On the 4th of April 2019 one of my closest friends John received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions, ‘DWP’. It started with the following two sentences.
“Dear Mr Clark,
I wanted to look at your Personal Independence payment (PIP) to make sure you’re getting the right amount of help.
I’ve decided your PIP award will end on 4 April 2019. This is because your needs have changed”
The ironic italics are mine.
Just a few weeks later, on the 18th of July, with his children sat round his bed in the Conquest Hospital in Hastings I said goodbye to my mate of over forty years. An hour later he slipped away.
That John was a wonderful human being, that he had been a loving father and a popular and respected teacher in Hackney and that nearly two hundred people turned up for his funeral in his hometown in Kent is actually not the point of this piece. The point is that John was let down by the lack of humanity inherent in the Conservative government’s so called ‘Austerity’ policy and in particular by the outsourcing of sensitive social service decisions to inefficient and profit driven private companies.
John had been diagnosed with a form of Leukaemia in the early 2,000’s and despite various holistic treatments and the efforts of the NHS it was decided that he needed to have stem cell treatment. Initially, after the operation with cells donated by the generous donor, Rene, things seemed to go well. Unfortunately, John’s body started to reject the new cells. Immune rejection is when the immune system of a person sees the transplanted cells as ‘foreign’ and thus begins a fast and often aggressive response to attack those cells that are not recognized as ‘self.’ Over the next six or seven years John had a number of issues including abscesses on the brain, a collapsed lung and breathing disorders, osteoporosis and digestive problems and spent at least one prolonged period in an induced coma. Throughout this John remained more cheerful than I could ever understand, buoyed by the amazing and constant NHS treatment he had, particularly at the Royal Brompton and Royal Marsden Hospitals where he was a regular feature and driven by his love for his children. Inevitably, John’s general health suffered. He could no longer work. He moved down to Sussex both to save money and for a better environment. On a good day John could walk a few hundred metres when he would delight in his painfully slow stroll for a coffee or even a beer with his mates when we visited. With the aid of his stick and his disability sticker (meaning he could park close to his flat) he could make it up to London for a his regular medical appointments but often he would have to stay up for a few days with one of us to recover from the exertion. However, life was particularly tough in the winter when his breathing made any effort at all a major challenge and for most of the winter of 2018/19 he was confined to the warmth of his rented flat.
Around March of this year there was a warm spell and John seemed to have a little more energy and it was during this period that he was called in to attend an assessment by one of the DWP outsourced agencies. When he told me I warned him, “John, these people are bonused on cutting benefits, you need to make sure you let them know you’re doing better that normal at the moment and lay it on thick at the interview.” Now John was a trusting kind of a guy and always saw people in a positive light. “Nah”, he said, “Its just routine it’s obvious I need support and no one’s gonna take that away.” So, when some young person who had been given a day or two’s training on how to fill in multiple choice ‘ticky boxes’ took the opportunity afforded by John’s honesty and positivity they was decided he no longer met the criteria for continued support. In the pseudo-scientific ‘assessment’ it was decided John did not have a high enough ‘score’. As was explained in that letter of the 4th of April, to achieve ‘standard’ support John required a score of between 8 and 11. To receive the ‘enhanced’ rate he needed 12 or more. They scored him 6 points so he received nothing.
According to this assessment a man whose family had to do 90% of his shopping and who could just about stand long enough to cook a ready meal only scored 2 out of 8 for ‘preparing food’. He scored minimally on those scores that rated private and personal activities such as bathing and ‘managing toilet needs’ and Nil points for dressing as, “for the purposes of PIP sitting is not considered to be an aid to dressing”. A man who often went days and weeks without being able to leave his flat scored only 4 out of 12 in the section entitled “Moving Around” and in the condescending explanations written in the first person “I have decided….. “ and “ I can not consider….. “ this score was explained as: “You said you have difficulty moving around. I decided you can stand and then move more than 50 metres but no more than 200 metres.” They made this statement only on the basis of multiple choice questions. The letter also stated “You said you have difficulty planning and following journeys. This is inconsistent with the description of regular activities provided at the assessment. I decided you can plan and follow a journey unaided.” Every basic statement John had made was overruled. One, ‘Gary Papworth’ signed the letter.
This June the DWP admitted that of the 21,995 PIP cases that went to an appeal tribunal, 74% of cases ruled against the DWP. This represented a record high. Clearly this is an on-going problem as a Guardian article of December 17th 2016 quoted a figure of 61% successful appeals. However, several other factors come in to play. The average waiting time for an appeal is currently 31 weeks. However, many of the people that get turned down by the DWP have low esteem, or, as in John’s case, have very low energy levels as a consequence of their illness or the treatment they are having. Though John was angry at the decision and particularly concerned that it would mean losing his Disabled parking sticker he just did not have the strength or the energy to go through the appeal process. I am sure there are many more of the elderly or infirm that fail to appeal for similar reasons.
The two companies that the DWP have outsourced these assessments to are Capita and Atos. These companies are generally as secretive as they can be about how much they earn and whether they are rewarded for reducing the number and amount of claims. However in December 2016 a Freedom of Information request revealed that the companies were being set ‘targets’ and were paid on average £19 million pounds a month for their services. According to The Guardian £ 516 million had been paid to them between 2103 and 2016. “After the PIP system was introduced, under 65-year-olds had to be reassessed and, up until October 2016, 110,000 out of 526,000 claimants who were reassessed lost their benefits.” ITV news estimated that the total paid to these two companies will have exceeded £700 million by the end of their five-year contract.
I am not saying John would still be alive had he not had his Personal Independence Payment removed. What I am saying is that through our conversations and the letter I found on his desk when I helped his brother clear out his belongings I gained a little more understanding of the heartlessness of current Social Policy and, in particular, Austerity. While most of the mainstream media dehumanise benefit claimants and reduce everything down to numbers this is really what is happening: to real people. Our Society, driven by the most recent Conservative and Labour Governments is losing any sense of compassion. If we vote in another set of people with ’outsource contracts’ where their hearts should be I fear there will be many more John Clarks.
This is the first part of a long blog on why I am finding this the most intensely personal election I have ever experienced. Part 2 will follow in a few days.
I would like to thanks John’s family for allowing me to use and quote from John’s letter. John’s youngest daughter Dolly wrote, “I appreciate (and so would Dad) everything you’ve written and the awareness you’ve brought to the situation.”
** * https://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/watchdog-orders-dwp-to-publish-secret-reports-on-atos-and-capita-pip-failings/