A is a young woman who lives on her own in a council tenancy. She relies on Housing Benefit to pay her rent and is in receipt of Income Support on the basis of incapacity. She suffers from schizophrenia, depression and agoraphobia, all of which are aggravated by stress. She also mis-uses alcohol and self harms regularly. She is often bullied and threatened by the other tenants in her building and has had people breaking in to her flat and stealing her post.
As part of the government's welfare reforms, A was written to by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and told that she was required to attend a medical assessment with a view to assess whether or not she would be entitled to a new sickness benefit called Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) which is replacing Income Support on the basis of incapacity. A did not receive the letter and so did not attend her medical assessment. As a result of this, her benefit was stopped altogether. The Housing Benefit department noticed that A's Income Support had stopped and so suspended her Housing Benefit award due to this 'change of circumstances'.
It took A a little while to notice that her benefit had stopped; she was already in substantial debt when her benefit was in payment and she wasn't in the habit of checking her bank balance very regularly. She knew she was in trouble when she went to withdraw some cash to put some money on her electricity meter and her card was declined.
A came to the advice centre. Her caseworker called the DWP and asked for another medical assessment to be arranged. The caseworker was told that this was "impossible" and that A would, instead have to start the (lengthy) process of appealing the decision to stop her benefit. An appeal form was completed and sent. A was told that while she was appealing, she would need to apply for a Crisis Loan from the DWP and that if she applied for one and it was decided she was entitled, she would be paid that day.
Three days later, A came back to the advice centre. She said that she had not applied for a Crisis Loan as she had no credit on her phone. Her case worker asked her if she could use a phone box but A said she couldn't do that because they scared her and that she didn't have any money to use one any way. A said that she hated using the phone. She said that mobile phones put messages in her head and made her mad and that other people were always listening. A's caseworker said that she could help her apply for a Crisis Loan at the advice centre but that A would have to be there while she made the phone call. A agreed.
The Caseworker called the DWP with A present. The caseworker explained to the member of staff that A could not use the phone easily because of her health problems and so she would be carrying out the bulk of the phone call on A's behalf. This was not accepted and the member of staff at the DWP insisted on speaking to A. After a couple of minutes on the phone, A became incredibly distressed and said that she could not carry on because she was too scared. A put the phone down and walked out of the advice centre.
One month later, A's caseworker called the DWP to check that A's appeal had been received. The member of staff at the DWP said that there was no record of an appeal on the system and it looked like it had not been received. The caseworker explained A's situation and asked to speak to a Decision Maker in the hope that A's benefit would be reinstated or, at least, a new medical assessment could be arranged. Again, the caseworker was told that this was not possible and that the appeal process had to be followed. The caseworker sent a copy of the original appeal form along with a doctor's note and a letter to the DWP explaining that A was clearly very unwell and requesting that her benefit be reinstated while A waited for a date for a new medical assessment.
A couple of weeks after this, A came to the advice centre in crisis. She had a black eye and could not stop shaking. She had still not received her benefit. She had managed to apply for a crisis loan of £70 but she said she had had to give this to various people she had borrowed money from. She had not eaten properly for two weeks and had run out of medication and had been too afraid to leave her flat to go and get more. She also said that there was no gas or electricity in her flat because she had no money to pay for them. A showed the caseworker a letter she had received from the council telling her that if she did not take steps to repay her rent arrears within five days, she would be issued with a notice of seeking possession.
A's caseworker tried to help her apply for another crisis loan but the lines were busy and the caseworker did not have time to wait for very long. She invited A to wait on her own but A said that she could not do this because people were following her and then she left.
Two weeks later, A's caseworker called the DWP to check on the progress of the appeal. She was told that the appeal had been successful and that A would be paid shortly. The caseworker called A to tell her but there was no answer.
One week after this, A's caseworker called the DWP and was told that an error had been made and that A's payment had not been issued. She was assured that a payment would be issued within five days.
After ten days, A's caseworker called the DWP to check that a payment had been made. It had not. A letter of complaint was written with a request for a consolatory payment for hardship and suffering.
After ten more days, A came back to the advice centre. She was confused and frightened. Her caseworker called the DWP and was told that A's payment had been made the day before. A was encouraged to go to her doctor for medication and support.
One month later, the DWP responded to the caseworker's complaint. In the letter, the DWP acknowledged that it had handled A's case badly and apologised for its failings. The DWP also stated that, in this case, a consolatory payment was not appropriate. The caseworker wrote back, urging the DWP to reconsider this.
A first approached the advice centre in March of this year. She was eventually paid what she had always been entitled to in July. She was penalised and ignored because she was unwell, unable to cope and inarticulate. Her case continues.
At the Conservative Party Conference in October 2010, the Chancellor, George Osborne said "fairness means creating a welfare system that helps the vulnerable". This was echoed by David Cameron who said, "yes, fairness means giving money to help the poorest in society, people who are sick, who are vulnerable, the elderly - I want you to know that we will always look after you ..... that's the sign of a civilised society and it's what I believe".