In his latest article, James Hopkirk meets a cancer survivor who shares his experience of the benefits system and reveals how the Department for Work and Pensions’ medical assessors have repeatedly judged him fit for work – contradicting evidence from his GP and hospital doctors, and contravening a ruling by an independent tribunal…
I was introduced to “P” by Nathan at Brixton Advice Centre (BAC). Nathan, BAC’s welfare benefits specialist, has been helping him appeal against his Incapacity Benefit being cut – the latest in a long, baffling and cruel series of battles P has had to fight with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
P wanted to share his experience so that people could understand how those in his position are treated – but, like many of the people I’m talking to, he’s afraid of being further sanctioned and so asked to remain anonymous.
Having barely survived stomach cancer, he has been left with a number of serious physical impediments. Most of his stomach had to be removed, and so much surrounding muscle was cut in the process that when he developed a hiatal hernia a few years later, pushing what remained of his stomach high up into his chest, there was nothing doctors could do to treat it – he was told further operations were impossible.
As a result, P survives on a largely liquid diet, with a few spoonfuls of easily digestible soft food in the morning, water during the day and then a small portion of something a bit more solid in the evening. Even following this regime, he suffers intense pain, cramps and sickness, which he will for the rest of his life. The consequent lack of nutrition leaves him weak. Despite this, and directly contradicting advice from his GP and hospital consultants, the Department for Work and Pensions’ medical assessors have repeatedly judged him fit for work.
P is now in his 50s, but his health problems stretch back nearly 30 years. His tumour was removed in 1994 and while he has tried to hold down jobs since then, working for four years in the finance department of a social services team at one point, eventually he was unable to continue as the severity and frequency of the cramps worsened.
“I really liked that job,” he says, “but I kept getting ill. I had an understanding boss, and they wanted me to stay – they were going to pay for me to do a proper accountancy course – but they could see I couldn’t go on like that, so they offered me voluntary redundancy.”
This was in 2004. For four years he was then on Incapacity Benefit, until 2008 when he was sent for a medical assessment by the benefits office. Despite evidence from his GP and King’s College Hospital, he was passed as fit for work.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I was frightened, so I went to Brixton Advice Centre (BAC) and they took my case on. It went to tribunal. They looked at the evidence from my GP and from the hospital, and they said there was no way I should be working in my condition. It didn’t take them long.”
They granted P an exemption – under Regulation 27(b) of the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Regulations 1997, (since replaced by Regulation 29 of the Employment and Support Allowance Regulations 2008). This clearly stated that the benefits office should leave him alone, because there would be a substantial risk to his health if he were assessed as fit for work. Despite this, in 2010, they contacted him again and sent him for another medical. Once more, he was passed as fit for work.
“They didn’t even examine me that time,” he says. “They just went through a checklist on a computer.”
With the help of BAC he appealed, and the case went to tribunal again. “They were angry with the [DWP’s medical examiner]!” P says. “They said I shouldn’t be there and they apologised.”
He was then left alone for five years. But last year the process began again. Despite the supposed exemption, he was sent for a medical where, once more, he was passed as fit for work.
Overnight his benefits stopped. He was told to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) if he needed money. (As mentioned in a previous post on this blog, since 2013 when your benefits are cut, they stop instantly and there is a period of several months before you can appeal. Only once the appeal process has begun do payments restart – read more in my interview with Brixton Advice Centre’s Nathan Scott.
“I’ve always said that if they can find something flexible, that can suit my condition, I’ll do it,” P says. “I don’t want to sit in my house all day. When I worked for the council it was hard, but I did it for four years until it got too much. That was a full time job. Any job has got to work around my condition, but the system’s not set up for that. Job Centres treat everyone as a standard job seeker.”
Once more he appealed, and Nathan at BAC took on his case. The tribunal disagreed with the DWP assessor that he was fit for work, but this time they put him on an 18-month Work Programme – although they stressed that this was training and he was under no pressure to find work in this time. Five days a week he now has to travel for over an hour by two buses to Lewisham College for a three-hour group training session.
He says the education side of it is basic – but exhausting though the journey is, he says it’s good to be active. He had to choose afternoon sessions because it takes him so long to physically prepare just to get out of the door. And aside from a couple of mouthfuls of tinned rice pudding before he sets out in the morning, he can’t eat anything until he gets home in the evening. “It’s hard work,” he says. “I wish there was somewhere a bit nearer. But it’s good to meet other people in my situation, so that I know I’m not alone.” Nonetheless, he’s aware that in 18 months the cycle will begin all over again.
“Maybe something positive will come out of [the Work Programme],” he says. “Maybe I might be able to get a job where they can work it around me, where they can be flexible. If I can do it, I’ll do it – that’s my goal.”
While on the programme, P is claiming Employment Support Allowance (ESA). In March, the Government forced through the House of Lords a 30% cut to ESA. The furor over George Osborne’s proposed cuts to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and the consequent reversal obscured the fact that the massive cut to ESA, a benefit which many thousands of disabled people survive on, is still going ahead. Only one disability benefit has been protected – and P is unlucky enough to be on the wrong one.
“Really, truly, I think they just want to get [people suffering from disabilities] out of London,” he says. “We’re a nuisance, a burden.”
He gets angry when I ask about media portrayals of benefits claimants. “There are obviously some people out there abusing the system,” he says, “ but when you watch TV, when you look at a newspaper, you think it’s everyone. And that’s how we’re made to feel.”
When I explain that in 2013 the Government removed benefits appeals from the scope of Civil Legal Aid, and so funding for Nathan’s post at BAC has to be found independently, he’s shocked. “If it wasn’t for Nathan, God, I don’t know what I would have done,” he says. “Without people like him, I think a lot of people would have taken their lives.”
James Hopkirk, May 2016
If you’d like to get in touch, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. In particular, I’m hoping to hear from Lambeth residents who have experienced the sharp end of the government’s cuts and who would like to collaborate with me, share their stories and help to raise awareness of what’s happening in our borough
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