‘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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Mark and the Jobseeker’s Allowance/Payday Loan Diet

House prices aren’t the only thing taking off in London. There’s been a big spike recently in the numbers using this Trussell Trust food bank. Last week  13 clients came in with their vouchers during the three-hour weekly slot that  we’re open. That’s a significant increase on before Christmas. I’ll be trying to collate numbers this week to see if that  January increase is reflected at the other food banks in the borough.

One of the clients who came in just before the weekend was Mark, an endearing  man of 29, who had used another food bank at the start of the week. That supply would have seen him through for a minimum of three days. This time he didn’t have a voucher (the worker from the job centre who usually allocates them wasn’t available), but he decided to call in with us anyway. He brought us a box of biscuits he’d received from the food bank to say thanks for the earlier help. We weren’t able to give him a nutritionally balanced package of food without a voucher, but we gave him some bits and pieces that were still in date, and a loaf of bread that had been brought in that morning.

Mark has been receiving  jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) for some time. His last job was agency work as a barman and waiter. The company got bought out, and Mark ended up being paid two weeks after he did a shift. He told me: “I could be called up on the day, and I had to pay out £40 a week for my travel card, as the work took me all over London. I just couldn’t afford it.”

He tells me that he normally sets aside a small amount (£18-40) a fortnight for food. He carefully juggled all this and it was tricky. But recently things got harder, as he started paying off a hire purchase agreement to BrightHouse for a PC. He uses the PC (which he describes as his lifeline)  to prepare and send off job applications. Being poor is expensive. A typical BrightHouse HP agreement involves an APR of 70 per cent. He’s also paying off another loan from The Money Shop, where short-term loans of up £1,000 typically have an APR of 2961.4 per cent. He says his problems were also made worse (probably before Christmas) by bills coming out of his account earlier than he expected.

To make matters worse he got ill in October, when he hurt his right shoulder and arm, and the right side of his neck. This really affected his original  food budget (which assumed one to two meals a day), as the painkillers he’s taking require him to eat more regularly. It got to the point where he has needed to pay out £4.40 a week more than is paid in – and that’s before buying food. The injury is in danger of turning into a chronic health problem. Mark is also paying a Sky subscription. Some will point a finger here and say he shouldn’t be doing this if he can’t afford food. But try standing his shoes (size nines – needing superglue as the soles have come off) for a while…

Mark has a kind heart. On the day he was in he put his name down to become a volunteer at the food bank. He also helps his neighbour (in her 80s) to carry her heavy shopping. That won’t be doing his arm much good. What does he think will happen next, and what would he like from life in the future? I tell him I see him as very good with people and extremely thoughtful.  “In the short term I’m going to keep struggling to feed myself. A nice steady job would help and somewhere of my own to live (he has slept on a friend’s sofa for more than six years).” I suggest he goes back to see his GP and asks for better medication, some physiotherapy and help with applying  for employment and support allowance (ESA). The higher rate of ESA would make a difference until his health improves.

He looks gaunt, and says that he’s lost substantial amounts of weight over the last few years – about three stones, he thinks. Being on JSA is not good for your health. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg has recently said that welfare payments in the UK , including JSA (£67 a week) are manifestly inadequate. Our Government doesn’t agree.

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…..