I could not look after myself, but the benefits system deemed me fit for work by GlynnePowell


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    'I could not look after myself, but the benefits
    system deemed me fit for work'
    Following a severe stroke, Jan Morgan was shocked at how she was
    treated by the benefits system. Here, she tells her story
   Jan Morgan
   guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 29 May 2012 17.00 BST

    Jan Morgan: ‘The welfare system is predicated on the basis that everyone on
    benefits is feckless’. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

    Some media coverage gives the impres–sion that everyone on benefits is a
    scrounger who doesn't want to work and a drain on "us" honest, hardworking
    taxpayers. But what is it really like to be wholly dependent upon welfare benefits?
    I was a higher-rate taxpayer and home owner. Following the death of my partner in
    2007, I became a single parent and ran my own business. I had no direct contact
    with the benefits system and, if I'm honest, probably read those same headlines and
    thought: "Something should be done".
    Then, in September 2010, I had a brain haemorrhage. This caused a severe stroke
    that left me cognitively and visually impaired, doubly incontinent and totally
    paralysed on my left side. The prognosis was that I would need 24/7 care for the
    rest of my life. I was 50 and my youngest child was aged just 12 years.
    I spent three months in hospital and, after intensive physiotherapy, I can now walk
    slowly with a foot splint and a walking stick. I still have a tendency to fall as my
    balance isn't great. My left arm remains paralysed and I have some subtle cognitive
    difficulties with memory and attention. I have a carer for 14 hours a week. I have not
    been able to work since the stroke. Being on the receiving end of the benefits
system has been an eye-opener, and the most demeaning and soul-destroying
experience of my life.
A friend kindly completed a benefit application on my behalf while I was in hospital.
The day after I was discharged I began the first of many telephone calls to the
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as I hadn't received the expected
benefits. Calls were never answered promptly; I frequently spent 20 minutes on
hold. Hour-long calls were the norm. Just making one or two phone calls a day was
exhausting and draining.
I was politely informed that my benefit had been stopped as my medical certificate
had expired. I had not been aware of the need for any medical certificate. The
woman on the other end seemed to imply that I knew I should be submitting medical
certificates every six weeks. It felt like she thought I was "trying it on".
A supervisor agreed to arrange payments on the basis that I had been in hospital,
as if she were doing me a huge favour, but explained that I would not receive any
more until a medical certificate had been received. It was four days before
Christmas. I was in the process of registering with a new GP. Fortunately, the
hospital agreed to provide me with a new certificate. I thought that would be the end
of the hassle.
January 2011 began with another call to DWP. I couldn't understand why I would
need to keep providing a medical certificate every six weeks when I was paralysed
and still receiving hospital physiotherapy. I applied for free school meals for my
daughter, but was told I was not on a qualifying benefit. At the end of January, the
two-weekly ESA benefit was not paid and I was left with no money again. More
phone calls.
I then received an appointment to attend my Atos Healthcare work capability
assessment (WCA). I contacted Atos to explain my condition and that I couldn't get
to the appointment as I couldn't leave the house on my own. Innocently, I didn't give
the matter another thought, until I received a letter accusing me of failing to attend
my WCA and informing me that I was deemed fit for work and placed in the work-
related activity group.
I was outraged, bewildered and confused. I had carers who came to get me out of
bed, washed and dressed each morning; I couldn't walk without a foot splint or quad
stick. I was at risk of falling, my shoulder was strapped and my left arm remained
paralysed. I was an outpatient still receiving physiotherapy, yet I was deemed fit for
DWP advisers came to my home to conduct my back-to-work interview. I would
have to attend at least five work support sessions, such as helping me to write a CV,
interview practice and one to identify my training needs. The training was limited to
NVQ level 2 (pre-stroke, I had begun a PhD). They pointed out that if I didn't attend
the sessions or give evidence of my job hunting, my benefits would be reduced or
It suddenly began to feel incredibly scary. Was DWP really expecting me to go to
work so soon? I was barely coming to terms with my newly disabled state, I could
not look after myself, but I was "fit for work"?
My local MP, Chris White, contacted Atos and DWP on my behalf. The local welfare
rights team also supported me in submitting an appeal against the work-related
I was in utter despair, worried sick that my benefits would stop. All I wanted to do
was to focus on my physio and recovery. In May 2011, I received notification that my
appeal had been successful and I was moved into the support group, which mean
I was not expected to look for work. My relief was immense. Eight months after the
stroke, I was now able to focus on my recovery.
Subsequently, I received compensation from DWP – an ex-gratia payment of £25
and a further sum of £1.92 in respect to the one phone call they could identify I had
made to them in connection with my benefit. Unexpectedly, I later received a written
apology from Atos Healthcare. But there was no mention of how it would learn from
the mistakes it made in my case to improve future services.
One year on, my challenges are now how to live. The benefits are more than an
8O% reduction in my former income. My only outgoings now are utilities, household
insurance, mobile phone, internet and TV. After these are paid I have very little left
to buy food, or anything else. There is no "spare" money for spontaneity, for treats
or for emergencies. There are times when we have very little food in the house. My
mortgage was large but affordable. Now the benefits cover only a quarter of the
monthly amount. Arrears grow each month. I am at risk of repossession and, given
my age, dependency on benefits and the arrears, I would not be able to obtain a
new mortgage.
The welfare benefits system is predicated on the basis that everyone on benefits is
feckless, and only capable of low-skilled, low-paid employment. There is much talk
about protecting the vulnerable but when you are on the receiving end these
sentiments are nothing but hot air.
The welfare system does need reform, but this needs to start with a change in
attitude at the very top. The reality is that society's most vulnerable are struggling to
survive and are treated with little respect by the system. A society can be judged by
the way it treats its children, elderly and vulnerable. On this test, the UK fails.
• A full-length version of this article appears in the Centre for Economic and Social
Inclusion's spring edition of Working Brief

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