Sheila Holt was among disabled people whose cases were used by Labour MPs to show the need for an inquiry into how those reforms have affected levels of poverty.
Holt has always been unable to work because of a “severe” mental health condition, but was pushed onto a government work programme, with no support from specialist services, and also had to start paying the “bedroom tax”, MPs were told this week.
She began falling into poverty, became increasingly agitated, and eventually was sectioned. A few days later, at the age of 47, she had a heart attack, and is now in a coma.
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, raised her case during the debate at the request of her family, who “want people to be aware that she was pushed into this situation”.
Among the welfare reforms mentioned by MPs in the debate were the “spare room subsidy removal” (SRSR) policy – known by its opponents as the bedroom tax – and the change in how benefits are uprated annually, which now uses the consumer prices index instead of the retail prices index.
Other policies discussed included the one-year time-limit for those in the work-related activity group who claim the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA); the failure to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA); the use of benefit sanctions on disabled job-seekers; and the introduction of personal independence payment (PIP).
Michael Meacher, the Labour MP and former minister who secured the debate – which was dominated by Labour MPs – told how a disabled constituent had had his benefits cut to £71-a-week because of the one-year ESA restriction.
But he was also hit by the bedroom tax and new council tax rules, which left him just £42-a-week to live on.
Meacher said: “He asked to downsize to a smaller property, which is what the government would expect him to do, but the local housing association, ironically called First Choice Homes, demanded that he pay two weeks’ full rent upfront, £197, before getting any housing benefit.
“He cannot do that, of course, and he is stuck in an impossible situation.”
Another Labour MP, Katy Clark, described how one of her constituents told her last week that he had applied for the new PIP after being diagnosed with bowel cancer last summer. He is still waiting for his claim to be resolved.
Hugh Bayley, the Labour MP for York Central, said that he had a constituent with dyslexia who was on a very low income and delivers newspapers to his office.
The man still needed to claim jobseeker’s allowance, but lost that benefit because his dyslexia meant that in one period of a fortnight he applied for nine jobs, instead of 10.
A Labour colleague, Debbie Abrahams, said that one of her constituents had a heart attack in the middle of his WCA.
She said: “He was advised to leave and he went to hospital, but a week later he got a letter saying that he had been sanctioned because he had left the work capability assessment.”
Abrahams also described the case of another constituent, a blind woman whose care package had been reduced from 13 hours to eight hours a week.
She was “absolutely terrified” – because of the lack of support she was already receiving – about the possible impact of working-age disability living allowance being replaced with PIP.
Abrahams said: “She is not alone. A raft of measures is affecting the ability of disabled people to live as normal a life as possible.”
The Labour MP for West Ham, Lyn Brown, described how a single disabled man in his 30s had his ESA suspended after a WCA.
She said: “He had no money to live on for three months and could not afford to heat his home or pay his bills. The food bank supported him for a month with food and advice, and assured a successful ESA appeal.”
Brown added: “In 2009, there was just one food bank in [the London borough of] Newham; now there are at least six, and at least four places where the hungry can get a free meal.”
Mike Penning, the Conservative minister for disabled people, said he did not believe there was a need “at this stage” for an independent review, because the government already produced “huge” amounts of “very expensive research”.
He said: “The system has to be fair for both sides. It has to be fair to the people who are working and to those who are on benefit.”
A vote on the need for an inquiry into how the welfare reforms have affected poverty levels was won by 125 votes to two, but the vote is not binding on the government.
16 January 2014