‘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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Abdul, his wife and family

The sheer tension of trying to survive from day to day leads to arguments at home for many of the clients who come to this London food bank. Abdul and his wife Rahma have been rowing, and the police got involved. They in turn referred him to a social worker, who gave him a food bank voucher.

The only money this family of four has coming in at the moment is child benefit for the two children.  Abdul’s wife has depression, and is not able to work.  This has been confirmed by her GP,  so she applied for Employment Support Allowance (ESA). She is appealing the decision by the Department of Work and Pensions to refuse her ESA.

His wife is Spanish, and the couple have been in the UK for six years. They live in a privately-rented home. Before she got ill she had been working on and off as an assistant chef in an Italian restaurant. Abdul, who also worked in a restaurant, has also been a self-employed market trader. But with his wife unwell and unable to cope with the children, he has been at home looking after the youngsters of two and three.

He tells me: “Going back 10 weeks, she had been receiving  Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) for about seven months. They said she’s not a UK national or Irish, but she had been working and she’s paid taxes. The JSA was £114 for a couple per week, but we’ve now had 10 weeks without any money at all.”

Abdul, who is 37, has now had to borrow £200 from his wife’s cousin, but doesn’t  know when he can repay him. He applied for child tax credit five weeks ago, but still hasn’t heard back about it.  He has now applied to the council for a crisis loan. I’ll follow up Abdul’s progress in a few weeks…..

Penny (not her real name), the mother of five who was so appreciative on Friday when she received help from our London food bank, tells us that she had escaped from an abusive relationship. As a result she has had to move house 11 times, with her older children attending three different secondary schools so far. She has mental health issues – made worse by the stress of trying to feed her girls, who range in age from 14 to four months. Penny was referred to us by her community psychiatric nurse.

She receives £120 every two weeks in Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and £240 in child tax credit a week. But by the time she pays her private landlord £200 a week (which also includes rent arrears) by standing order, she only had £40 left this week to cover gas, electricity and food.

Penny, whose says her ex-husband “hasn’t given me anything”,  believes single parents with larger families are being particularly affected by policies towards claimants: “I’ve been trying to get the council to help for the last six months. I know another mum with five children who can’t afford to feed them.”

Despite all the setbacks, Penny is obviously a loving mother, who does her best for the children. She’s someone who puts her youngsters’ welfare first. “I’m doing a brilliant job. My children are being brought up well. They say please and thank you. All they (the government) want to do is to bring us down. There’s no help when you have babies.” The facts back up her view. Back in 2011, the £500 per child Sure Start maternity grant was restricted to the first child in a family, and crisis loans are no longer available to those on Jobseeker’s Allowance or other low income benefits.

The food bank  – set up by local churches in this borough in partnership with the Trussell Trust – may have been able to ensure that this is a better week for Penny and her children. But her new baby and her older sisters will not thrive unless the family’s future prospects improve quickly.