‘How long are you likely to have Parkinson’s?’ asked the woman assessing his claim. No wonder he is scared for his future
Until five years ago, Phil Brehaut was healthy and earning a decent wage working in the warehouse at his local Morrisons in Stockport. But in the spring of 2011, the 57-year-old was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and found himself in a position that any of us could: physically unable to work. With bills still coming in, he applied for sickness benefits.
It gives an insight into how successful the Conservatives’ benefit-shaming has become that, as he describes his assessment, Brehaut – who has excruciating pain in his legs and can’t keep his balance – is concerned to assure me he has “never signed on before” and has worked since he was 15.
“It was very daunting, like being in court,” he says. “The lady on the panel actually asked me, ‘How long are you likely to have Parkinson’s?’” He pauses. “The person next to her quickly whispered in her ear … You would think they’d know a little bit about it.”
Brehaut was granted employment and support allowance (ESA) but put in the “work-related activity group”, or Wrag. This second-tier ESA group receives lower benefits than the “support group” and requires disabled claimants to undertake “work-related activities” or risk being sanctioned and left to get by on £67.50 a week.
In order to receive his money, his local jobcentre told him, he would have to bring them a weekly “sick note” – leaving Brehaut to visit his GP every Monday and hand-deliver the note to a DWP adviser by 10.30am. This went on every week for nine months.
“It was awful,” he says. “Some days I couldn’t get up – because mornings are tough for me – but I had to or I wouldn’t have any money.”
The jobcentre “did nothing” to help, he says.
“They made it very clear that if they found what [they thought was] a suitable job, they’d have stopped my benefits. They asked what sort of work I could do but I can’t do anything physical because of my tremors … I can’t hold the wardrobe handles to get my clothes out in the morning.”
That image might be one for George Osborne to pause on as he talks of cutting sickness benefits as an “incentive” for people such as Brehaut to get a job.