Disabled claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with justice more difficult to access, and the need to be reassessed after being declared “fit to work”,
The first Paul Crane knew of having his benefits cut off was when his landlord called up to ask where the rent was.
It was the start of a harrowing time. After ten years of receiving support for debilitating pains – caused when gamma knife radiosurgery to repair a haemorrhage on his brain stem caused radiation damage to surrounding tissue – he had suddenly been declared “fit to work”.
Paul’s life has never been the same since the operation, which repaired the haemorrhage but left parts of his brain and spinal cord permanently damaged. Every day he is haunted by stimuli – light, noise, crowded places – anything that sets off his “excitable nerves” will leave him in agony with migraines, cause numbness and dizziness, or leave part of his face sagging. Even sneezing or tiredness can cause a traumatic flare up.
He says: “Tiredness causes pain and pain causes tiredness. I don’t socialise much, I’ve let people down too many times. I go fishing, which is my only relaxation but even that sometimes is too much”.
Over a decade of suffering and being prescribed a cornucopia of drugs – none of which have fully worked – Paul has learnt to live with the pain. But a new regime at the Department for Work and Pensions, which he says was “like the difference between black and white”, has been hard on him. This was when the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) replaced the Incapacity Benefit, and new work capability assessments (WCA) were brought in to test whether or not claimants were “fit to work”.
“It was as if they were trying to fail me,” he says, “like the system was designed to make me fail. I realised how lucky I had been before. The ESA people looked at me as if to say, ‘Oh God another scumbag’”.
When the news that he had been refused ESA hit him, Paul says he found himself in “a very dark pit”, confused and afraid of what would happen next.
“How could they come to this conclusion? I answered as truthfully as I could and they failed me. I’d just spent two weeks either in bed or on the sofa.”
It’s a painfully common story. Disability rights campaign groups such as the WOWPetition and Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) have been pressing the DWP to take notice of the plight of people like Paul, and are fighting for a comprehensive impact assessment of how changes to the benefits system and wider government spending cuts affect people with disabilities.
In August, after months of pressure, the DWP released the official figures for mortalities following “fit to work” verdicts between December 2011 and February 2014, revealing that 2,380 died in that period.
And even more damning, the Avon & Bristol Law Centre (ABLC) revealed that, of a hundred WCA appeal cases taken on by volunteer law students, 95 had been successful.