When I heard it reported in the media that people involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster were having their benefits sanctioned over not doing job search activities I wasn’t surprised. In fact, no one who has had any dealings with the DWP in recent times would be surprised at the depths of depravity they will stoop to. Losing everything you own, your home and seeing loved ones and friends perish in the possibly worse fire this country has ever seen in recent times means nothing to them. Many people are dying each year directly related to benefit cuts and sanctions. However most of these cases are not picked up on or reported in the media. Coroners courts do not rule that deaths were a direct result of these welfare reforms, even when there is a clear-cut case where someone has become suicidal as a result of an adverse benefit decision, such as being sanctioned and left with no food and no money, or losing disability benefits and being trapped in their home, cut off from society as a result of their disability. The DWP will say there are ‘complex reasons’ why someone would end their life, just like there are ‘complex reasons people ‘choose’ to use foodbanks, which completely sidesteps the issue of the direct impact of the benefit decision which has pushed someone over the edge.
A few years ago, it was Christmas Eve. I always struggle around this time of year being alone and a care leaver with severe mental illness and autism. I opened the post on Christmas Eve and time stood still. It was like I was in a suspended state of animation. A cold sweat washed over me as I tried to digest the content of the letter. It was something about a `Benefit Integrity Centre’ interview. All I read in my mind was FRAUD in big red letters as it may have well said that. For anyone unfamiliar with these sorts of letters they are sent at random as a result of (usually) someone making a false allegation such as disgruntled family member or neighbour, or some issue with someone’s claim which could have probably been easily sorted out without resorting to these tactics.
Because of the letter I became seriously unwell and ended up in the A & E department after self-harming. For anyone who says. `If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide’, well frankly they do not know what they are talking about. The letter was telling me to attend an office interview in three weeks’ time and told me nothing except that ‘an issue has arisen’ I racked my brains over and over, spending sleepless night after sleepless night. I became unwell thinking what the hell could it be? If I had done something wrong I had no clue what it could be. I became very paranoid and felt the DWP were watching me at all times (which is what they want you to think.) I felt I could trust no one. Thoughts spiralled out of control in my head thinking one bizarre scenario after another. I ran through the options of killing myself, going on the run, putting my two cats in a rehoming centre. Which in turn broke my heart and led to me sobbing uncontrollably on the floor. As time passed in this torment things got worse and I became more unwell. I had no-one for support and I was losing my grip on life. I struggle on the phone but at one point tried to call but they refused to tell me anything. Prior to the visit I ended up moving in to the small cramped garden shed and not moving just frozen.
At the end of the ordeal it was proved to be nothing but a false report. However, this happened THREE more times and has destroyed me. Each time (I think it is same person) they end up investigating me and each time even though I tell myself I will NOT let it destroy me, I still do and become very unwell and end up suicidal and self-harming. There is also a pattern here in that these brown envelopes of doom always arrive on a public holiday, birthday or a Saturday. I feel this is a deliberate attempt to cause the most impact and devastation.
Most people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will also be au fait with the Brown Envelope of Doom. Except, in a cynical move to get people to open these things, they have started putting letters about medical assessments in a white envelope. People who had been granted a life time award of Disability Living Allowance and provided thorough and detailed medical evidence were now having to be completely re-assessed. This entails jumping through hoops of fire to reprove what you have already proved once. You are forced to make a phone call first, and answer some questions which if you have a disability such as a mental health condition or autism is virtually impossible. If you pass this hurdle you then have the pleasure of completing a 35-page long form which to do so is very stressful and many people are turned down for not being able to fill it in correctly as they don’t have the support to do so. There are virtually no advice agencies that provide benefit advice anymore. Citizens Advice rarely do this detailed work because of the specialist area and time-consuming nature of the work and the person would need to have a detailed knowledge of the how the illness/disability impacted upon their ability to do things. There are is no funding to help people with this and people suffer as a result.
Then there is the providing of evidence. After going through this gruelling soul-destroying process, I was granted an award of ONE YEAR yes only a year after being on a lifetime ward. Plus, you have to re-apply a year before the award is due to finish. Forms will be sent automatically one year (at least) before the end date so my award was over before it had even started! As soon as the new decision is made this cancels out the remainder of the existing award. Then there is the medical evidence. You must send as much medical evidence as you can as the DWP will not follow this up. I had 96 pieces of medical evidence including tests, medical reports etc. I have spent most of life at hospital in last few years it would seem, but it is rare you get a copy of clinic letters and have to try writing and begging for copies of letters. Eventually you get a letter back telling you put in a Data Protection Request which will result in a demand for £50 to get copies of letters you should have been provided with in the first place. Plus, if you have been seen at different hospitals’ that would mean a £50 charge each time. Totally unaffordable if you are on benefits.
At the time, I was sent my PIP form I also received the ‘double whammy’ of the Work Capacity Assessment (WCA) at exactly the same time. This means two lengthy forms of a similar nature to fill in all at once and totally overwhelm you and affect your mental and physical wellbeing to unimaginable levels of stress and torment. You get four weeks to fill in both. Except the four weeks starts from the date of the letter with the form (which tales over a week to reach you) plus you have to allow a week to spend it back which gives you a little under two weeks to complete each lengthy form.
I got into a total panic an unable to sleep, eat or function. I asked what to do about the evidence as only one set for both. Could they pass the evidence on? NO. Could they photocopy it for me? NO. Yet they could see the information on their screens.
Despite all this evidence, I was called in for an assessment, despite my GP saying I was too unwell to attend and needed a home assessment. Despite providing all the evidence I did they had contacted mental health services, wo were not providing any help at all despite having severe mental illness and autism. It would seem this was going to go against me. They obviously felt that anyone with mental illness should be in receipt of mental health services when this is not true at all.
When it came to the assessment report, it seemed the fact I was in and out of hospital so much with my physical health it meant that somehow, I was not disabled and living the life of Riley. I could not believe that being unwell meant that you weren’t disabled enough but I contacted a benefits advice line who confirmed it was and would demonstrate that I was able to get out and about and meet people. I couldn’t believe it. I cannot travel on public transport and have to go by ambulance and my autism and mental health difficulties, difficulties make interacting with people impossible. I live a total life of isolation and exclusion and have never had any friends. On one hand if you have no medical evidence you are also seen as not being disabled. The Pip was a lifeline for me to manage the extra costs of being disabled.
Living in fear of brown envelopes, feeling paranoid and caught in an endless cycle of assessments makes life unbearable and I am in a constant state of fear and high alert. I can never relax and it is no wonder I have become so detached as my body as shut down and nothing feels real. I feel like I am dead. I realise my life is over and there is no prospect of ever getting better. The fear that at any given moment I could be left destitute. This is my greatest fear having been homeless for many years and having no friends and/or relatives to rely upon if needed. Even my GP has told me to find another practice as they are sick of having to cope with my ‘demands’ as the latter stated of requesting medical evidence and supporting letters.
This is the reality for many sick and disabled people who are being persecuted daily. We are creating an underclass of disenfranchised, disempowered people. I feel my life has been stolen from me and I am being blamed for the adverse life events I have endured which have taken their toll of my mental and physical health. How as a nation have we become so uncaring about vulnerable people?