizophrenia and his debts: The DWP can’t abdicate responsibility

It’s emerging that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out what the Disability News Service (DNS) says were ’60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years’. The excellent DNS obtained the figures from the DWP in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests. The DWP has always rejected any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of claimants.

Additionally, the DWP has now released guidance to staff saying that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving ‘customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers’.

The vulnerability of many benefits claimants is illustrated by the case of ‘John’, who came into the London food bank with a voucher on Friday. He’s 33 and explained to me that he’s in debt. He still owes well over £2,000 to ‘payday’ or short term loan companies. These include Cash Generators, TextLoanUK (offering up to £100 for seven days at APR of 894%) and Miniloanshop. The repayments are coming directly out of his bank account and are causing him to incur bank charges.

‘John’ is on employment and support allowance (ESA) – a UK benefit paid to people whose illness or disability affects their ability to work. He has also only just started receiving personal independence payment (PIP) – a non means tested benefit that offers help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health and disability.

He  has serious long-standing mental health issues – he lives with schizophrenia and depression. The very strong anti-depression and anti-psychotic medication he’s on ‘makes you drowsy and you forget a lot of things’, he says. He adds that he ‘ends up paying money back, but getting new loans’.

I wasn’t able to establish how much he’s currently having to repay per week to meet the horrendously high APRs on his loans. Neither was he able to tell me the rate of PIP that he receives: The level of PIP varies hugely from £21.55 to £138.05 a week, depending on the outcome of the assessment process. I was however able to advise him to immediately contact Christians Against Poverty – a debt counselling charity. He promised that he would indeed get in touch with them urgently.

'John' has been referred to CAP for advice
‘John’ has been referred to CAP for advice

He lives in a hostel, but it does not seem to offer much if anything in the way of personal support or advocacy. His health is deteriorating and he is losing large amounts of weight. ‘I’ve lost two stones in two months and my nutrition is up and down’, he says. When he goes to the GP, he sees a ‘different doctor each time’. He’s started having blackouts, at which point a GP referred him to the hospital. He still doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He sees a psychiatrist once every three months, and has no community psychiatric nurse.

He’s been told by the DWP that he is due to have a work capability assessment (WCA) for his ESA, and has been waiting for this since January this year. No doubt this process will do nothing but add to the stress he is under.

Given his deteriorating health, fast weight loss, lack of day-to-day support with his mental health issues and debt problems, in my lay view any future decision by the DWP to endorse a withdrawal of his ESA following WCA would pose a real risk to him.

Has the DWP got any risk assessment procedures in place for individuals awaiting WCA? The effect on people who are already vulnerable of long waits for assessments that may result in removal or refusal of benefit is a matter of huge concern.

I’ll be contacting the DWP to let them know of ‘John’s’ situation. Many thanks to him for talking about his circumstances.

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London is no city for young women: Will Sarah return to escort work to pay for her debts?

Down at the food bank, the volunteers hope that clients can over time move on from their challenging situations to something better. Sarah, who has featured here before, is struggling to get the proper support she needs to build a better life. She came here with a voucher a few weeks ago, worried that she was about to get evicted from her hostel. Some calls to the housing association were made, and the threat of eviction was withdrawn after her case was looked at again.

So she had a roof over her head for a while longer. But Sarah (not her real name), a 28-year-old law graduate who has battled for many years with a serious mental illness – Borderline Personality Disorder – came in again today and what she told me made my heart sink. This very intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive young woman has had to deal not only with BPD – which she sees as a life sentence – but with a violent home environment, from which she’s recently fled. Her full story is here. She came to this borough as a homeless person, because she couldn’t stay where she was. While she’s not currently at risk of being homeless again, and is receiving employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, she has considerable debts, including a loan from Wonga at the usual rates (for those of you who don’t know by now, Wonga’s rate of interest is an eye-watering 365 per cent on £150 for 18 days). She is also trying to deal with a massive bill from Vodaphone, and some student credit card debt.

