A disabled campaigner who tried to take his own life in his local jobcentre has described how “anger and despair” at the imminent reassessment of both of his disability benefits drove him to the suicide attempt.
David Rollins, from Orchardson Avenue, Leicester, spoke to Disability News Service (DNS) this week after a judge at Nottingham Crown Court handed him a suspended sentence and banned him from entering all jobcentres for the next 10 years.
Now, after spending six months in prison on remand, he hopes to campaign for better conditions for disabled prisoners, and he has already returned to his unpaid work as a welfare rights adviser.
Rollins had pleaded guilty at previous hearings to causing a public nuisance and possessing a chemical weapon, because of the poison he had taken in the Wellington Street jobcentre on the afternoon of 23 June last year.
The judge handed him a prison sentence of 18 months, suspended for two years, because he said it was clear there had been no attempt to harm anyone else in the jobcentre.
He has also been banned from jobcentres and other DWP buildings for 10 years, unless he has written approval from a member of staff, and was given a 20 days rehabilitation requirement.
Shortly before the incident last June, Rollins had emailed DNS to say he intended to take his own life, and that he wanted to draw attention to the harm caused by DWP and its private sector assessment-providers Maximus and Capita*.
He had learned that he was going to be reassessed for his personal independence payment (PIP), and for his employment and support allowance (ESA) through a work capability assessment.
He told DNS in the email, sent minutes before he left his flat to take a taxi to the jobcentre: “I already know from the experiences of my friends where this is going, and I will not starve to death.
“Without the encroaching sense of impending dread caused by the prospect of losing half of an already stretched income I would not be doing this.
“Without a pip and esa assessment either or both of which will destroy the life I have struggled to build I would not be doing this.”
He knew how easily his benefits could be removed after his first attempt to claim PIP in 2013 led to a face-to-face assessment that was carried out by a nurse who gave him a false name and, it later turned out, was not registered to practise.
He was “zeroed” – given zero points in the assessment – and DWP rejected his claim, and it took eight months before he was finally awarded the PIP he was eligible for, which he said was a “horrendous” experience.
It was that experience that led to him starting to provide other disabled people with advocacy and advice on their PIP, ESA and universal credit claims.
But although he had no problems with his own benefits over the next decade, he became ever more aware of how easily other disabled people could lose them, particularly if faced with an assessor determined to zero them in their assessment.
Rollins said this week: “It was that process that caused me to start helping other people work through the mire that DWP were creating.”
But when he realised last summer that he was going to be reassessed for both disability benefits, he said it “brought back that feeling of helplessness” and he began to feel like “a drop in the ocean” of disabled people who were being exposed to DWP’s attempts to zero their claims.
He told DNS: “So, if it happened to be mine that got zeroed, then I would have to go to tribunal which takes a year and about a month, and it was just the prospect of that, even though it wasn’t at that point real, that was soul-destroying.
“I was under that kind of cloud… it was a mixture of anger and despair because I was faced with the idea that actually the whole process was going to happen, and it was going to ignore how suicidal I actually was and I didn’t really know what to do about that.”
The court heard last week how Rollins has helped between 700 and 900 people with their disability benefit claims in the last 10 years.
Of the cases he has taken to tribunal, his success rate is over 95 per cent.
It is this success rate that is behind his message to other disabled people not to give up hope.
He said: “If you feel let down by the DWP, remember that the tribunals are independent and have a very high success rate for disabled people who appeal.”
All his work is voluntary, and he never turns anyone away who asks him for help. He is keenly aware of how difficult it is for disabled people to access welfare rights advice.
Rollins had already spent six months on remand in Leicester’s prison in Welford Road by the time he pleaded guilty to a charge of possessing a chemical weapon, a few days before Christmas. He had earlier admitted the public nuisance charge.
Prison felt like a sanctuary, he said, a place where he did not have to worry about what DWP might do to his personal social security safety net.
As his barrister told the sentencing hearing, his experience has left him hoping to campaign for prison reform because of the treatment of many of the disabled prisoners he witnessed.
Leicester prison was built in the early nineteenth century and disabled prisoners not lucky enough to be placed on the same floor as the canteen have to struggle back to their cell with their tray of food up or down the stairs.
Although he uses a stick, because of fibromyalgia, he was in that situation himself – he said only two or three prison officers had even heard of the condition – and was only moved to a more accessible cell after he slipped and nearly fell down the stairs.
He is also angry that prison nurses stopped part of his mental health medication a few weeks before his release without telling him, causing unexpected symptoms, including a sudden and unexplained worsening of his depression.
He also highlighted the number of prisoners with ADHD who are not given the medication they need to manage their condition, and those with literacy and numeracy problems who must rely on fellow prisoners to help them with letters and documents.
It was a role he was happy to take on himself, while he was also approached by several prisoners who asked him to help them with their benefit claims when they were released.
The worst part of his prison experience, he says, was the drinking water. He lost up to 15 kilogrammes in weight because, he believes, the antiquated water system in the prison left him with diarrhoea throughout his six months.
He was also mystified that, although the DWP civil servants who visited the prison were very quick to stop his benefits while he was inside, they were unable to make sure that they were started again on his release.
Instead, he spent the first month after his release trying to correct errors made by the department, which left him relying on emergency payments.
“Nobody was particularly helpful, and that is typical, unfortunately, of how the DWP treats people who have a claim that has either been closed or suspended,” he said.
“The call handlers, if they don’t know something, they basically make it up, so you have to ask to speak to a member of the DWP management team, and you’re told they will ring you back.
“I said, ‘what happens if they don’t ring me back?’ And they said, ‘why wouldn’t they?’ And I said, ‘well, because it’s DWP.’ And sure enough, they didn’t ring me back.
“I’ve done this for clients so many times. It’s hard not to get angry and frustrated when they’re treating you like that, and they’re not doing what they say they’re going to do.”
Now he says he feels anger at DWP rather than the “dark despair” he felt before the suicide attempt.
And he says he is “immensely” grateful for the support he has received from both family and friends since his release.
He said: “A lot of people have been very supportive since I got out. I had huge bags of food and Christmas stuff because I got out five days before Christmas.
“That’s been immensely helpful and, you know, much thanks to all of my friends and my family who have gathered round and supported me since I got out.”
But he also has a message for the department: “Stop this national scandal, because that’s what it is.”
He wants disabled people to be assessed fairly for the impact of their impairments rather than the department basing its decisions on its “preconceived ideas of whether they should be in work or not”.
This, he said, “will actually cost the government less and people will get the benefits that they’re entitled to”.
He desperately wants to see a change in the department’s culture and attitude to claimants, and he says he will continue to campaign for that.
His experience of supporting hundreds of disabled people with their claims over the last decade has left him convinced that assessors are being trained to “zero” claimants.
He said: “When you’ve got somebody in Cornwall zeroing somebody in the same way as somebody in Yorkshire, that’s not a casual error. That’s training. And it’s deliberate.
“And disabled people are under no illusions: they know it’s deliberate.”
*DNS will not report on suicide notes emailed to the editor by claimants who want to highlight the harm caused by DWP. This is because of the risk that running such reports could encourage other people in mental distress to take similar action
**The following organisations are among those that could be able to offer support if you have been affected by the issues raised in this article: Samaritans, Papyrus, Mind, SOS Silence of Suicide and Rethink
Picture: Wellington Street jobcentre in Leicester, and David Rollins
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