A disabled woman says her life is at risk following a “barrage” of texts and phone calls from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), threatening – unlawfully – to remove her benefits if she failed to attend a work-focused interview.
Stella*, who has type one diabetes, was placed in the support group of people claiming employment and support allowance (ESA), after a tribunal found in her favour and said she should not be assessed again for two years.
The ESA support group is – according to the government’s own rules – for sick or disabled people not expected to carry out any work-related activity in return for out-of-work benefits.
But Stella was forced to lodge a complaint with the police after being “scared witless” by an “unacceptable barrage of communications” about work-focussed interviews and threats to remove her benefits if she failed to attend.
Her case has disturbing echoes of David Clapson, who also had diabetes. He died in 2013, two weeks after his benefits were sanctioned.
Stella believes that her case proves DWP failed to learn any lessons from Clapson’s death.
The grassroots campaigning organisation Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has become so concerned at DWP harassment that it has produced template letters that disabled people in the support group can use to warn civil servants that they could be committing a criminal offence under the Harassment Act.
Despite the tribunal’s ruling, and the government’s own guidelines, Stella said she was subjected to an “aggressive” stream of communication from DWP, with six phone calls, two text messages and four letters (a total of 12 in just seven weeks, about one every four days).
The letters, calls and texts – DNS has seen screenshots of two of the text messages – demanded that she attend a work-focussed interview, and warned her that “failure to attend may affect your benefit”, even though attendance should be completely voluntary.
The threats became so disturbing and intimidating that Stella contacted Northamptonshire police to record a complaint of harassment against the civil servant whose name was on the letters.
She asked for her complaint to be left on the police files, but has so far not asked for it to be taken any further.
The harassment is life threatening because stress hormones send her blood sugar soaring, making it unresponsive to insulin.
Combined with sickness from stress, it can easily lead to diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), the life threatening condition that killed Clapson.
Stella herself has a long history of hospitalisation for DKA.
Her blood sugar spiked on the day she wrote to the jobcentre to complain about the harassment.
She said: “It was touch and go, but luckily I had anti-sickness medication left over from the tribunal, otherwise I’d have been in real trouble. DKA is a killer.”
In a letter to the Jobcentre Plus official who she claims had been harassing her, Stella says: “Having just about survived three months with no money last year after I was declared fit for work – hardly any food, no heating, huddled under the duvet in the middle of winter, every appliance unplugged except fridge and one lamp – I can fully attest to how truly terrifying that is.
“I haven’t really recovered either physically or mentally – and that’s on top of the numerous debilitating health problems I have to contend with every day.”
Clapson died of DKA two weeks after his benefits were sanctioned, leaving him without the money to buy food or to pay for the electricity that would keep his fridge on and his medication usable.
But the Conservative prime minister David Cameron dismissed his case when quizzed on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday (19 April).
Marr asked Cameron if he agreed that the death of David Clapson demonstrated that social security cuts had been “agonisingly painful for real people”.
But Cameron said it was “right” that the system of sanctions which led to Clapson’s death was in place, although he said there were hardship payments available to help in such cases.
And he added: “I look at all of those individual cases and all of those cases can be addressed by the hardship funds and by the flexibilities that are there in the system.”
Stella said she believed Clapson’s case showed DWP was “wilfully ignoring” its own guidelines on dealing with “vulnerable” people who have been sanctioned.
She said: “Little has been learnt, and judging by my case DWP are still not bothering with statutory checks or safeguards.”
She pointed out that Esther McVey, the Conservative employment minister, told the work and pensions committee in February that “vulnerable” people get hardship payments “straight away”.
McVey also told the committee that there was “no harassment” of benefit claimants and that those in the support group “have no conditionality whatsoever”.
But by the time McVey had given her evidence, Stella had already received two of the four letters and the first of the two texts.
Debbie Jolly, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, said: “This case shows the unacceptable and dangerous position disabled people in the ESA support group are being put in.
“As well as this case, DPAC also gets around three-to-four emails per day from those in the support group who are being continually harassed to breaking point by the latest DWP dictates.
“Those in the ESA support group are being told that they will lose benefits if they don’t attend a work-focused interview – this is simply not true and is against the DWP’s own regulations, as are forced appointments by phone or in person with work advisers, work coaches, personal advisers, or whatever this week’s latest terminology is.
“Just one death is one too many, but we know there have been more through the DWP’s and the Tories’ consistent contempt for disabled people’s basic human rights.
“This latest assault on the mental and physical health of disabled people by the DWP should be yet another warning of what the Conservatives are capable of.
“The purposely ‘leaked’ £12 billion of more cuts to come indicates things are set to become worse post-election if Cameron’s ‘compassion’ is allowed to continue.
“It really is time to turn the tables on any new government, of whichever colour, that believes it can continue to abuse disabled people (and non-disabled people) towards a potential death sentence under the guise of austerity.
“DPAC applaud each and every action that makes this clear and we will continue to support the individual that made this case.”
DWP has refused to comment on Stella’s complaint.
*She has asked for her real name not to be published.