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?

The state owes citizens money they are entitled to – then they fall into debt

Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been aware for some time that the clients who come here for help need more than the food they’re given to see them through an immediate crisis. They also require longer-term support to tackle the underlying problems, which often include inadequate incomes and unmanageable debts. The local authority – The Royal Borough of Greenwich – is also mindful of this. The two organisations have submitted a bid for funding that would enable the food bank to “triage” clients with money problems.

If the joint bid is successful, the funding would come from the Money Advice Trust – which has today launched a new report saying that households are becoming susceptible to serious debt problems because they can’t afford basic household bills.

Alan said: “The Money Advice Trust is offering funding for initiatives that are innovative, but help meet people’s basic needs…approaches that would help them get relief from debt and educate people so they don’t get into debt. Greenwich Council had been bouncing this problem around internally, so they called me up and said could we work together and get a bid in.” The initial “triage” would take place at the borough’s food banks, which are part of the UK-wide network of Trussell Trust food banks. Clients with the most severe problems would be immediately referred to specialist debt advisors in the borough – either Christians Against Poverty (CAP), Meridian Money Advice, or Citizens Advice.

A second group assessed as heading for serious debt problems would get advice from trained volunteers, and Alan says the food bank may also employ a debt and advice specialist. A third group of people with the least severe problems would get help and encouragement on a range of issues, including advice on cookery classes, “smart” shopping and smoking cessation. The gateway to the advice would be food banks, but Alan says it’s possible that the scheme could be extended to other venues including children’s centres. The proposed scheme mirrors a recent announcement by the Trussell Trust that it is to launch a pilot scheme to give financial advice. The move comes after the food bank charity received a six-figure donation from money saving expert Martin Lewis. Lewis is quoted in the Guardian saying: “Those who go to food banks are already open to asking for help….If we can intervene at that point…it will hopefully cut down on the number of return visits.”

While what Lewis says is undoubtedly true, it’s crucial to remember what the Trussell Trust itself underlined in its June report Below the Breadline: The Relentless Rise in Food Poverty, published jointly with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty. The report says that “cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK” and that “these cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58 per cent of sanction decisions are successfully challenged, suggesting that many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own”.

The report says the abolition of the Social Fund has stopped thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, “estimates that 49 per cent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

The move by the Trussell Trust to launch the pilot money advice scheme and the bid to run something similar here in Greenwich are to be welcomed. But expert social security advice and help with challenging sanctions and speeding up back payments appear to be what clients need most. In essence, the state owes them money that they are entitled to. They’re not getting it, hence they are in debt and that leads to them not being able to pay their water bill or council tax. The most effective cure would of course be a humane social security regime, and an approach to sanctions that is fair and proportionate. A move away from zero hours contracts by employers would also be a significant move to transform lives. The problems faced by most of the people who visit the food bank are not fundamentally caused by lifestyle issues or bad choices. The vast majority of the food bank clients are innocent victims of an increasingly unfair and cruel welfare system.

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.”