Flash Says…

Posts Tagged ‘ESA

[This article was published at Where’s the Benefit, where I am one of the team.]

Beryl is a woman in her 50s, who has worked all her life and feels she’s always done an honest life’s work. She works as a piano tuner – a very physical job, but one she loves and had every intention of continuing until retirement. That is, until she fell ill, in May 2010. At that point, she hoped that the system would provide for her…

Beryl went to A&E in May 2010 barely able to breathe and was told she had dry pleurisy and a collapsed lung. She struggled for every step, fighting to put one foot in front of the other, as she could barely get enough oxygen into her body. Yet when she applied for ESA and attended a medical in this state, she was passed fit for work. The Atos doctor did not even notice that Beryl was presenting with a collapsed lung.

Not being awarded a benefit to which she was entitled, while clearly unable to work, put Beryl into a difficult situation. From having been able to afford what she needed, Beryl had to adjust, juggling household money in order to keep her business afloat, paying bills for things such as a Yellow Pages advert taken out in good faith, but with several months yet to pay.

“It’s not the money,” she told me, “it’s that they don’t believe you. Every time you speak to people on the phone they say ‘I’m sorry to bother you, I can hear that you’re ill’ but the powers that be have decided that I’m fit to work.”

Beryl appealed. She wrote to her MP, and sent a bundle of supporting evidence to the Job Centre, including letters from her GP and her consultant stating that she could barely walk or breathe, and that it would be at least a year before Beryl could hope to have recovered, if indeed she would recover at all. The appeal was heard in December 2010. However, they did not consider any of the new evidence – it was a mere rubberstamp exercise, to confirm the original decision. Although Beryl was too weak to leave the house, now relying on neighbours to bring food and help her to manage, the Job Centre decided she was fit and able to return to work.

Fortunately, Beryl was awarded Disability Living Allowance and a Blue Badge which has helped her to some extent; she won these on the same evidence presented for her ESA application. She has also applied for a tribunal for her ESA, which means that she has to be paid until the tribunal is heard, but she will still have to go through the stress of a hearing to prove entitlement, something Beryl is dreading.

The MP has written asking the Department of Work and Pensions to investigate, and for a copy of their files, but has had no reply.

Beryl is still very unwell. Although she now has a diagnosis, there are no guarantees as to what level her health can be restored – she may be disabled for the rest of her life, and will certainly remain seriously ill for the near future. However, she is still being chased by the Job Centre, because as far as they’re concerned there’s nothing wrong with her.

A lovely lady works all her life, builds up a successful business, pays her taxes – and then the system lets her down when she needs it most. Ten months from when she fell ill Beryl still hasn’t been awarded ESA, but as she can barely manage to make a cup of tea she certainly couldn’t return to work. This is the system we trust to support us when we need it most. The system, quite frankly, is screwed.

It emerged last week that the credit reference agency Experian is in talks to do a deal with the Government to try and unearth benefit cheats. It would earn a “bounty” for each person it exposes. To my mind, this is a pointless exercise and full of flaws.

Experian already have a contract with the government to check housing benefit claimants, and say they have saved £17m. Now, they are being more ambitious and claim they could save £1.5bn every year by checking up on those who receive other benefits.

Credit reference agencies keep a record of how much was spent on credit cards each month, and whether it was repaid on time. Presumably then, they intend to identify those on income-related benefits, and see whether their spending patterns exceed their benefit payments – then shop them to the Government.

There are so many reasons why this would not work. For a start, although the Daily Mail would have you believe otherwise, there are not many benefit fraudsters and so Experian would be looking for a needle in a haystack. The amount of work involved may be uneconomical, compared with the payment for identifying a cheat.

Credit card payments could genuinely exceed income, while still being paid off on time. For example, how many times have you slapped down your card at a group meal, then scooped up everyone else’s cash? Or filled your car up with petrol for a big trip, while collecting money from your mates for sharing the journey with them? Even grocery shopping can be organised in this way, perhaps shopping with your mum, putting it all on your own card, then sorting it out at home. I often add items to my weekly supermarket shop for an elderly neighbour, who then repays me in cash. These are common situations, but all that Experian will see is the amount that hits your credit card every month, no matter whether you received money back.

Even at work, this situation occurs. For example, I regularly buy website hosting and domains for customers at around £70 each. This is at cost price which the customer repays in full, and it’s matched up in my accounts. But say I bought 5 of these packages for new customers each month – effectively just ordering the hosting packages with the customers’ own money, to make their lives easier – to Experian it would look like I was spending £350 more than the income I’ve declared receiving, because they only see one side of the story.

So what will Experian really be able to tell the benefits agencies, other than adding a level of confusion?

It is a serious concern that Experian would be paid a bounty for each case. This makes me worry that their staff will become overly suspicious – perhaps putting forward marginal cases – in the hope that they will strike gold. As Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, says, “What we must not do is create a benefit equivalent of parking attendants who are wanting to find people guilty … because that is the way they get paid.” The parking attendant analogy is a good one; in the past I have received tickets when I was doing nothing wrong. The attendant must have known I’d get off on appeal (which I did) but hoped that I would accept the fine and assume that I must have done something wrong, simply because an authority said so – thus lining his pocket in the process. Experian’s involvement is bound to promote an increase in fraud investigations, but it is critical that any approach to a benefit claimant should be gentle and presume innocence – at the moment very frightening letters are sent out to vulnerable people – in one case I discovered recently, the recipient was scared into giving up disability benefits to which they were genuinely entitled, just to be certain that they would never receive such a letter again.

At the moment, many people who legitimately claim benefits are worried about fraud allegations – you just have to read disability-related messageboards to see this concern. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail are quick to pounce on any genuine or high-profile cases that they can find, giving the false impression that there are many cheats and misleading people into being overly suspicious. I remember being worried when a neighbour, who I had spoken to a few times over my front gate, said “Flash, you’re not disabled are you?” – after all if he thought this, what might any investigator or passer by think, when seeing me walk unaided the few metres to my blue-badged car? Yet if they assumed I can walk far, or walk without pain, they would be wrong.

We are in danger of becoming a suspicious society, ready to shop our neighbours when the reality is that we know nothing about their situation. From what I can see, Experian’s involvement in detecting benefit fraud would reinforce that, without adding any value or detecting the genuine – but very few – cheats in the system.