A UN expert has heard how a man with learning difficulties died a month after attempting to take his own life, following a move onto the government’s “chaotic” universal credit benefit system that left him hundreds of pounds in debt.
An account of the tragedy, written by the man’s sister, Maggie, is just one of scores of pieces of written evidence submitted to an inquiry being carried out by Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
He began a 12-day factfinding visit to the UK this week as part of his investigation into the government’s record on eradicating poverty.
But even before he arrived, he had received a string of devastating accounts of the impact of the government’s austerity cuts and reforms on disabled people’s social security and social care.
One of them came from Maggie, from London, who described what had happened to her brother, John, who had cerebral palsy and learning difficulties.
Maggie told how John, who lived in sheltered housing, had previously been “a positive happy person” before he was found fit for work and forced onto universal credit and the government’s Work Programme.
She said the job he had been found through the Work Programme had proved unsuitable and he fell back out of work, causing severe problems with his universal credit.
Maggie told the inquiry: “He had been told by all the authorities such as the Job Centre and Housing not to worry about his benefits and then he was very shocked to receive bills of £1,000 and £500 [from DWP and the local authority’s housing department].”
She said her brother had been one of the first to be placed on the “chaotic” universal credit benefit system, and that his rights as a disabled person “had not been considered by the DWP and other authorities”.
She said John had been hospitalised after trying to take his own life. He died a month later, in April this year.
She said: “John was a very law abiding person and did everything that DWP, etc, told him to do but was seriously let down by this department.
“His benefits had been in chaos for several years but no one cared from the various departments that John and myself contacted.”
She added: “John has been totally let down by this country and died in such tragic circumstances that could have been avoided if those charged with helping the vulnerable, the disabled, had thought about him as a human being – not as a nuisance and a statistic.”
But John’s is only one of many cases submitted as evidence to Alston’s inquiry which show the impact of the government’s reforms – including the introduction of universal credit – on disabled people.
Another benefit claimant, Steve, told the inquiry how delays in receiving his first universal credit payment two years ago had left him in debt, and saw him lose £61 a week in severe disability premium in the transfer to the new system.
He was forced to ask his local council for food vouchers.
Steve said the benefits system had become “very aggressive” since the government’s reforms to the social security system, which he said had left him feeling “like a scrounger”.
He said: “There were suddenly demands to adhere to and a timetable of activities that was not possible to achieve and the DWP would not even talk about this but just threatened to take away the benefits.”
The impact on his physical and mental health – he has a number of health conditions – had repeatedly left him “in crisis or at A&E or even being temporarily held at a police station”.
He told the inquiry: “The stress is unbearable when added to coping with everyday health issues which on their own are enough to endure.
“I had to sign up to commitments that I cannot fulfil and it seems obvious that this system is deliberately designed to make disabled claimants, especially those with mental health issues, fail or just give up pursuing their claim.”
He is one of tens of thousands of disability living allowance (DLA) claimants who have lost their benefits in the move to personal independence payment (PIP) – he was awarded zero points by an assessor – and he had to wait for a tribunal to overturn the DWP decision and award him the enhanced PIP rate for both mobility and daily living he was entitled to.
But he still faces neglect through the social care system, which has led to infections and a lack of mobility.
He said: “The constant demands and worry of dealing with benefits means that there is no energy left to keep up with the demands of my personal healthcare.
“It also puts a strain and a burden on my friends and family who have to step in and help sort out the mess caused by failing healthcare, social care and welfare reform especially as this has now been going on for so long.
“I live in total insecurity and on a knife edge with worsening health where anything can happen and there are constant threats, harassment and abuse by the DWP and the present government.”
David, from Plymouth, painted a similar picture and told the inquiry that the 2010 coalition government’s social security reforms had created a “hostile environment” for disabled people.
He said there had been “an orchestrated campaign since then in the mainstream media, to deliberately disenfranchise, to alienate, to misalign, and this has achieved the desired result in changing the general public’s perception of the vulnerable, as ‘benefit scroungers’”.
He said: “It is now not uncommon to see people with disabilities on the streets… all of this from the seventh richest economy on the planet. It is unconscionable, it is unforgivable.”
David is now having to pay more than £200 a month from his disability benefits towards his social care, while he fears losing his Motability vehicle when he is eventually assessed for PIP.
