A disabled woman with a new baby is set to be evicted a fortnight before Christmas because the Department for Work and Pensions stopped her benefits when she failed to attend a “fitness for work” test she had not been told about.
Jacqui Madonia was left “in despair” as she was told to survive on one foodbank voucher a week, a single hardship payment of £80, and the “occasional tenner here and there” from her family.
The assessment was supposed to take place just 13 days after Madonia gave birth to her second son Edward by caesarean on 4 July at Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport.
The former civil servant told the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in an employment and support allowance (ESA) questionnaire that she was due to give birth by caesarean before she went into hospital.
But she received a letter sent on 18 July which asked her why she had failed to attend a work capability assessment (WCA) the previous day.
She explained that she had not been told – either by letter or by text – about the appointment, but then received a further letter saying that her ESA had been removed because it “can be assumed [the letter] was delivered as there was no evidence to the contrary”.
She told Disability News Service (DNS) she had never missed an ESA appointment deliberately and never would.
Along with her ESA, her housing benefit and child tax credits were also removed, leaving her with almost nothing to live on as she appealed the decision through DWP’s mandatory reconsideration process.
She did not want to claim jobseeker’s allowance when her ESA was removed because she would have had to lie about being fit for work, when she knew she was not.
Because her rent was no longer being paid, her private landlord told her she would be evicted on 12 December.
She was also appalled that DWP subsequently claimed that the assessment she failed to attend had been booked for 17 August.
She believes the department changed the date because ESA rules say a woman cannot be asked to attend a WCA within 14 days of giving birth.
After DNS contacted DWP about her case, it reversed its position and placed her in the ESA work-related activity group.
The mother-of-two said last night (Wednesday) that she felt as though she had been living through a “nightmare”.
She had previously had seven miscarriages, before giving birth through IVF to her first son Harrison, who is now three, and Edward, who was conceived naturally.
She said the ordeal DWP had put her through felt like “someone is standing on your head and pushing you under water”.
She said: “I feel numb by the whole ease with which they can destroy somebody.
“I know that some people have committed suicide [in situations like this] and I can totally see how something like that can happen. The system is so cruel.
“They called me on Monday afternoon to say they were going to reverse their decision. They said they had simply made a mistake with the dates.”
She was told she would now be asked to attend a rearranged WCA, and would have both a letter and a text reminder sent to her.
But she said the civil servant who spoke to her told her he still could not guarantee if she would receive the text if the letter again failed to arrive.
Even though her ESA has been reinstated, and she will have her payments backdated to the middle of August, there is no guarantee that her landlord will reverse the decision to evict her.
She said: “It has just set me back so far when I should have been spending this really important time with Edward.
“My mental health has suffered significantly, and the most precious time with my new-born has been taken away from me. It’s unforgivable and so cruel.”
Her ex-partner is also in financial difficulties because he has had his own claim for ESA rejected, but is planning to move back in with her and their two children to try to support them.
A DWP spokesman said in a statement that the decision to reinstate her ESA was made on Monday (9 October).
He later tried to claim that the decision was made before DNS contacted DWP about the case, even though that contact was made on 6 October.
He also claimed that the department had not been told that she was about to give birth “and therefore could not put the right support in place, including deferring her WCA”.
He said: “A decision was made on 9 October to award ESA to Ms Madonia and place her in the work-related activity group.
“She has been notified and will receive payment ASAP, which will be backdated to 18 August. We have written to Ms Madonia to inform her of the outcome.”
He refused to comment on the failure to notify her of her assessment, or why the department had changed the date on which she was supposed to have been assessed.
He has also refused to say whether DWP would apologise to her for leaving her facing eviction two weeks before Christmas.
She contacted DNS after reading about another benefit claimant, Roy Bard, whose personal independence payment was stopped after he failed to turn up for an assessment he had not been told about.
Concerns were raised then that DWP was using lost appointment letters for face-to-face assessments as an excuse for turning down disabled people’s benefit claims, to help it cut spending on social security.
She told DNS: “I don’t want other parents to go through this. Anybody could end up in this position, and it is so, so wrong.”