By John Pring Disability News Service 23rd February 2017
A disabled woman who took her own life after being told she had lost a benefits appeal had written a letter to civil servants describing the unfairness of the face-to-face assessment that had led to her losing her support.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) took just six days to decide her initial appeal, not long enough for Susan Roberts to submit any evidence that could have backed up her claim for personal independence payment (PIP).
A DWP civil servant even told her – in a letter dismissing this initial appeal, known as a mandatory reconsideration – that there was no evidence that she could have submitted that would have changed her mind.
Two months later, she received another letter, this time telling her that a tribunal had also rejected her appeal.
The body of Susan Roberts was discovered the following day by a care worker at her warden-assisted flat near Tunbridge Wells, Kent, surrounded by letters telling her that she would not be entitled to PIP.
She had also placed a note by her side that informed healthcare professionals that she did not want them to attempt to resuscitate her.
An inquest into the 68-year-old’s death did not record a verdict of suicide, but her daughter is convinced that she took her own life, because of the way she died, and because her body was discovered surrounded by her PIP paperwork and the “do not resuscitate” notice.
Hayley Storrow-Servranckx is convinced that her mother would still be alive today if it was not for the flawed PIP system, and the assessment she had been given by an Atos healthcare professional.
Disability News Service (DNS) first reported on the case last week but has now seen the letters Susan Roberts left beside her when she died.
She had previously received an indefinite award of disability living allowance, at the higher rate of mobility and the low rate of care, but the documents show that she was told by DWP on 19 February 2016 that she was not entitled to PIP.
She scribbled several notes on this letter, showing where she disagreed with the conclusions that had been reached following her face-to-face assessment.
The documents suggest that the assessor – and then the DWP decision-maker – decided that she could wash and bathe unaided, manage her own toilet needs without any help, express and understand verbal information and engage with other people unaided, walk more than 200 metres, and plan and follow the route of a journey without help, and could do all of these things safely, reliably and repeatedly.
But she said that she could not do any of these things.
Among the documents seen by DNS is a letter she wrote on 29 February. It appears that she had intended to send it to the DWP decision-maker who was considering her mandatory reconsideration.
But a DWP notification that told her that the mandatory reconsideration had already been rejected appears to have arrived before she had a chance to send her letter.
DWP had taken just six days to reject her appeal, with a civil servant telling her that “it was not felt any further evidence we received would change the findings based on your assessment”, and again giving her zero points for every single PIP criteria.
In her letter, she had written: “I request that you read this through carefully – this is my life after all, and I am in a considerable state of depression at the moment, after receiving your decision about my claim for PIP.”
She describes the impact of ME on her daily life, which she said provided a window of just two or three hours every day in which she was free of symptoms such as exhaustion, dizziness and inability to concentrate.
She says she has chronic, progressive ischaemic heart disease, and was experiencing “excruciating pain” from a gall bladder that could not be removed because of her heart condition.
Her letter also describes how a care worker visited her every day to provide painful rectal irrigation and then give her a shower, how she was deeply depressed and had been so “for a long time”, and that her doctor knew that she wanted to die.
It also says that she would be “virtually housebound” without her Motability vehicle – which she had had to return after losing her higher rate mobility benefits – and that she had been considered too ill to work since 2001.
She says in the letter: “The over-riding problem I have is that my ME – for 80 per cent of every day of my life – renders me incapable of all else except deep and prolonged sleep!!
“When I first had a DLA car, I had good days and bad days – I do not have anything but bad days every day now.”
It is not clear whether this or any other similar letter were ever posted, but she asked the tribunal to hear her appeal based only on written documents, and she was told, in a letter sent on 17 May, that that appeal had been rejected.
The tribunal had granted her six points for her daily living needs, not enough to claim even the standard daily living rate of PIP, and zero points again for mobility. By this time she had had to return her Motability car.
She took her own life on 19 May, which it is now believed was just a day after she received the letter from the tribunal.
There have been many cases involving deaths connected with claims for out-of-work disability benefits and the work capability assessment (WCA) system, but this appears to be the first time a death has been closely linked to someone losing their support in the move from DLA to PIP.
DNS has now collected many more than 100 cases of PIP claimants who have raised serious concerns about their assessments, following a two-month investigation that suggests an institutional problem that spreads across DWP and the two private sector contractors – Atos and Capita – that assess PIP eligibility on its behalf.
Last week, a DWP spokeswoman insisted there was “no evidence to suggest any link” between the death of Susan Roberts and her benefit claim, and that neither DWP nor Atos believed they had made any mistakes in this case, pointing out that the independent tribunal had “upheld the original decision”.
It had failed to comment on the latest information by noon today (Thursday).
Atos does not currently respond to requests to comment on stories from DNS.