A minister has been urged to resign, after he threatened a traumatised child abuse survivor – who is waiting to give evidence about the abuse in court – that his benefits would be stopped if he failed to co-operate with an Atos reassessment.
David* is a key witness in the trial and has been told by police not to discuss his case with anyone, or to allow DWP or its assessment contractor Atos access to his medical records, because the court proceedings are now live and the case is sub judice.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) finally agreed earlier this month to stop contacting David until after the end of the trial, after Disability News Service (DNS) and his local MP drew its attention to his case.
But despite this agreement, Atos sent him a further letter, while Justin Tomlinson – the minister for disabled people – wrote to his MP threatening that David’s benefits would be stopped within just two days if he did not submit to a reassessment of his personal independence payment (PIP) claim.
David has severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), caused by the horrific child abuse he suffered as a child, and which has led to several suicide attempts.
Even though the toll of the criminal investigation on his mental health has been harrowing, resulting in a series of self-harm episodes, DWP has continued its attempts to force him to submit to a PIP reassessment, even though it has been told repeatedly that his health records are part of the court case.
David only found out about Tomlinson’s threat this week, when the minister’s letter was forwarded to him by his MP.
In a covering letter, David’s MP told him: “I do not normally comment on ministerial responses, as they are quite capable of speaking for themselves, but I will say that in this case I feel Justin displays a lack of humanity and understanding that does himself and you a great disservice.”
David said Tomlinson’s behaviour was “a disgusting, vile attack” on a vulnerable witness by a government minister, and called on him to resign.
He said Tomlinson “should not be anywhere near” vulnerable disabled people after his “insensitive, demeaning” actions, and added: “I wouldn’t put this guy in charge of a broom cupboard.”
David had already forced an apology from DWP after he received a letter last week – which apparently was “generated by Atos in error” – warning him the contractor had requested evidence from people involved in his care, and that he may have to attend a face-to-face benefits assessment.
Both letters – from Tomlinson and from Atos – were sent several days after DWP and Atos agreed that there should be no further contact with David until his trial was finished.
DNS has already revealed that DWP contacted the police force investigating the abuse allegations to ask about his evidence, and had to be told twice by officers that its actions were causing David “considerable stress and distress”, that he was a witness in their investigation, and that details of his abuse-related health condition were sub-judice.
The force is not commenting on these claims – while Tomlinson has denied any DWP contact with the police – but DNS has established that there have been several communications between DWP and the force, whose officers have continued to tell the department that it cannot release information about the case.
David’s treatment throws a harsh light yet again on DWP policies and procedures for dealing with vulnerable people, an issue highlighted last month when the department was finally forced to publish redacted versions of 49 secret “peer reviews” into the deaths of benefit claimants.
Those peer reviews showed that ministers were repeatedly warned by their own civil servants that their policies to assess people for disability benefits were putting the lives of vulnerable claimants at risk.
David’s MP had written to work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb to ask him to review how his department had treated him, and it was that letter that Tomlinson was responding to.
The MP said in the letter that he/she believed DWP had failed in its duty of care towards David.
The letter added: “Sometimes intentionally, sometimes because of mistakes, errors or miscommunication within DWP they have continuously harassed him, reviewing his case unnecessarily, suspending benefits on a number of occasions, seeking details or interviews which could prejudice the criminal case and have in any case contributed to high levels of anxiety and distress being suffered by [David].
“Whilst I am only aware of [David’s] experience I would be surprised if others had not suffered similar treatment.”
The MP also asked Crabb to ensure that David continued to receive PIP and be exempt from any further medical assessments until after the trial.
David, who is currently recovering from an operation, said his treatment at the hands of DWP and Atos had been “dehumanising and humiliating”, a “grotesque breach” of his privacy, and “the most outrageously obscene way to treat someone”.
