Deborah, her ATOS debacle, and the missing coat mystery

Deborah, her ATOS debacle, and the missing coat mystery

Deborah Ruby, who had her ESA stopped, despite her multiple chronic health issues.
Deborah Ruby, who has had her ESA stopped, despite her multiple chronic health issues.
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?

Gina is chased for a £732 working tax credit ‘debt’: ‘It’s another form of sanction’

Gina is chased for a £732 working tax credit  ‘debt’: ‘It’s another form of sanction’

Gina Lomax says it is "immoral" that she has been told to pay back £732 in working tax credit.
Gina Loxam says it is “immoral” that she has been told to pay back £732 in working tax credit.
When is a debt not a debt? When it’s £732 that the government says is now owed by Gina Loxam in Working Tax Credit (WTC).

Gina, a single woman of 58 from the north-west of England, had been on WTC – a means tested payment for those in low-paid work – including self-employed people. It’s paid by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). Unfortunately Gina, who lost her beloved pet shop business in the recession, became very ill with depression. Following an assessment by ATOS, she was placed on employment and support allowance (ESA) in the work-related activity group. Because she was receiving WTC, this amount was deducted from her ESA to ensure she only got £100 per week.

She did her WTC return only to discover she was no longer entitled to it after 28 weeks off sick. She has now been told that she owes HMRC £732. ESA will not back date their reduced underpayments to cover this, saying she should have informed WTC directly when she went onto ESA. Gina says of this demand from the HMRC: “I was in no fit state to even feed myself let alone notify loads of different departments of my current status. I am now left with a debt of £732 for money I never received off the ESA. This is morally wrong and theft. Apparently this is happening to a lot of people on WTC who went onto ESA. Why are these departments not liaising and ensuring the claimants are aware of the rules? This is another way of sanctioning the vunerable.”

Gina wants the ESA to backdate her full benefit to the date the WTC ceased so that she can pay the WTC back from the reimbursed ESA underpayments. She adds: “I also want to raise awareness of how immoral this whole situation is. I am not asking for anything I was not entitled too. If I have to pay this back, it means I would have been only receiving £47 for three months instead of £100. It boils down to theft of benefits.”

She says of people who are ill and in her situation: “It’s ridiculous to have a debt you don’t really owe because you were underpaid ESA. How many people have been affected by this? It’s another form of sanction. I have worked all my life and to be in this position is abhorrent. I’ve written a letter to the HMRC telling them I can’t pay.”

Gina wrote to her local MP, Conservative David Morris, for help. He replied: “There is no scope for discretion within the law relating to Social Security, and that is something which we must all accept as fact, regardless of whether or not we agree with it. It has long been intrinsic within Social Security Legislation that the onus of responsibility to provide accurate information, details and documentation both at the outset of a claim, and at all stages thereafter, rests with the claimant. This would include therefore, reporting change of circumstances. The regulations say that it is your duty to report any change in your circumstances which you might be reasonably expected to know could affect your right to, the amount of, or the payment of, your benefits.
This is Regulation 32(1A) and (1B) of the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Regulations 1987. It is not the responsibility of any individual or Government Department to notify someone either that they are eligible to claim a particular benefit, or to take action on an assumption of a change of circumstances. If you fail to disclose a material fact which affects your entitlement, (whether unintentional or otherwise) then an overpayment will be deemed to have occurred. Such overpayments are then generally recoverable.”

She wrote back to Mr Morris telling him that she did not receive an overpayment. “The Government can’t have it both ways. I was underpaid my ESA. If I had been getting the full benefit for WTC and ESA I would have been overpaid. But this is not an overpayment as I did not get my full ESA entitlement! I don’t even want the money paid back to me but to go direct to HMRC clearing my ‘debt’. An inter department transfer.”. She continued: “The whole situation is theft and a sanction. I am sure you would not be happy if you were expected to lose seven weeks of your salary due to an honest mistake.”

Gina wants to know how many people have been affected by this issue. She added: “It’s just immoral. It’s a secret sanction. They’re not telling people what they need to do, yet they are very quick to penalize people for not doing it. I was bouncing back (from depression), but I’m not now. I’m worrying about money I’ve lost that I should have had. I’m not going to pay this. I refuse.”

She points out that when she applied for ESA she had to note on the claim form which benefits she was claiming and that she listed WTC. “So they would have had that information, they knew I was on it. Why wasn’t that automatically flagged on the system once I’d been on ESA for more than 28 weeks? The DWP should automatically send out a letter after 28 weeks to those on WTC informing them that they are now going to get full ESA and they will either inform WTC or you have to. Simple.”

Thanks to Gina for flagging up this issue. Please get in touch if you have had similar problems with WTC and ESA.

James is now destitute following a sanction: ‘It’s bully boy tactics’, he says.

James is now destitute following a sanction: ‘It’s bully boy tactics’, he says.

James Dearsley, 60, receives a three-month sanction while on the Work Programme
James Dearsley, 60, receives a three-month sanction while on the Work Programme

A vulnerable 60-year-old has been left penniless and dependent on food bank support after his Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) was sanctioned at the end of July while on the Work Programme. South-east Londoner James Dearsley received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (below) telling him that he had been sanctioned from July 29 and that his JSA would not be reinstated until October 29. James, who is already in arrears with his council tax, has spent more than three weeks without social security. This withdrawal of money means that he’s already been forced to use Greenwich food bank twice.

He says the local job centre told him he was being sanctioned because on three consecutive occasions he had failed to turn up for his Work Programme appointment with a Seetec job search support club. The letter from the DWP states: “We have decided that you did not comply with the requirements of the scheme to which you have been referred and that you did not have sufficiently good reasons for doing so.”

The letter from the Department for Work and Pensions to James Dearsley concerning his three-month sanction
The letter from the Department for Work and Pensions to James Dearsley concerning his three-month sanction

James, who has health issues, says he was not able to make his July 16 appointment because he was sick. He received a phone call from Seetec and he told them he was ill. He says he was able to attend his next appointment on July 23, and also turned up for his appointment with Seetec on July 30, “but they sent me home because they said I had a sick note and because of that I couldn’t stay there”. He added that later they “said verbally that they were sanctioning me because of three supposed missed appointments”.

He has now submitted an application for a hardship payment – which is an emergency payment at a much lower rate than JSA. He was told last week that it would take seven to 10 days for this to come through. James has also very recently submitted an application for employment and support allowance (ESA).

How does he feel about the three-month sanction and the effect it could also have on his housing? “It’s draconian. I also owe £300 in council tax. If they cut my money off I’ll lose my flat. I’m also totally in the dark over when the ESA will come through. To state the brutal truth, it’s bully boy tactics.” James has submitted a request for a review of the decision to sanction him.

As Polly Toynbee points out in the The Guardian here, “Jobcentre Plus offices have become sanction factories”, with staff under massive pressure to cut people off. She mentions the case this summer of a diabetic former solider, who was “sanctioned into starvation” and who tragically died.

Does anyone in the system responsible for these welfare policies – including setting up a Work Programme described by the Government as “offering personalised support for claimants who need more help looking for and staying in work” – genuinely believe that giving James a three-month sanction that forces him to the food bank will ultimately lead him closer to a job and a more secure and healthy future?

Many thanks to James and to all the food bank clients who are prepared to share their experiences.