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.

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”

Mark unravels after sanctions: “The process left me feeling suicidal.”
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma
Mark Bothwell is now recovering from his sanctions trauma

According to Vox Political  and the Disability News Service, the UK government seems to have become the first country to face a high-level inquiry by the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD). The committee has the power to do this if it receives what it calls “reliable information of grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people by a country signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its optional protocol.

The committee conducts its investigations “confidentially”, so it has refused to confirm or deny that the UK is being investigated. Disability News Service has reported that CRPD appeared to have put off its public examination of the UK’s approach to implementing the disability convention until after next year’s general election. According to Vox Political, it now appears that the committee “may have taken this decision because it had launched the much more serious – and so far unprecedented – inquiry into the UK’s violation of disabled people’s rights”.

Surely here in the UK we wouldn’t abuse disabled people? Could that really happen in London, for example – a sophisticated and rich world capital, recently revealed by an article in Forbes as the world’s “most influential global city”. London was ranked first in the world on the Z/Yen Group’s 2013 Global Financial Centres Index. The article admiringly states that “its location outside the United States and the eurozone keeps it away from unfriendly regulators”, and it’s a “preferred domicile for the global rich”. Given all that serendipity and wealth, the world’s most influential city must also be in a position to influence things to ensure its residents don’t starve?

The benefits of London’s position as a welcoming home for the world’s rich don’t appear to be improving matters for the clients at the food bank frontline in London – or nationally for that matter. Greenwich food bank (which is currently operating from seven locations across the borough) has seen visitors increasing from 776 to 5025 in the past year. In nearby Lewisham, the figure rose from 623 to 3895. Mananger of the Greenwich food banks Alan Robinson tracks the increase he’s seen to welfare changes dating from April 2013, including the bedroom tax and welfare cap.

A few days ago I caught up with long-standing Greenwich food bank client Mark Bothwell, who has depression and whose shoulder injury had developed into a chronic problem. I’ve interviewed Mark many times, and he’s a warm, intelligent and engaging young man of 29. His experiences must make him one of those said to be experiencing diabolical treatment – those “grave violations” – at the hands of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over many, many months. Mark told me that by July he was so distraught that he felt  suicidal.

Despite having already waited  for a prolonged period on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) while believing that his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) was being assessed, Mark was not only told that his ESA paperwork had been lost, but that he had been sanctioned – twice – for supposedly failing turn up for jobseeker advice appointments with Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). He was told that he’d received the first sanction stopping his JSA at the end of May and that they had written to him telling him about the appointment. He says he did not receive any such letter. He began an appeals process with the help of Greenwich borough’s Welfare Rights Service. While he was told that the appeal for this sanction was being allowed, he was informed “in the same sentence that I was not going to get any money, because there was a second sanction for the same period of time for another missed appointment that I didn’t know about”. He says they told him they had sent another letter – “but I didn’t receive them”.

When the initial sanction was imposed, Mark was plunged into a nightmare of making multiple phone calls to different people in an attempt to get some help. It took two weeks to get a DWP hardship payment (about 40 per cent of normal JSA) through, and this was not enough to cover his bills – ” I had to borrow money”. He had to make multiple calls to the JSA enquiry line on his landline. He was told that if he wanted to talk to a “decision maker” he would have to call the enquiry line and leave a message for the “decision maker”, who would then call him back. He says that “on almost every phone call he was told something different”.

He added: “From about the beginning of June until mid-July I made about 60 phone calls trying to sort out the appeals and the (lost) ESA (claim). I had to resubmit the application for ESA because they said they lost it. On almost every phone call I’d be told something different. That process left me feeling suicidal. They were telling me a different thing every single time. They would tell me it (my money) would be a week, then I phoned up and they said no they shouldn’t have told you that. Then with the last phone call the woman said, no it doesn’t happen like that, it takes another two weeks. She was so rude I just hung up and collapsed on the floor. Tears were running down my face. I actually said out loud the word suicide to my flatmate, to my family and to complete strangers. I hit rock bottom around July 10-12.”

About a week later, Mark was told that he would get ESA, and that it would be backdated from the end of May. He is now receiving £144.80 a fortnight. The regular money is “helping a lot” and he says he can now buy food items such as fresh meat. He’s certainly looking brighter and stronger now.  Mark shares a home with a disabled flatmate and friend. This person has been told he’ll be getting a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for help with some of the extra costs of being disabled. With the PIP finally in place, Mark has at last been able to fill in the application form for Carer’s Allowance in relation to the help he gives his friend. He’s also finally getting better help for his depression, and has been able to come off his Tramadol medication, which was beginning to badly affect his short-term memory.

