A 63 year old woman with several serious medical conditions had her benefits stopped for ten months after she failed to turn up for an assessment which she had been told was cancelled.
Teresa Geale, from Kent, was already on the bus to the assessment when she received a voicemail message telling her that the assessment centre was running late and her appointment would have to be rescheduled.
She went home, but a few days later received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) demanding to know why she hadn’t attended the appointment.
Despite explaining that her appointment had been cancelled, she was told that because she had missed the appointment ‘without good reason’.
As a consequence, her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was being stopped.
ESA is the primary benefit for people who are unable to work due to illness or disability.
Teresa Geale was receiving ESA due to suffering from a number of medical conditions including osteoarthritis, curvature of the spine and ocular migraines which cause her temporary blindness.
After Ms Geale’s ESA was stopped, she was forced to sign on for Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) instead, receiving only half the amount she had received under ESA.
I had to deny myself things, make food last longer, and so on. The stress of it also made my illness worse.
Mrs Geale took her case to a tribunal, which ruled that the appointment could not have been cancelled – despite her showing the tribunal her bus ticket and screenshots of calls she had made to the assessment centre at the time.
Mrs Geale later said:
It’s ridiculous the way they’ve carried on…they were calling me a liar the whole time.
Her case was later taken on by the University of Kent’s law clinic, and an appeal made to a second tribunal. This time, the judge took just five minutes to rule against the DWP, saying that:
I find it extraordinary that her evidence was not accepted and it has taken this long to overturn the original decision….I trust that the Respondent [the DWP] will reimburse her for her aborted bus fare.
Ms Geale’s case is shocking, but far from isolated. 41,000 ESA claimants were sanctioned between 2012 and 2016.
Claimants – including those on Job Seekers’ Allowance – have been sanctioned for utterly preposterous reasons including missing an appointment because they were in hospital after a heart attack; selling poppies; and missing an appointment because they were at a job interview.
ESA claimaints who are sanctioned must first go through the DWP’s ‘mandatory reconsideration’ process before being allowed to take their case to a tribunal.
A recent Freedom of Information request showed that the DWP’s target for these ‘reconsiderations’ is that 80% of the decisions to sanction should be upheld. It’s clear that if the decision makers are working not on the basis of what is right, but on the need to hit their target of denying four out of five cases, justice is not going to be high on their agenda.
There is evidence that the use of sanctions against ESA claimants is leading to a mental health crisis, with a recent open letter to the government from leading mental health specialists claiming that sanctions are linked to ‘destitution, disempowerment and increased rates of mental health problems’.
They go on to say that:
Vulnerable people with multiple and complex needs, in particular, are disproportionately affected by the increased use of sanctions.
The DWP of course says that these sanctions are justified in order to ensure that people meet their obligations. The real reason, however, is clear: it is to save money. Cuts to ESA are expected to save the Treasury £1bn by 2020/21 and the frequent application of sanctions is a key part of this.
The rate of ESA for new claimants is a miserly £73.10 a week if you’re considered capable of some ‘work-related activity’, £109.65 if you’re not. The work-related activity payment was cut last year by £30 a week for new claimants.
Tory MPs who earn almost £75k a year lined up to vote through a measure which would leave new claimants with less than £10.50 a day to live on. It’s an insulting amount, but for many sick and disabled people, it’s all they’ve got. Sanctioning people like Teresa Geale simply adds even more cruelty to an already unspeakably cruel system.
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