My son lives in Cornwall and, aged 45, has been disabled since he was six months old after a vaccination precipitated Salaam epilepsy. In hospital, he contracted meningitis and started a life of physical and, more recently courtesy of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), mental hardship.
Today his eyesight is poor and the right side of his body has atrophied and shortened. He often falls and has to use a stick.
After a recent scan on his right ankle which was causing him discomfort, he was given anti-inflammatories and painkillers. His doctor is currently helping him with a request to be given an electric wheelchair.
He has never been able to hold a full-time job, but occasionally picks up small bits of income working as a DJ and running an online radio station from his home. I have to include all this biographical/medical information so that you can better understand what follows.
For 20 years, he received a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) of £80 per week and £108 per week working tax credits, a weekly income of £188.
Because his mobility was worsening, he contacted the DWP to request assistance with his housework. He could only stand for a short time without pain. “Their answer was to tell me that my benefits had been assessed and that I would lose them.” says Ben. “As a result, my weekly income fell from £188 to £67. They said I could apply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which had replaced DLA. I did so, but my application was rejected. It was a massive blow and has left me with a huge shortfall. It’s crazy because my disability means I have to take five tablets twice a day as I’m in constant pain.”
He appealed their decision and the DWP then carried out an ‘assessment’ on Ben’s condition which concluded that their original decision to cut his benefits was the correct one.
The assessment was carried out by a private firm, Atos, one of two companies (the other is Capita) who between them earn more than £125 million a year from the taxpayers for their work. Work which doesn’t actually involve any face-to-face assessments at all. I have been unable to find out whether they employ any medically-trained staff.
The Guardian gives a figure of 80 suicides a month by disabled people refused their benefits. “Before our eyes,” writes Frances Ryan, “ the principle of a benefit system is being reduced from opportunity, respect, and solidarity to destitution, degradation and isolation”.
Those resilient enough to continue their lives and, as with my son, lucky enough to have strong family and friendship support, have been pressing their cases on to a final court-based Tribunal appeal.
Of these about 60% are successful. Ben is one of them so here’s the story of his court hearing on Tuesday 8 May at Truro Magistrates Court.
I am there as a witness for Ben which took place in front of a judge, a GP and a disability professional. It was an eye-opener to me that once the government is not present, (one of the Tribunal members said, ‘you will be pleased to know that the DWP are not represented here”), then everyone can and does start behaving as human beings.
The questions dealt with the reality of my son’s life and not with assessments carried out at the other end of the country and without anything being assessed. So it came down to ‘how do you peel potatoes?’, ‘how often do you pause when you are walking?’, ‘what are your pains and what medicines do you take?”
Ben’s cousin Peter had put together the papers for the Tribunal and when he asked to speak critically on the DWP’s assessments, was told by the judge, ”Don’t bother with that. We don’t take them seriously.”
Sir Patrick McLoughlin, former Chairman of the Conservative Party, said ministers had to view the funding for people with disabilities in the context of a wider need to reduce the UK’s budget deficit and that “as far as supporting disabled people, I think overall we do very proudly in this country.”
Scope called on the chancellor Philip Hammond to withdraw his “totally unacceptable and derogatory comments” after he said Britain’s sluggish productivity could partly be blamed on more disabled people in the workforce.
This Tory government and their devotion to weakening the already weak are beyond contempt, but their policies have a logic which is both cruel and unjust.
They take place in the context whereby the richest 1% of the global population is receiving 82% of the newly created wealth worldwide. Oxfam claims this is brought about by tax evasion, erosion of workers rights and continuing social benefit cost-cutting in countries such as the UK.
Back in Truro we were sent out of the court while the panel deliberated and after a short time, we were called back. The judge was smiling as he told us not to bother to sit down. Ben had won his appeal. The panel then told him that he would now be receiving enhanced benefits.
As we were leaving the room the judge’s final comment was “serves the DWP right”. The Truro Trio were giving a massive finger to the DWP and the government.