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Thursday, 13 September 2012

H

H is a single mother of a nine-week-old baby. She's been suffering from chronic depression and anxiety because of various life experiences. Understandably, H has been quite worried, since giving birth, that her depression will be aggravated further and that she will start to display symptoms of post-natal depression or postpartum psychosis. Thankfully, so far, neither has occurred.

Shortly before H gave birth, she made a claim for Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) - a benefit for people who are not well enough to work - on the grounds that she was depressed and anxious and unable to be around people she didn't know very well. H was not told it would have been better for her to make a claim for Income Support as a lone parent; entitlement to this benefit, in H's case, would have been unequivocal.

H received her first ESA payment and was under the impression that her claim had been finalised. She was not made aware that she would be required to attend a work capability assessment with a medical professional and that only after this assessment, would a final decision be made about her entitlement to ESA.

H attended her work capability assessment when she was heavily pregnant. Apparently, the medical professional assessing her had not been trained in the welfare system because H was not advised, due to the imminent birth of her baby, to cancel her ESA claim and make a claim for Income Support to which she certainly would have been entitled and for which there is no medical assessment or points-based test that has to be passed.

H had her baby. A couple of months after the birth, she sought advice from a welfare rights specialist about any other money she might be entitled to as a lone parent with health problems.

The caseworker called the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), as a matter of course, to check the amount of ESA that H was receiving. The caseworker was told that H's ESA had been cancelled some weeks ago because she had failed her work capability assessment and was no longer entitled. H had not been written to about this and so was not aware that this decision had been made. She had not checked her bank account for some time as she had been busy with her new baby. Her only income at this point was Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit amounting to approximately £80 per week with which she had to buy food and household items for herself, nappies, formula milk and other provisions for her baby, pay her bills and pay for public transport to get to appointments to see her social worker and other people.

H was advised to make an immediate claim for Income Support and to ask for it to be backdated to the day that her ESA stopped. The caseworker talked to her about appealing the decision about her ESA but it was agreed that a claim for Income Support was a better route because H was definitely entitled to this benefit and the stress of an appeal where there was no guarantee of success would have been overwhelming for H.

H was also advised to apply for a crisis loan from the Social Fund while she was waiting for her Income Support claim to be processed.

Some days later, H contacted her caseworker in a state of panic to say that her application for a crisis loan had been unsuccessful. H had been told that she was ‘not in crisis’ because she was being paid Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. Someone in H’s situation should be receiving around £152 per week in benefits and tax credits. H was receiving about half this amount and was spending approximately £20 per week on nappies alone.

The caseworker tried to contact the crisis loan department on the telephone in an attempt to resolve things quickly but was greeted with the word, ‘no’ and the line going dead when she said who she was and why she was calling.

H is now in the process of appealing the decision about her entitlement to a crisis loan and is still awaiting the outcome of her Income Support claim. This does not solve her immediate problem of lack of funds because of poor knowledge and bad decision making on the part of the people working within the services that were designed to protect her.

It was not OK for a H, new single mother with complicated mental health problems, in an extremely vulnerable position, to have been told that she was ‘not in crisis’ when she said she was. It was not OK for people in positions of authority not to have noticed that it would been much better for this woman to have made a relatively simple claim for Income Support rather than a long-winded, stressful, humiliating and unsuccessful claim for ESA. It was not OK that H did not receive written confirmation of the decision about her ESA. It was not OK for H's caseworker to be greeted by a virtual brick wall during an attempt to help her.

What's also really not OK is for David Cameron to say that he wants to protect the most vulnerable in our society when there are very few, if any, examples of what he actually means, especially given that H’s case is by no means unique. 

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