He said: “Though no longer able to work, the ability to drive remains one of my few remaining abilities, and enjoyments.
“My own vehicle is at risk if my transition from DLA to PIP does not go well, I could be refused my legitimate benefits entirely, and become destitute, through no action, or fault of my own.
“I am under a continual and unrelenting strain. It is already a matter of medical record that I am unable to sleep, my mental health is suffering, and I have come to view my individual longterm outlook as bleak.”
He added: “I live in very real fear of a ring on my doorbell, or the daily arrival of the post. I dread the compulsory transition from DLA to PIP that I have yet to undergo. I dread going outside.”
Efrosyni told the inquiry that she had been “driven to despair” by social care cuts, which meant she did not have enough support to visit her local high street.
She said: “I have been housebound for four years and I don’t know how much longer I can survive like this.”
She said the rollout of universal credit was “yet another indication of the contempt that the disadvantaged, sick and disabled people are held by the government”.
Efrosyni said she had tried to speak to the government’s universal credit helpline but had to give up after “being on hold for 55 minutes several times”.
She said: “Perhaps the government is trying to force us all to commit suicide and therefore ease the ‘burden’ that they consider us to be.
“It is obvious that sick and disabled people are not deemed worthy of consideration and compassion by this government nor to have the right to lead fulfilling lives.
“This attitude is also exhibited by many in local government, some staff of whom have told me that I should just be grateful that I get anything.
“As a benefit claimant I am made to feel unworthy, patronised, marginalised and undermined.
“I don’t want to be pitied, I want to be enabled with the appropriate resources to lead a fulfilling life and considered a valuable part of society.”
Barbara, who is disabled, and lives with her husband, who has Parkinson’s and dementia, described in her written evidence to the inquiry how she had previously claimed higher rate DLA for both care and mobility but was refused PIP completely after a dishonest assessment report, even though she is in the employment and support allowance support group, for those found to have limited capability for work-related activity.
Rather than wait for months for a tribunal, she was advised to submit a fresh claim, but now fears another dishonest PIP assessment.
She and her husband rely on foodbanks and cannot afford to pay their bills.
She told the inquiry: “My husband’s Parkinson’s and the dementia has got worse because of the stress of trying to manage with what little money we have.
“We used to put change into a jar for the grandchildren but had to break it open to get money for milk and bread.”
Another woman to give evidence about her struggle with extreme poverty said she believed the benefits system was responsible for her high blood pressure.
She told the inquiry: “I often have to use foodbanks to eat, and I sit in the dark to save electric.
“I have had one dress and one [pair] of knickers in the past three [years], as I can’t afford to buy new clothes.
“You can print my story if you wish, and I would have killed myself by now, if it wasn’t for my children. I don’t smoke or drink either, and have no social life.”
As well as individuals, many disabled people’s organisations, charities, academics and human rights bodies have submitted written evidence to the inquiry.
Inclusion London focused on concerns about universal credit and said it was “extremely worried that the problems experienced by Deaf and disabled people will escalate” with its full rollout.
It said: “Deaf and disabled people are going hungry, forced into using foodbanks, unable to pay for fuel and rent and pushed further into debt because of the universal credit system.
“Inclusion London believes the universal credit system is not fit for purpose and should be stopped and scrapped before more Deaf and disabled people experience harm.”
Inclusion Scotland said the UK’s benefits system “does not take into account the minimum support necessary to keep people from becoming destitute.
“Worse it can withdraw support, through sanctions or mandatory reconsideration, ensuring that little or no income is left to meet basic needs leading to destitution and, in some cases, death.”
And WinVisible, the disabled women’s organisation, told the inquiry: “Austerity policies have targeted sick and disabled people.
“Relentless cuts and continual changes to provision have brought terrifying insecurity and fear for the future.
“Destitution is commonplace. Sick and disabled people are commonly left destitute from having benefits stopped for various bureaucratic and inhumane reasons.
“All benefit claimants, women especially, suffer from the focus on ‘back-to-work’ rather than support and recognition of caring work and responsibilities.”
Before this week’s visit, Professor Alston said: “Poverty is intertwined with human rights standards that the United Kingdom has ratified, including the right to food, housing, and an adequate standard of living and [how] it affects access to civil and political rights.
“The government has made significant changes to social protection in the past decade, and I will be looking closely at the impact that has had on people living in poverty and their realization of basic rights.”
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