The day I met Michael* started off much like any other at Citizens Advice, where I volunteer. When we first meet a client we try to assess what the problem is before we ask. Michael wasn’t giving much away, but his expression was belligerent. That’s good, I thought. Better belligerent than cowed.
“I don’t know what I’d do without the CAB,” he blurted suddenly. I glanced at his address and noticed that he lived more than 15 miles away.
For a while now we have had to reduce our working hours because we have had our local authority funding cut and we have a rule that at least one paid staff member must be in the building. There are rumours of other bureaus having to close completely.
“I just received this through the post,” he says, handing me a grubby letter. It was the result of a recent fit-for-work assessment. He had passed as fit and his employment support allowance (ESA) was stopping.
I looked through the results of all the tests he had done. Zero eligibility points for all of them. As his story unfolded I discovered he had mental health issues and had previously scored highly enough to be qualified for ESA.
He had a note from his doctor to say he was unfit for work but he hadn’t included it with his form. Michael was also unaware that his housing benefit and council tax reduction would stop with the ESA. I tried to break the news as gently as possible. He was aghast when I did. I wanted to sink through the floor.
“Do you have any income other than ESA?” He shook his head. “I’ll refer you for a food parcel if you’d like?” He looked down, which I took as agreement. It’s humiliating for a person when they think they have reached that level.
I told him I’d help him with his mandatory reconsideration – we’d have to work fast as we only had a month from the date of the letter to submit the request. After that we could appeal and had a good chance of winning.
The problems in this situation are the stress caused to people already depressed and stressed, and survival until ESA is resumed. If it is resumed.
He told me that several friends have had a similar experience and some had turned to suicide. Sadly, this case is not unusual. It’s the third time in the last two weeks we’ve seen a client with a note from their doctor to say they are unfit for work and yet has been passed as fit for work by the Department for Work and Pensions. What sort of assessment are they getting? All three of the clients had mental health problems.
I advised Michael to get a written note from his doctor documenting his problems and why he is unfit for work and also a list of his medications. The client said he didn’t have any support in the community – no one who would be able to speak for him. Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, he tries to hide his condition. The state used to provide mental health support but that help has been withdrawn.
Desperate clients such as Michael have become more common over the past few years.