A House of Commons inquiry into disability benefits has heard from more than 3,000 people in despair at the system, including dozens who say they have been driven to suicidal thoughts by the process.
Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions committee, said it would be usual to receive about 100 responses, but the inquiry had been deluged by people sharing stories about being denied disability benefits or battles to keep their entitlements.
The evidence includes testimony from many saying their mental health had deteriorated as a result of trying to claim the employment support allowance (ESA) for daily living costs and/or the personal independence payment (PIP) to cover the extra costs caused by long-term disability.
It comes after longstanding concerns among mental health groups, medical professionals, user groups and MPs about the operation of both benefits, which see claimant assessments run by outsourced providers and final decisions made by officials at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
The submissions included more than 100 people reporting that they or someone they care for feels their suicidal feelings have worsened or been triggered by the process.
Andrew H, who has post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the armed forces, described how “this whole experience has left me on the verge of suicide [and] makes me wonder why did I put up with the things I had to do in Northern Ireland or clearing bodies from mass war graves in Bosnia”.
Claire, who has mental health problems, wrote to the committee to say: “The assessor had to write things like if you were ‘rocking’, which made me feel like the DWP got their ideas of mental illness from fiction books … I had to fill the form in again recently and I believe that this has triggered another crisis period, which meant that I ended up attempting suicide.”
Carolyn T, who has depression, anxiety and panic attacks, told the MPs: “I already feel worthless, having no family or friends, but to feel like a parasite and harassed by the DWP is making me feel suicidal and I’m trying so hard to keep myself from ending it all.”
Several common themes arise in the complaints from claimants, including:
- Medically inappropriate questions. Charities reported clients being asked by assessors where they had “caught” Down’s syndrome from or how long they had suffered from spina bifida;
- A mismatch between what the claimants had told assessors about their conditions and what the written reports about them said. One person who is a telephony agent at the ESA benefit inquiry line wrote in to say: “Customers are always saying the DWP decision-makers’ written report doesn’t reflect what happened in the assessment room.”
- Assessors overlooking disabilities or illnesses that are not immediately visible. One respondent called Lisa said: “If you look well enough then you don’t get it. I’m struggling to live on the £73 a week, I’m not sure I can cope with being turned down again. Have even considered suicide. I’m at my wits’ end, please help.”
Field, a former Labour welfare minister, said the whole system was “not controlling expenditure and had a huge human cost”.
He added: “These are carefully written pleas of anguish and for help from individuals. This system is acting as a concrete block on the top of people rather than acting as a floor from which people can build security through their own efforts. It’s just absolutely dreadful.
“We expected to get about 100 letters and we have had over 3,000 and they are still coming in although it is after the date. We’ve never had a tidal wave like this. None of these are campaign letters, which we have discounted. We have only kept those from people who have have spent huge time and effort to portray the misery of what has resulted for them.”
He said the disability benefits would be “the next thing on the stocks for long-term reform” after the chancellor announced some changes to the universal credit benefit system in the budget to ease hardship for claimants.
An official review found distrust in the operation of PIP last March, which the government is due to respond to by the end of the year.
The DWP defended the system in its evidence to the inquiry. It said the number of wrong decisions remained low, with only 8% of 2.3m ESA decisions and 2.6m PIP decisions appealed and 4% overturned. However, critics say that means around half of the decisions that reach the stage of appeal are later reversed.
The department said the majority of claimants were satisfied with their treatment by the system, which involves three outsourced providers: Maximus, Atos and Capita.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We always aim to provide the very best service to people with disabilities and health conditions. That’s why assessments are carried out by qualified healthcare professionals who have at least two years of practical experience and must be registered with a medical body.
“The latest official research shows that 76% of PIP claimants and 83% of ESA claimants are satisfied with their overall experience.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010