An autistic woman says she has been left without vital financial support – and life-saving medication – for nearly two years because she cannot cope with the face-to-face interview she must undergo to complete her universal credit claim.
Claire*, who lives in the Manchester area, does not have enough money to pay for the medicine she needs because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is refusing to complete her claim, 22 months after she applied for universal credit.
Because of her complex health conditions, including the severe anxiety she experiences following a serious physical assault, she cannot cope with a face-to-face assessment.
For that reason, Disability News Service (DNS) has been unable to speak to her about her case and confirm every detail, but it has seen paperwork from a DWP civil servant responding to a complaint about the failure to complete her claim.
It is just the latest case that appears to demonstrate the deep-rooted flaws built into universal credit, which was supposed to simplify the benefits system, but instead has driven tens of thousands into poverty.
Claire has multiple sclerosis and has had three heart attacks, and has been told she could have a fatal heart attack at any moment due to unstable angina, while she also has a number of other significant health conditions, including depression, asthma, diabetes, Charles Bonnet syndrome and severe misophonia (extreme sensitivity to certain sounds).
She told DNS, in a statement sent through her cousin, Rachel*: “I have worked all my life until I got MS; I have never felt so worthless as the DWP have made me feel.
“I often want to harm myself because I can’t cope with the stress and anxiety.
“The DWP have brought me to my knees and every time I try to get up they push me down again. I am very tired; sick and broken.”
DNS has seen two letters from DWP responding to a complaint about her case.
One of the letters includes an explanation from a DWP correspondence manager as to why she has to undergo an “identity check”.
The letter says: “I would like to reassure you that the evidence of identity check is something that only has to be completed at the start of the Universal Credit claim.
“Although the visiting officer will endeavour to ensure the interview is not unnecessarily stressful and is completely as quickly as possible, you can ask for someone to be with you for support.
“As soon as we can satisfy the evidence of identity requirements we will be able to process and pay your Universal Credit claim.
“Please accept my apologies for our delay in the meantime.”
But Rachel said: “She is frightened of everyone. She cannot cope with that kind of interaction, either at home or office-based. Any stress could be fatal.
“She has attempted to harm herself because of the traumatic situation the DWP have put her under.
“To leave her this long without welfare is a disgrace. It is unacceptable and cruel. It is amazing she isn’t dead.”
Rachel says her cousin is only surviving financially through receipt of disability living allowance of £450 a month, and avoids having to pay rent by house-sitting for a friend – although she pays some housing costs – but she cannot afford the life-saving heart medication she needs, as well as medicine for asthma and diabetes.
She also cannot afford to fix her broken wheelchair, and so is unable to leave the house.
DWP’s press office insisted originally that it would only comment on her case if DNS provided evidence that Claire was happy for the department to share details of her case, with a press officer saying: “We won’t be responding to this story unless we have received consent that is clearly from [Claire].”
After the press office rejected an email she forwarded via DNS as insufficient evidence, Claire wrote a letter giving her permission and sent it via her cousin to DWP’s offices in Westminster by recorded delivery.
But after receiving the letter, another DWP press officer said: “Thanks for getting in touch. Yes we’ve received the letter but won’t be commenting on this case.”
DNS has lodged a complaint with the DWP press office about its behaviour.
But a DWP adviser shown details about the case by DNS said: “This appears to be a very frustrating case and will have no doubt been discussed by colleagues who work in universal credit.
“It is somewhat unfathomable that this claimant is seriously ill and whilst she is fully entitled to claim universal credit, can’t physically get paid due to a very archaic rule meaning she has to attend an interview despite having a number of very serious illnesses.
“It should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds that universal credit will soon, if not already, be compelling various people to attend these interviews, be they fit to work, ill or coming to the end of their lives due to their medical conditions.
“This is no way to run a welfare system in 21st century Britain.”
Last month, DNS reported that there have been four secret reports since April 2016 into the deaths of universal credit claimants that have been linked to DWP activity.
And last week, Labour and SNP MPs lined up in parliament to describe the negative impact of universal credit on disabled people and other constituents.
One MP described in last week’s debate how the mother of a young man receiving mental health crisis treatment was told that unless her son signed his universal credit “claimant commitment” he would have to apply for jobs from his hospital bed, or face being sanctioned.
Disabled activists have warned that universal credit – which combines six income-related benefits into one – is “rotten to the core” and of “soaring” rates of sanctions and foodbank use in areas where it has been introduced.
In June, a report by the National Audit Office said DWP was failing to support “vulnerable” claimants and was unable to monitor how they were being treated under universal credit.
And in July, employment minister Alok Sharma was asked by MPs on the Commons work and pensions committee why the benefits of hundreds of sick and disabled universal credit claimants were apparently being sanctioned, even though they should not have had to meet any of the strict conditions imposed by the system.
In the same month, further concerns were raised by the committee about disabled people with high support needs who need to claim universal credit and face the possibility of strict conditions – such as being forced to carry out hours of job searches every week – as they wait for a work capability assessment.
*Not her real name
News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com