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.

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Bone marrow transplant patient could lose her Motability car under DWP rules

“Lesley” is petrified. She needs a bone marrow transplant at the end of this month. Trying to deal with Myelodysplasia – a serious blood disorder that causes a drop in the number of healthy blood cells – is tough enough already, and she is very anxious about the transplant. But now she’s worried she’ll lose her Motability vehicle at the very time she needs it most. The decision by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to stop paying the mobility component of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP) to the Motability Scheme when people end up in hospital for more than 28 days has added an extra level of concern.

The 47-year-old divorcee depends on the leased car for her 40-mile round trip to the NHS centre of excellence where she’s being treated. She expects to be in hospital for four to six weeks post-transplant. She has also been told by the hospital that she could be in again after that frequently as an inpatient and will have three visits a week as an outpatient. She’s advised that using public transport poses an infection risk post-transplant. She is unable to rely on family and friends who are at work for lifts, and can’t afford taxis.

The DWP tells people in receipt of DLA to let them know when they first go into hospital, and to tell them once they are discharged. They are then told to supply details of any subsequent inpatient stays. But “Lesley” says this just “adds to the stress when I just want to move on with my life – they are just putting obstacles in my way”.

She says Motability has been sympathetic to her circumstances and has said she can keep the car for a couple of months if DWP payments to Motability on her behalf are cancelled. But with the prospect of being in and out of hospital on the horizon for some time, she’s concerned that a possible pattern of stop-start payments may not be triggered quickly enough to ensure that the car is available when she desperately needs it. She believes that those with the most serious illnesses who have to spend longer in hospital risk losing out most under this change, which began in April 2013. “If I wasn’t very ill I would continue to get it (the mobility component), but because I am very ill, I don’t get it. In all the literature I am advised to not use public transport due to infection risk. How then would I get to hospital?”

Following the transplant her immune system is going to be “wiped out completely”. “If I travel (on public transport) with someone with a cold and I catch it, that would be extremely bad news – really dangerous. Getting public transport could effectively kill me yet I may be left with no choice. I have had to think long and hard about this transplant. All my family and friends work and I’m single, so cannot rely on others. It’s scaring me as it’s a dangerous procedure anyway and then I could catch a cold virus or infection from someone and die because I don’t have my own clean safe transport. The decision to change the rules in 2013 was a ludicrous one. Also I wasn’t warned about it when I started the car scheme. Suspending and reinstating the mobility component must cost a fortune in administration.”

There are two organisations which work closely together to deliver the Motability Scheme. They are Motability, a registered charity, responsible for oversight and Scheme policy, and Motability Operations Ltd, a not-for-profit private company that operates the Scheme under contract to Motability. A spokesman for Motability said in a statement: “To lease a car, scooter or powered wheelchair through the Motability Scheme, an individual must be in receipt of the Higher Rate Mobility Component of the DLA, or the Enhanced Rate of the Mobility Component of PIP. Motability has no role in determining who should receive disability benefits – that is solely the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). In general, the DWP do not make payments of DLA care and mobility components after a disabled person has been in hospital for 28 days or more (84 days for children under 16). Payments resume once the disabled person comes out of hospital. From April 2013 onwards, the DWP has started to treat all hospital inpatients in the same way, whether they have a Motability vehicle or not. This means that if a customer spends more than 28 days in hospital, the DWP will stop paying the mobility component of the DLA/PIP to the Motability Scheme.”

The statement adds: “As soon as customers are admitted to hospital, they should notify the DWP of their change in circumstance. For hospital stays of more than 28 days, they or somebody acting on their behalf should contact Motability’s Customer Services Team on 0300 456 4566 to discuss their individual circumstances. Depending on the expected length of their hospital stay and, of course, their own preferences, we will discuss appropriate arrangements with them. Since this change was made by the DWP in April 2013, we have been contacted by a number of customers in this situation and have been able to leave cars with them in the expectation that they will come out of hospital and have their allowance reinstated by the DWP within a reasonable period.”