Sarah told me that she thinks she may have to return to escort work to pay her debts. Why is she considering this? She explained to me: ‘I feel as if I’m in fight or flight mode. It’s horrible and wrong, but if I balance all that against the risk of sinking further and further into debt…. The place I work for gives you drivers and a bodyguard. It’s a seedy underworld, but maybe that’s where I think I belong. It’s what I know.’ When she has done this work in the past, she says she ‘feels like she can blot it out with drink and cannabis…. I’ve done it before, so I think what does another time mean to me’. This work would pay her £60 an hour cash in hand.

How does she feel about her life? ‘I’m sick of being a burden and a leech. I’m heading towards 30 and what have I got to show for it? I’m not stable enough to work full time. I can’t jump from being on benefits to funding a deposit and rent for a flat. I haven’t worked full-time since 2010.’

Sarah began the first stage of some very gruelling treatment for her BPD, but to make progress she would need to undertake another two years of therapy over about three days a week. Having left her home and pulled out of treatment, she would need to start again and access services in this borough. But the GP she has registered with has not yet received the paperwork from her old GP. So although she has been prescribed her medication, she does not yet have a community psychiatric nurse. Our food bank manager made sure she left today with details of the local self-referral mental health services and details of excellent debt advice charity Christians Against Poverty. We hope she gets appointments with both very soon indeed.

Send her all the luck in the world. She’s got more inner strength that she realises and I’m left with a sense that she will now fight to get the support she needs. The most disgraceful thing is that social, housing and welfare policies are making life more difficult by the day for Sarah and the people like her, here in London and throughout the UK.

January Blues: Extra bank and loan charges spark crisis for disabled food bank client

Clients at this London Trussell Trust food bank have few material resources to draw on, but if at all possible they still want to buy a few presents for their loved ones and grandchildren at Christmas.

But receiving her employment and support allowance (ESA)  a week earlier than usual before Christmas left grandmother Debbie without enough money to buy food this month. There wasn’t enough cash for that in her account when the standing orders came out. This included her regular standing order for a loan repayment to payday loan company Oakam. She had taken out a loan of £200 for Christmas presents at a mind-blowing APR of 676.6% to pay for Christmas presents. Oakam billed for one month’s repayment (£64, including £4 of extra charges) instead of two weeks (£30), with no warning, says Debbie, of the extra payment. How can Oakam seriously advertise on its website that it offers “affordable loans”?

She also incurred bank charges of £40 to Barclays for being overdrawn, which she says Barclays won’t reimburse.

Debbie is 49, and receives ESA because she has multiple, chronic health issues that leave her unable to work. Five years ago she was the victim of a hit and run accident, when she broke her ankle. This led to osteoarthritis in her knees and ankles which is spreading to her hips. She also has a personality disorder.

Debbie is also paying back money to Provident for another loan. She thinks she borrowed £150, but says that she believes she still owes £300 or so to them.

As well as providing her with three day’s supply of emergency food, we were able to offer her contact details for two debt advice charities in our patch -one of which is the fantastic Christians Against Poverty. They will be able to offer Debbie some practical support with consolidating her debts. Hopefully they’ll also consider contacting Barclays on her behalf to ask them how fair it is to pile bank charges onto someone who is in receipt of ESA and who says her problems were triggered by an early payment and a payday loan standing order that was for more than twice the amount that was expected.

Unsurprisingly, Debbie is also depressed. She has two bedrooms, the second of which is used by her grandchildren when they come to stay at weekends. Having them around means a lot to her, but her housing association (she’s in receipt of housing benefit) is putting pressure on her to move to a smaller property. Her house has been one of the few constants in her life, as she’s been living there for 12 years. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that even the thought of moving is causing her stress and potentially worsening her health issues. So why inflict that on her?

Why do we as a society stand by while the most vulnerable get treated in this appalling way? The truth is that many of us are only a car accident away from ending up where Debbie is today…..