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Demand for fairer benefits tests as two die

THE deaths of two people who were waiting for appeals to be heard against the loss of benefits has prompted calls for a fairer assessment system.

 The two claimants, both from West Dunbartonshire, died from the conditions which caused them to claim Incapacity Benefit (IB) while waiting for appeals to be heard against cuts to their benefits.

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One was deemed fit for work during a work capability assessment, despite having a deteriorating chronic illness, and lost both incapacity benefit and disability living allowance.

When his support worker appeared at the appeal tribunal she had to report her client could not be there because he was dead. The appeal was upheld and the backpayment will become part of his estate.

The other had a congenital condition which caused difficulty in walking but was assessed capable of work and his incapacity benefit was withdrawn. He was waiting for a date for an appeal tribunal when he died.

A third person, again from West Dunbartonshire, died recently after winning a second appeal tribunal following three years of repeated assessments and decisions being overturned.

He worked as a shop assistant in his 20s but was forced to give up due to severe heart and lung problems caused by a degenerative syndrome.

An “indefinite” award of IB and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) was revoked after only two months on the basis of a questionnaire he had filled in.

Six months later it was reinstated by an appeal tribunal. Despite this ruling and the finding that his condition was worse than the original assessment, his case was once again referred for medical assessment.

Once again, the benefit was withdrawn. He appealed again, with help from staff at the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre, and a tribunal date set for a further six months on.

By that time he had been confined to bed with severe pain for several days and his extreme difficulty in reaching the chair in the tribunal room caused the chair of the panel to say the hearing would be as short as possible and that a taxi would be waiting to take him home.

He won the appeal but only after three years of unrelenting anxiety over whether his benefits would be cut.

People claiming IB, currently being replaced by Employment and Support Allowance, and DLA undergo a work capability assessment by a healthcare professional, such as a nurse or physiotherapist employed by Atos Healthcare, which gained the contract from the Department for Work and Pensions in 2005.

The assessment is not a medical examination but the claimant is asked a series of questions about their capabilities.

If they are judged fit for work they lose benefits such as IB and DLA, which yesterday’s Welfare Reform Bill proposes replacing with a Personal Independence Payment.

Danny McCafferty, chair of the Independent Resource Centre in Clydebank, which wins 70% of the cases it takes to appeal, says the assessments by Atos are flawed.

As the Government confirmed plans to implement a £50 immediate fine for “errors that could have reasonably been prevented” on benefit claims, yesterday, Mr McCafferty suggested that a penalty should also be levied on the contractor.

“Atos Healthcare is not producing the results it is paid for because so many decisions are being overturned. It is costing the country money to go through the appeals process.

“It would be better if every time an appeal was upheld Atos Healthcare had to repay the fee it was paid for the case or, better still, pass it on to a welfare group to help other people,” he said.

With a backlog of cases waiting for appeal dates, Mr McCafferty expects the success rate of the Clydebank resource centre (which is part-funded by Oxfam) to increase well beyond 70%.

That is unlikely to be reduced by the Coalition Government’s plans for welfare reform. They include replacing DLA with a Personal Independence Payment from 2013 which instead of providing a guaranteed payment to some people with specific disabilities, will require claimants to have regular assessments on how their condition affects them.

Case Study: Daily care but deemed fit for job

MARY Hodgson, from Annan in Dumfries and Galloway, worked from the age of 16 until she was 41, latterly as a support worker for people with learning disabilities.

That ended suddenly when a lower disc cut through her spinal cord leaving her semi-paralysed.

“I went from being a fit and healthy person to being unable to walk without crutches and needing a wheelchair to go any distance,” she said.

“The damage to my nerves has caused other problems and I need daily care from a nurse.”

She was assessed as fit to work. That decision was overturned on appeal and she now receives the higher rate of Employment and Support Allowance, but the experience has left her fearful over her future support.

“The assessment was very inadequate and very unprofessional,” she said.

“The doctor who carried it out simply did not have the right information and his report said I could carry out a task I had not been asked to do. If there are now going to be even more assessments, they should be made with a report from the claimant’s GP who knows the details of the case.”

Peter Allen, 60, who lives near Inverness agrees that assessments are flawed.

He is unable to work because of severe arthritis in his legs.

He has not claimed Employment and Support Allowance but underwent a work capability assessment because he applied to have his national insurance contributions covered to protect his pension.

He won one appeal after being assessed for work but has been called for another assessment next month.

“My knees are getting worse and I also have a hip problem but I fully expect them to say I’m fit for work,” he said.

“The questions are so loaded that whatever answer you give, it goes against you.”

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