The DWP was approached for information about the cost of administering the change and the savings made since the change was implemented. It was asked how many disabled people had been affected after stays in hospital and if any cost/benefit analysis had been undertaken prior to the change. It was also asked if any challenges or complaints had been received, and whether there was a legislative basis for the change. No reply has been received to date.

Motability’s flexible and understanding approach to individuals affected by this change is admirable – but what happens if the person is unfortunate enough to need a series of extended hospital stays and the DWP isn’t paying for the car? The uncertainty involved isn’t making “Lesley’s” life any less stressful. Also, for how long will Motability continue take the financial hit as it strives to do the right thing?

Will Peter and Sue get added to this year’s malnutrition statistics?

Is the government rushing to close down the few remaining sources of help for people like Peter and Sue (not their real names), a couple who came into the London food bank last week? Both of them have serious health issues and their sickness benefits have been delayed.

Yesterday, the story broke that the £347m hardship fund, a potential safety net for the couple, is being scrapped. The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for ministers to review the decision. The LGA says its abolition could leave councils unable to support families who face a crisis. The loss of the Local Welfare Assistance Fund would leave councils having to find money for this from their overall budgets. The government is reported as saying that councils will continue to give support to those in financial difficulties, but the LGA has highlighted that overall funding for local government has been cut by more than 40 per cent over the course of this parliament. Doing away with this fund could leave some areas unable to afford to help out people in crisis.

This development is not going to make life any easier for Peter and Sue, who usually get employment and support allowance (ESA), but had no way of feeding themselves last week. Peter, who is bipolar, had sent the sick note that he hopes would have triggered a renewal of ESA to an office in Ireland, but believes it’s been lost in the post. Before he can start receiving ESA again, he has to repeat the process of getting his key mental health worker to arrange an appointment with his psychiatrist. It’s easy to see that this is all going to take a while to sort. Sue, who is epileptic, had been friends with Peter for many years before they became a couple. They got together after she broke up with her ex-husband, who had been violent towards her. She doesn’t seem to know why her ESA has been delayed.

Both of them have older children from their previous relationships, and now Sue, 36, thinks she may be pregnant. The couple, who are clearly devoted to each other, are living together. Sue receives housing benefit and disability living allowance (DLA) in addition to ESA. With both sets of ESA now on hold, they are trying and failing to survive on Sue’s DLA of £41 a week. That sum has to cover rent, gas, electricity, council tax and food for two. Except of course, it isn’t covering food, which is why they’re here at the food bank.

They’re worried their gas and electricity are about to run out. That would leave them in a cold house, unable to heat up some of the tins of food we’re giving them. Our food bank manager Alan rang their energy supplier Utilita, which calls itself “the UK’s leading prepayment gas and electricity supplier”. He said they weren’t very interested in helping. “The couple had recently switched suppliers and this supplier (Utilita) did not seem to understand its responsibility to help vulnerable people and in any case could not act until their smart meter was installed.”

He added that in stark contrast, he contacted energy provider EDF the same day on behalf of another client, and they quickly agreed to provide an emergency supply of gas and electricity – £20 in each case. A bit of welcome good news. Well done EDF.

Getting help from the state seems to be getting harder and harder. Sue says that when they went to the job centre to use the phones, only one phone was left for clients to use. There used to be six lines available. The pair walked miles from their home to the job centre only to find they were unable to get help.

For Peter and Sue, life is very tough at the moment. Peter says they have both been “hungry the last week or two”. This is a particularly worrying development for someone who may be in the first three months of pregnancy. Life is a daily battle for survival. Peter says the key person who helps them is a local vicar. He’s the one who gave them a voucher for the food bank. “He’s understanding and he looks after us. He hates the government like I do. We are just oiks to them. If we get one less payment then the government saves a bit of money.”

The anger expressed by Peter’s vicar is being writ large across the nation. The open letter published in the Daily Mirror last week signed by 27 Anglican bishops is scathing about the Coalition’s “cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system” that have left half a million people visiting food banks since last Easter. It also says that 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK with malnutrition last year. Peter and Sue are in danger of being included in this year’s malnutrition statistics.