I wrote here last week about how the mark of a civilised society is how it treats its’ most vulnerable people - and about how I didn’t think we were doing very well on that front in this country.
That statement was based on the stories I hear and the people I meet as a result of the stroke-awareness work I do; I didn’t expect to be able to follow up this week with a story based on my own experience.
Since shortly after my stroke in December 2013, I have claimed Personal Independence Payment; while I was still in hospital, my stepmother spent a considerable amount of time in Jobcentre offices and on the phone to the Department of Work and Pensions, trying to establish what benefits I was entitled to. It took nine months for DWP to pay me and they only did so after my MP threatened to mention my case in the House of Commons.
I was eventually put into the system and all proceeded normally until February this year, when I was told I would be given a face-to-face assessment at my house. That took place on February 21 and was, frankly, brutal. I had with me the secretary of my local Headway group, but the assessor refused to allow her to speak and would not even allow her to help me with my answers to questions, even though I was wracked with nerves and am prone to panic attacks anyway, because of my brain damage.
Three weeks later, without warning, I noticed that the monthly payment into my bank had gone down by 25%. Two days after that, I found out why. A letter came in the post saying that I had failed the assessment and my PIP was being withdrawn from a date seven days before I received the letter, hence the shortfall. my wife’s Carers’ Allowance was also stopping immediately. Obviously, I was devastated. A considerable amount of income was going to stop and the only way we could replace it (I have substantial medical evidence that I am unable to work) was to start running down our limited savings.
Obviously, we appealed with the help of the Citizens Advice Bureau. Equally obviously, our appeal was dismissed. We had no choice but to take DWP to tribunal, but I have heard of such cases taking 12 months or more to resolve. Our savings would have run out way before then. My wife was already at the point of exhaustion, having taken on a part-time job while also caring for her elderly mother as well as me. To say our relationship almost cracked under the strain on many occasions this summer would not be over-stating it.
In early-August, the Tribunal Service wrote to say they had asked DWP for a written response and would be in touch with a date for the hearing. Every morning, we waited in fear for the postman to deliver a letter confirming the date. It never came.
And then, on Wednesday of this week, a letter did come. It was from the DWP, saying that they had reconsidered my case ‘based on all available evidence’ and had decided to reverse their original decision. Not only that, but they were increasing my monthly payment by roughly 25%. Wednesday was my best day since March - after six months of holding my breath and waiting for a bombshell to land, I could breathe again and we could resume our lives.
But what have the last six months achieved? My wife and I, already under huge pressure because of my health, have regularly been at a point where we thought we couldn’t go on; where the financial, emotional and physical stress was too much. That stress has led to daily arguments, to daily fights over whether we could afford to do or buy this or that. It is not going too far to say that six months of our lives have been ruined.
And then, a letter arrives without warning and someone in the system says: “Sorry, we were only kidding; you can carry on now!” With no apology, no awareness of what they have put us through, no acknowledgement of the people whose lives were almost wrecked.
I won’t have to be assessed again until August 2023. By then, I hope this heartless system will have changed. I have said privately for years that the system is so scared of the very limited number of fraudulent claimants that it cannot treat genuine claimants in a respectable manner; now I will say it in public.