Chris Smith lay in a hospital bed, dying of cancer.
He should have been helped by the system, the welfare state which was established to help people like Chris. Instead, the bombarded him with texts telling him he had to apply for jobs, and letters urging him to come to ‘job workshops.’
It’s hard to know exactly where to start with the tragic story of Chris Smith, a plumber from Leicester who died last month. You could begin with the disease which claimed his life. Chris had cancer; lung cancer, skin cancer and a cancer that spread to his spine. He was diagnosed in April. Although Chris refused to believe it, he was dying.
As he was dying, Chris, 59, and his partner, Maggie, were embroiled in an unnecessary row with the Work and Pensions department.
Chris, a qualified plumber, had been ill. A poorly knee had kept him off work and then he began to feel sick. He was called in for health tests. Government assessors told him he wasn’t ill enough. They deemed him fit for work. His benefits were stopped. Chris didn’t think it was right, but he didn’t complain, either. He started to look for work.
Chris didn’t know it, but he already had cancer. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer a few weeks later. And, by rights, this is where the story should end. A man with terminal lung cancer should not be ordered to find work. He shouldn’t have his benefits stopped. This is what the Welfare State was created for, the safety net which cares for the sick and the poorly.
Chris Smith slipped through this safety net.
His partner, Maggie Black, told the job centre about Chris’s cancer. They nodded and made all the right noises. They agreed Chris was not fit for work. But nothing changed. His benefits were not reinstated.
And then came the texts. One a week usually, sometimes more, imploring Chris to get on his bike to find work, to apply for this plumbing job or that one. Chris, meanwhile, was in hospital, having chemotherapy, whiling away his days vomiting as the cancer ate away at him, from his lungs to his skin and into his spine.
And then, after the texts, there was the letter. The letter from the job centre informing Chris he needed to report to the benefits office for a special meeting to step up his efforts to find work.
The letter arrived the day after Chris died. It was opened by his grieving partner.
“I stood by the front door and read it and had to reread it, again and again,” says Maggie. “I couldn’t believe it. How could they be so insensitive? How could they get something like this so wrong?”
No-one from the job centre, no-one from the Department of Work and Pensions, apologised. Instead, they carried on texting Chris job vacancies.
Another letter, inviting him to apply for more jobs, landed on their doormat this week, along with letters from the council informing Maggie her housing benefits had been stopped. “This is what happens,” she said. “One thing goes wrong and it’s like a domino effect – everything else tumbles, too.”