openJustice: Investigation

Benefits payments withheld from the chronically ill in COVID-19 government failure

The cancellation of face-to-face assessments meant claimants didn’t receive money they were entitled to – leaving some homeless or destitute

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Oscar Rickett
3 March 2021, 1.57pm

People with longstanding and even terminal illnesses have had benefits payments withheld during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the suspension of face-to-face work capability assessments, an openJustice investigation has found.

In some cases, cancer patients died without receiving the money they were owed. In others, disabled people failed to pay bills, had to sell personal possessions, were forced to move home and were even left legally homeless because they were without the money they were entitled to. Some have died all but destitute.

In March 2020, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suspended face-to-face assessments for health-related benefits in order to help protect claimants from coronavirus. But, as Greg Brown, a benefits adviser in Glasgow, said, this “was misinterpreted – either wilfully or mistakenly – by quite a large part of the DWP as, ‘We’re not doing these anymore.’” And so around the country, the suspension of in-person assessments has led to a situation in which significant numbers of people are going without the money they are owed.

openJustice has spoken to benefits claimants who were – and in some instances, still are – at least £336 a month worse off because the DWP did not think a decision could be made without an in-person meeting, even in cases in which the claimant’s illness or inability to work was well established. Daphne Hall, of Rightsnet, said that “the most disabled people” had been hit by the suspension of face-to-face work capability assessments.

Melissa McNaughton, a 31-year-old hairdresser from Glasgow, told openJustice she had been left without the ‘limited capability for work’ component of Universal Credit for seven months during the pandemic. In 2018, McNaughton was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia, a form of cancer. She had started her own hair salon in Glasgow’s West End aged 21, and the business was going well.

After being diagnosed, McNaughton was told that she had between 15 and 25 years to live. Her illness has left her unable to hold a hairdryer or lift her arms above her head and Sprycel, the medication she takes, has serious side effects that include fatigue, bone pain and brain fog. “You end up forgetting about what you’re confused about,” she said. “I drive my husband mad.”

Before she was diagnosed with cancer, McNaughton worked between five and six days a week and travelled regularly to do people’s hair. Her doctor says that she is now unable to do more than a couple of hours of work per day, and so she manages to do the equivalent of two days a week. Unable to work as she used to, her salon suffered. For a part of the first coronavirus lockdown, McNaughton was able to use the government’s furlough scheme to keep her staff on. In the end, the damage was too great, and she was forced to close what had once been a thriving business.

At the same time, her husband, who worked in the hospitality industry, was made redundant. He went onto Universal Credit. When McNaughton was called into the Job Centre, someone working there asked her if she could prove that she had cancer. “If I wasn’t so shocked I would have cried,” she said. Job Centre staff also wanted to send her out for full-time jobs, however inappropriate. In the midst of the pandemic, while she was shielding because of her cancer, the Job Centre was trying to get McNaughton to take a job as a security steward at a hospital.

I’m shocked by how brutal the system is. It’s like dealing with robots. You are left feeling very confused

COVID-19 has forced large numbers of people across the country into the benefits system for the first time. For McNaughton, as for many others, the experience has been eye-opening. “It was shocking,” she said. “You aren’t given all the information you need. I wasn’t offered things I should have been offered. The benefits terminology is baffling. It’s been really, really difficult money-wise. I’m shocked by how brutal the system is. It’s like dealing with robots. You are left feeling very confused.”

In order to get the money she was entitled to, McNaughton had to seek the help of Greg Brown, the benefits adviser. Brown described cases like McNaughton’s as “insidious”, because people often don’t know what they are entitled to claim for and so will go without that money unless they seek professional help. A number of benefits advisers told openJustice that a large part of their job involves demystifying a system that is not properly explained to claimants, who are often in very vulnerable positions.

McNaughton is one of many cancer patients badly hit by the pandemic. New figures from the cancer-support charity Macmillan show that more than 100,000 people with cancer in the UK are “struggling to pay for basic essentials such as food, bills, rent or their mortgage as a result of COVID-19”. More than 70% of cancer patients struggling financially have “experienced stress, anxiety or depression as a result of COVID-19”, and one in four of this group have “experienced suicidal thoughts in recent months”.

Unlike McNaughton, Barrie Simmons, 63, from Cardiff, is still not receiving the benefits – in his case, the employment and support allowance (ESA) – he is entitled to and was receiving before the COVID-19 pandemic. An aeronautical engineer, Simmons spent much of his career working for the Ministry of Defence, often on very sensitive projects. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, he remembers seeing crates of weapons ready for shipment, some marked for Egypt and some for Israel.

Simmons has osteoarthritis, largely as a result of the work he spent his life doing. ESA is renewed on an annual basis, but as with McNaughton, the suspension of face-to-face meetings was interpreted in a way that has left the Welshman without the money he is entitled to. “I’ve worked for 47 years and paid my taxes,” he said. “I am doing everything I can and they aren’t doing anything.” He has been forced to move house and said that without his partner, who works for the NHS, he would be “stuffed”.

The issue of delays in processing benefits claims during the pandemic has been identified, but the DWP seems not to have responded. A select committee report from June 2020 noted that: “We have heard from respected charities and support organisations that people who started their claim before coronavirus are facing substantial delays. The department has given us no clear answers about the extent to which this is happening. In fact, it has not even acknowledged the concerns.”

Responding to openJustice’s request for comment, a DWP spokesperson said: “In order to protect claimants and staff during the pandemic, we rightly took the decision to suspend face-to-face health assessments. The vast majority of claimants can now be safely assessed over the telephone and we are working hard to make sure people get the support they are entitled to at the earliest opportunity.”

Concerns about the functioning – and generosity – of the benefits system come at a time when public support for welfare benefits is at its highest in 20 years, and in which there has been much debate over the £20 uplift introduced to Universal Credit by the government. A six-month extension for this uplift has just been announced as part of the March 2021 budget.

Benefits claimants and benefits advisers across the UK told openJustice that, even with the £20 uplift – which they believe should be made permanent – life on Universal Credit is incredibly hard. “Benefits are a huge driver of child poverty,” said Sophie Howes, senior policy and research officer at the Child Poverty Action Group. “You have to improve social security in order to improve poverty… During the pandemic, lots of people have been interacting with the benefits system, and this has shone a light on the fact that our system is not generous when you compare it to other countries.”

Penny Walters, who cooks meals at a community kitchen in Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne, told openJustice that about 60% of her local housing estate claim benefits. “You’re just not paid enough money. The government can now rely on charities to pick up the pieces.” One local government benefits adviser likened the situation to the Ken Loach film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’, in which a 59-year-old joiner from Newcastle is denied the ESA, with tragic consequences.

On a call with McNaughton, Greg Brown told openJustice that living costs, including food, gas, electricity, travel and much more, are always increasing, while the money available to those on benefits does not. Asked for an update on his situation before this story was published, Barrie Simmons told openJustice his case was once more going to appeal, and that it might not be resolved for months. “It’s only getting worse at the moment,” he said.

This story is part of our series The Unlawful State: Stories from a Pandemic where we investigate how the Coronavirus crisis has impacted on the most vulnerable in our society.

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