By John Pring Disability News Service August 17th 2017
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has broken its promises not to harass a traumatised benefit claimant while he waits to give vital evidence in a child abuse trial.
Last year, DWP publicly apologised – although not directly to David* – after repeatedly contacting him about his claim for personal independence payment (PIP), even though it had been told not to do so by the police.
Justin Tomlinson, the then minister for disabled people, even threatened last year to stop David’s benefits if he failed to co-operate with a PIP reassessment provided by the DWP contractor Atos.
He was also harassed last year over his claim for the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance by another government contractor, Maximus, which told him to attend a face-to-face work capability assessment, warning him that his claim could be affected if he failed to attend.
David* is a key witness in the trial, which is set to take place later this year, and has been told by police not to discuss his case, or allow DWP or Atos – or Maximus – access to his medical records, because the court proceedings are live and the case is sub judice.
He has severe post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by the horrific sexual abuse he suffered as a child, and which has led to several suicide attempts.
The toll of the criminal investigation on his mental health has also been harrowing, resulting in a series of self-harm episodes.
But even after Atos was told not to contact him about his PIP claim, the company continued to pester him.
Eventually, on 20 June last year, a DWP spokesman told Disability News Service (DNS): “We apologise to the individual for any distress caused, the letter referred to was sent in error.
“Both we and Atos fully appreciate the sensitivities of the individual’s case, and he will not be contacted again while his court case is in progress.”
But little more than a year later, with the trial yet to take place, David has been contacted yet again, with Atos demanding that he attends a face-to-face PIP assessment.
David told DNS that he viewed DWP with “the same contempt” that he viewed his abuser, because of the harm it has inflicted on him.
He said: “It is horrendous treatment by our government.
“It is humiliating and denigrating. It is hard enough to recover from sexual violence without DWP plaguing you.”
He lodged a complaint with the police last year about the harassment he had experienced at the hands of DWP and its contractors.
Now he is asking again for a ministerial meeting so he can raise this “horrendous treatment”.
An Atos spokesman has made it clear to DNS that DWP failed to include any note asking it not to contact David on the most recent file it received about his PIP claim.
Following repeated promises that it would comment, over nearly six days, DWP finally produced a statement shortly after 12.30pm today (Thursday).
A DWP spokesman said Atos had decided that a face-to-face assessment was “appropriate” because of “a lack of up-to-date medical evidence and also the fact that the claimant has not returned a health questionnaire since 2013”.
He said: “The claimant was sent a standard information pack on reassessment and was not contacted directly [DNS has seen an appointment letter, with directions to his assessment, that was sent to David by Atos on 13 August].
“DWP staff had previously been advised that the trial would likely have begun and ended by this point which was why the claimant was contacted in this indirect manner.
“Due to the on-going nature of a sensitive court case the claimant is involved in, DWP will continue to pay the remaining 10 months of the claimant’s PIP award without further assessment.
“Moving forward, DWP officials will need to make periodic inquiries about the status of the case, perhaps with the claimant’s GP, police or courts, to monitor the status of the trial.”
The user-led organisation Disabled Survivors Unite (DSU), which supports disabled survivors of abuse and sexual violence, said the “continued harassment” of David was “completely unacceptable”.
He said that ministers “do not usually meet with an individual on a case-by-case basis regarding PIP claims except in their constituencies”.
Alice Kirby, a DSU co-founder, said: “At an extremely difficult time in his life, he is being failed by a broken social security system which is depersonalised to such a degree there is no room for people to be treated as humans.
“This system is incapable of being empathetic or understanding, and people like David are suffering as a result.
“In David’s case, the DWP have been clearly instructed by the police not to contact him until the trial is over, at times they have agreed to comply, but despite this, they have continued to request he attends assessments and threaten to stop his benefits.
“By doing so they are wilfully causing David’s health to deteriorate, and in turn, this could potentially compromise his ability to give evidence.
“Worryingly, should David be assessed without the medical evidence which legally cannot be accessed until the trial is over, it’s unlikely his claim would be successful.
“He could lose his income and the impact this would have on David’s health and well-being would be devastating.”
David’s treatment highlights once again the continuing concerns about DWP’s policies and procedures for dealing with “vulnerable” people, an issue highlighted by DNS last year 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 on assessing people for disability benefits were putting the lives of vulnerable claimants at risk.
*Not his real name