He refused to accept DWP’s apology about the Atos letter, and noted that the department had apologised via DNS, and not to him, and that he wanted an apology from a work and pensions minister, rather than a press officer.
David also said he had no idea whether his PIP and his employment and support allowance (ESA) were still being paid, and that he was “fearful of contacting them over this”.
He was appalled when, a day after a DWP press officer confirmed to DNS that he was still receiving PIP and ESA, he received a payment into his bank account that suggested that he was no longer receiving ESA and had instead been placed on jobseeker’s allowance.
He then received a call yesterday (Wednesday) from a GP from his local surgery, apparently attempting to assess his state of mental health over the telephone on behalf of DWP.
A DWP spokesman claimed that Tomlinson had been trying to underline in his letter that David needed to be reassessed, although he was also “trying to communicate in every way possible… that we were going to try and leave [David] alone and not contact him, in acknowledgement of the fact that he is a vulnerable person and he is going through a trial”.
When asked why DWP and Tomlinson appeared intent on harassing and persecuting David, the spokesman said: “In no way is this persecution, in no way are we trying to hound [David].
“What we are trying to do is follow what we have to do with PIP, which is assess people so we can make sure they are getting the benefits that they need to be getting.”
He said in a statement: “In the minister’s letter he says that wherever possible in these situations PIP reassessments can be carried out in consultation with the patient’s GP and using other medical evidence provided.
“However, if there is not enough information available, a face-to-face assessment needs to take place.
“The assessment process is key to ensuring that the benefit is fairly distributed, so that it can fulfil its purpose of supporting people who have extra living costs due to their disability.”
He added: “When a claimant states that they do not wish to be contacted about their case or reassessment, they are advised that wherever possible we will do this in discussion with their GP without their involvement. This is always made clear to the claimant.”
But David said he believed his life was now at risk as a result of Tomlinson’s actions and those of his department, while he felt that he had been “utterly abandoned to this vindictive violation of my human rights”.
He said: “Every day is a struggle to live, robbed wholly of my dignity by the criminal process and further humiliated by the DWP’s utter inhumanity and failure to grasp my harsh predicament.
“The original PIP assessment indicated that I required additional support. I don’t currently receive any support from any service and life’s bleak.
“It’s not simply a question of money, but of life, living in guilt and fear, struggling with the horrors of childhood, and its impact upon one’s working life.
“I do not accept their apology, and thus again seek further discussion as to why they treated me in this manner and how they will assure me of my welfare.”
He is hoping that Crabb will agree to meet him to discuss his treatment.
He added: “In the Irish Republic they have a small government agency that specifically assists abuse survivors. Here we are alone and it’s not acceptable.
“My human rights were violated as a child and since. Both government and wider society need to stop, listen and act accordingly.”
An Atos spokeswoman said: “We apologise for any distress caused; the letter referred to was sent in error.”
A DWP spokesman said this morning (Thursday) that the review of David’s PIP claim had begun in June 2015 but the department had “made a special decision” to delay his reassessment for a year.
He said that procedures had been followed for cases in which a vulnerable claimant had failed to return their PIP2 claim form, and that Atos had contacted one of David’s GPs to gather information about his claim in an attempt to see if it was possible to carry out a paper-based assessment of his PIP eligibility.
DWP said David’s entitlement to PIP ended on 16 June and he would receive his last payment on 30 June. He said that David was still receiving ESA.
The spokesman added: “In summary [David] is still being reassessed for PIP and the department are accommodating him under additional support procedures.
“In order to continue to receive PIP he must be reassessed.
“This reassessment is in progress and may not require any contact with [David].
“We are awaiting evidence from his GP, and once we receive it we will be able to judge if it provides enough information for a paper-based decision to be made.”
Despite promising to do so, the spokesman failed to respond to concerns about Tomlinson’s apparent harassment of a vulnerable benefit claimant, and why DWP was refusing to exempt David from the reassessment process until the end of the trial.
*Not his real name
23 June 2016