A disabled man was left suicidal and without any income because of the serious flaws within the universal credit system set up by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Phillip Manion’s experience of universal credit’s controversial online journal system has left him mired in debt and in despair at DWP’s failure to provide him with the reasonable adjustments he needs to make the process accessible to him.
He is just one of many disabled people who have told Disability News Service (DNS) about the negative impact of the working-age benefit system, which relies heavily on the online journal that provides a record of everything a claimant has done while claiming universal credit.
DNS has this week published details of three claimants whose experiences with universal credit suggest serious flaws within the system, particularly in relation to its heavy reliance on the online journal and the impact it can have on the mental health of claimants.
Manion’s ordeal began when his property maintenance work dried up during the pandemic.
The 54-year-old, from Northwood, northwest London, decided to start a workshop-based carpentry business, but he spent months of wasted effort last year on DWP’s Restart scheme.
He said he received no advice on how to start a business and was eventually told he did not qualify for government funding after all.
He was even told by a DWP adviser to consider starting a crowdfunding page.
Manion was first warned in February this year about the universal credit “minimum income floor”, which means that claimants who are self-employed must earn the equivalent of the minimum wage. If they fail to do so, universal credit will not make up the difference.
He was covering little more than his expenses with his new business, but the discussion around the minimum income floor issue was deferred by his work coach until an appointment on 4 July, which was later rescheduled until the end of July.
After he tested positive for Covid, the meeting was delayed again, until 27 September.
But he was wrongly marked down as having attended the July meeting, which triggered the minimum income floor and saw his monthly universal credit payment fall from £1,260 to just over £500 a month.
And when he turned up for the 27 September meeting, he was told by DWP staff that he would not be allowed into the jobcentre because he was unable to log onto his online journal on his mobile phone, something he has repeatedly tried, and failed, to do.
When he began recording the conversation – unable to believe what he was being told – seven security guards surrounded him and escorted him towards the entrance.
When Manion asked to speak to a manager, he was told that no-one could see him unless he was able to log onto the journal.
He was forced to leave and was then marked on his journal as failing to attend the meeting.
Because he had failed to attend, his universal credit was stopped completely, and DWP has repeatedly refused to call him or respond to messages he has left on his online journal.
For nearly three months, he has received no money from universal credit.
The day after the jobcentre incident, he had a “complete explosion of my mind” and broke down in tears in the middle of a supermarket.
Manion’s long-term mental distress had previously been under control with the help of medication. Now he cannot face leaving his flat.
He said: “I can’t work, I can’t face anyone, and if I’m really honest I don’t want to be around anymore.”
He was originally told that DWP will not allow anyone to accompany him to the jobcentre, although he has been told that will now be possible.
DWP often fails to respond to his online journal messages, and it refuses to allow him to record his meetings, even though he says this should be a reasonable adjustment.
He has repeatedly told DWP that because of his mental distress, he needs time to take in what he is being told, so recording meetings works best for him.
Last week, he was given just one day’s notice of a meeting at the jobcentre, which he was unable to attend because it did not give him enough time to arrange for someone to accompany him.
He lodged a complaint in late July about the way he had been treated, and he was told he would be contacted within 15 days.
After 24 days, having heard nothing, he rang to complain, and was again told he would be contacted within 15 days.
More than three months after his first complaint, he has still not been contacted by DWP.
Financially, he is “really struggling”. He has a close friend who will ensure he does not starve, but he cannot afford to run his work truck, which he has had to take off the road.
His friend has lent him the money to pay his rent for the last two months, so he is now £2,100 in debt to him, and he also has a £1,300 electricity bill to pay.
His heating is permanently switched off because he cannot afford to sink any further into debt. He has lost nearly two stone in weight since August.
He told DNS: “I don’t sleep well and am constantly vomiting due to the stress.
“DWP staff seem to think they are untouchable as there is no-one to complain to and clearly don’t have any knowledge of mental health conditions.
“I feel let down and isolated by a system that is meant to support people.”
A DWP spokesperson this week refused to answer a series of questions about Phillip Manion’s case and the concerns it raises.
She refused to explain why DWP was declining his request to record his jobcentre appointments, why it had refused his request to change to a jobcentre nearer his home, and whether it had any concerns about the way he had been treated.
She also refused to say whether his case raised any concerns about the inflexibility of the universal credit system, its reliance on the online journal, and the failure of DWP staff to make reasonable adjustments for claimants, and whether DWP believed that it needed to do more to support people with mental distress who rely on universal credit.
Instead, she said in a statement: “Universal credit offers a vital safety net to millions of people, enabling them to support themselves and their families while building towards financial independence through work.
“Emphasis is placed on protecting vulnerable claimants and in the case of Mr Manion his jobcentre has offered to facilitate a private interview after his two most recent appointments were missed.”
Manion told DNS this morning (Thursday) that DWP was lying about the private appointment.
He said: “The last message I received was Monday saying they don’t have any rooms available for private meetings.”
He said he has now had no money for nearly 11 weeks.