Finally, after this atrocious wait and a host of adverse developments, Mark is starting to get the benefits he’s entitled to. But why did the state allow him to languish for such a long time waiting to move from JSA to ESA, and without Carer’s Allowance? Mark began experiencing problems with his shoulder last October, and in May, I reported that he’d already been waiting months for his ESA claim to be processed. In respect of his friend’s PIP application, we know that PIP claim backlogs during the first year of its introduction have caused tremendous problems for the disabled.

During his time without benefits because of the sanctions, Mark had to survive for two days without any food. As a long-standing client of Greenwich food bank, Mark has been provided with the usual three days’ supply of nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food on about a dozen occasions. Greenwich food bank is part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks. Its policy and commitment is to provide short-term help through a crisis for people who’ve been referred by a frontline professional such as a social worker or health visitor. The decision was taken not to provide another food parcel. This happened after careful discussion and review. The Trussell Trust believes that providing food aid on multiple occasions for an individual can remove an essential incentive to fix the underlying problems that drive people to the food bank in the first place.

Mark has been very appreciative of the support he’s received from the food bank over the last number of months. Very thoughtfully, once his ESA money came through he brought in a cake and a thank-you card – to the delight of the volunteers.

Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank's help
Mark shows his appreciation for the food bank’s help

In July, a report – Dignity and Opportunity for All: Securing the Rights of Disabled People in the Austerity Era – was published by the Just Fair consortium, which included Disabled People Against Cuts and Inclusion London. it suggests the UK had moved from being an international disability rights leader to risking becoming a “systematic violator of these same rights”. Many of the individual accounts I’ve collected here, including Mark’s, add to the evidence that the vulnerable and disabled are the subject of the gravest injustices.

An exercise in hope: The Biscuit Fund steps to help Kevin after his benefits are sanctioned

An exercise in hope: The Biscuit Fund steps to help Kevin after his benefits are sanctioned
Kevin Jobbins, who's living on £7 a fortnight for food, following a benefit sanction
Kevin, who’s living on £7 a fortnight for food, is offered help from charity the Biscuit Fund

Something marvellous has happened! Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that the accounts people share of their lives – at the Greenwich food bank (part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks) and elsewhere – are often very grim. So I don’t get to use the word marvellous very often. There you go, I sneaked the word in again.

This week was different. There was some brilliant news for one of the food bank’s clients. A small charity called the Biscuit Fund was alerted via Twitter to my recent interview with Kevin .  It has now come forward  to offer Kevin some very well targeted and timely help.

He was left trying to exist on a food budget of £3.50 a week after he was sanctioned back in April while on employment and support allowance (ESA). He was told this was because he failed to arrive for an appointment with the Seetec job club. The reason  he didn’t make the appointment was because he had to look after his two-year-old son. The Biscuit Fund read the interview, and has been in touch with him. The charity has now agreed to send him a weekly food shop of fresh food for the next six weeks, and it will also pay his rent and council tax directly for the same amount of time.

Kevin, whose benefit payment went from £202 a fortnight to £47 because of the sanction, says he ended up begging and stealing for food because of the sanction. He has issues with drug and alcohol addiction. The 39-year-old is waiting to go into detox treatment and is awaiting surgery for a painful foot condition linked to his time as a homeless person. As far as I’m aware, the sanction is still in place this week, though I’m trying to check this with Kevin. His full benefit certainly hadn’t been reinstated at the start of this week.

While he was of course very pleased to get some help from the food bank last week, the supply on offer via the Trussell Trust network  is three days’ nutritionally-balanced non-perishable food. The fresh food will be a very welcome addition, and takes the pressure off a little as he tries to build up his health and confidence.

The manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson said: “This is such good news, and it shows some hope amidst the despair of other stories.”

The Biscuit Fund operates almost solely online, looking out on help forums and pages for people in dire need of help. It got off the ground in early 2013, and has managed to raise and donate around £6,000 to people in poverty. It says on its website: “A large number of our clients are actually working families, who are simply finding that the money they earn just doesn’t cover the food and heating bills. We have also aided disabled people who have been declared ‘fit for work’, who have been left with no income and no job propects, as well as folk who have been victims of crime in the form of muggings or theft.”

To avoid the risk of being defrauded, and because it has such limited funds, the charity offers only  one-off donations and the identities of its advocates are kept anonymous. It does not accept direct applications for help. The Biscuit Fund offers small cash donations or sometimes online food orders that give people “just a little helping hand when they need it most, without making them feel humiliated or making them wait in line”.

Sometimes, the charity says, all that’s needed is £20 to top up an electricity meter, or sometimes a larger bill has to be handled to avoid the client being visited by bailiffs. if you’ve read this and are inspired, the Biscuit Fund has a donate button on its website.

Last words from the charity: “This is what we do. We love it. We believe in it. We believe in giving people just a tiny bit of  hope.”