Disabled man died of heart attack after being told of ESA sanction threat

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A disabled man died of a heart attack, just an hour after being told that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was threatening to stop paying his out-of-work disability benefits.

Alan McArdle (pictured), who had previously been homeless but was living in council accommodation in Slough with the support of a charity, told the friend who had read the DWP letter to him: “They’ve sanctioned my money,” before he collapsed.

The government contractor responsible for finding him work, the discredited outsourcing giant Maximus, had reported him to DWP for failing to attend appointments intended to move him towards work, as part of the Work Programme, despite being told about his severe ill-health.

Slough’s Labour MP, Fiona Mactaggart, accused DWP of being responsible for her constituent’s death, and told Disability News Service she would raise his case in the House of Commons.

McArdle, who had alcoholism and was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago, had just come out of hospital following a fall, and had been too unwell to visit the Maximus offices in Slough high street.

The impact of the diabetes meant he had no feeling in his arms and legs, and could hardly move.

Despite his poor and deteriorating health, he had been placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of employment and support allowance (ESA), designed for those found “fit” enough to carry out some work-related activity, but not yet well enough for a job. 

Mandy McGuire, project manager of the charity Slough Homeless Our Concern (SHOC), who had supported McArdle for 16 years, had told Maximus he was not well enough to attend their appointments.

She had already tried repeatedly – but unsuccessfully – to have him placed in the ESA support group, so he would not have to attend work-related appointments.

McArdle, who had been homeless and living in a hostel before SHOC found him council accommodation, attended the first couple of appointments in the Maximus offices, but his health and mobility had continued to deteriorate.

McGuire eventually found it impossible to transport him to the meetings because his mobility was so poor, so Maximus allowed him to keep in touch by phone.

After he had a fall and had to be admitted to hospital, he asked McGuire to explain to Maximus why he had not been in touch, as he was concerned about losing his benefits.

But when she called Maximus, she was told: “He hasn’t come in, so we will get him sanctioned.”

When the letter from DWP arrived, McArdle was with a friend, who had been caring for him, and read the letter to him.

It is believed the letter stated that he needed to provide evidence to DWP to prevent his benefits being sanctioned.

McGuire said: “When she read the letter to him, he went a deathly grey colour and complained about pains, and then he collapsed. Within an hour, he was dead.”

She added: “He wasn’t a well man. That letter was the final straw.”

Mactaggart said it was “shocking” that the only way McArdle could prove he was not well enough to take part in the Work Programme was by dying.

She pointed to last month’s refusal by work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to commission an independent review into benefit conditionality and sanctions, despite a recommendation by the work and pensions select committee, which she said showed he was “prepared to act with impunity”.

She said: “I think it is shocking that the arrogance of the DWP and their belief that they do not have to be held accountable has frankly led to the death of one of my constituents.

“I think that the complacency of employment ministers who say that it is wrong to draw a link between the deaths of claimants and the removal of sickness benefits has to be exposed.

“This is just another example where the link appears absolutely direct.”

She was also scathing about Maximus, which now has a swathe of DWP contracts.

Mactaggart said: “Instead of reaching for a sanction as the first step, what you have to do is talk to someone if they cannot get to an appointment.

“You have to move your butt, because you are more mobile than they are.”

Mactaggart said she had visited Slough jobcentre and had seen what appeared to be targets – written on a white board in the office – for moving jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) claimants off the benefit.

After 13 weeks, according to the figures, staff were expected to clear 62 per cent of JSA claimants, and after 52 weeks, 92.7 per cent of claimants.

Mactaggart said this would be done either through finding claimants work, or by sanctioning them, and she said she had been told by former jobcentre staff that they would be “sanctioned” themselves – for example, by losing bonuses – if they didn’t meet their targets.

The latest DWP figures, released this week, show there were 1,852 decisions taken to apply a sanction against someone claiming ESA in June 2015, compared with 3,113 in June 2014, 1,679 in June 2013, and 976 in June 2012.

Mactaggart also pointed to a DWP freedom of information response which revealed that of the 49 secret peer reviews carried out into benefit-related deaths – first exposed by Disability News Service last year – 10 had concerned someone who had had their benefits sanctioned.

McGuire said the government’s sanctions regime was “appalling”.

She said: “Despite keeping in contact with the jobcentre and Maximus, they just showed no empathy at all.

“It’s killing people, it’s quite literally killing people. We are seeing people deteriorate so much where they haven’t had money.”

A staff member with Trinity, which works with people who suffer the effects of homelessness, and is closely linked to SHOC, has described in a blog how McArdle collapsed after the letter was opened.

She wrote: “They say your life flashes before your eyes before you die. I would hazard a guess that it was his future that flashed before his: losing his home, returning to the streets, perhaps dying there. Does his life matter? It matters to us.”

A DWP spokeswoman said: “Our sympathies are with Mr McArdle’s family and friends. However, it’s misleading to link a death to someone’s benefit claim.

“We write to all claimants who have not engaged with our support, asking them to get in touch and explain why. This is so they won’t face a sanction if they had a good reason.”

A Maximus spokesman said: “We were saddened to learn of the death of Mr McArdle and send our condolences to his family and friends.

“Participation in the Work Programme is mandatory for people in the WRAG who are in receipt of ESA.

“We make strenuous efforts to inform participants about their obligations and contact them if they fail to show up for arranged meetings.”

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