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Thursday, 27 November 2014

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Disabled live in fear of benefit crackdown

A GROWING number of disabled people in north Cumbria are now living in a “climate of fear” because of a tough crackdown on benefits.

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Sue Thomson: ‘People feel fearful and hounded’

Disability campaigners say many claimants feel “hounded” by officials and have to fight harder than ever to keep their benefits, with even some terminally-ill people being told they are fit for work.

In Carlisle and Eden, one organisation says that the demand for help has risen so sharply that they must now frequently turn people away.

In west Cumbria, one campaigner said the number of tribunals brought by people turned down for benefits such as Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is at record levels.

Sue Thomson, a benefits rights adviser with the Disability Association Carlisle & Eden, said: “ESA replaced incapacity benefit and it’s the one for people who are not well enough to work, and that’s the one we’re finding there are huge problems with.

“There are very poorly people being deemed fit for work, and a lot of people with severe mental health problems. We have people coming into our office who can barely walk who have not been awarded sufficient points for them to get the benefit.

“People feel fearful and hounded by the constant assessments that they have to go through. Yet fewer than one per cent of the claims made are fraudulent.”

The association has increasingly represented claimants taking the DWP to tribunals over medical assessments which they say wrongly deem them fit for work.

Last year, Ms Thomson represented 37 people at tribunals – twice as many as the previous year. In the previous year, the association helped 640 clients in Carlisle and Eden.

Ms Thomson said: “I’ve been doing this job for seven years and since the ESA changes came in four years ago there’s been a huge increase in the number of tribunals we attend.

“I think it’s going to get worse, and it’s now much harder to get DLA. I represented one woman at a tribunal who couldn’t get out of her chair without help. It was a massive battle to get her DLA.

“We are now working to capacity and can’t physically meet the demand that we get for help”

Sue said the medical assessment process was flawed because it often failed to properly identify people clearly unfit medically to work.

Those stripped of ESA can lose more than £30 a week as they are switched to Job Seekers Allowance.

Stella Howarth, chairwoman of Allerdale Disability Association, said: “We’ve had people who are terminally ill who have been refused DLA and by the time their tribunal comes they have died.

“Disabled people are very, very frightened. The vulnerable are being hit.

“People struggle because it can take three months to sort out their other benefits. You only have to look at how busy foodbanks are in Cumbria – 420 food parcels were handed out by the foodbank in Cockermouth over Christmas.”

Eighteen months ago, Cumbria Mental Health Group said the tough benefits regime was triggering relapses for some patients.

Gill Puncher, from the group, said: “Mental health services in Cumbria are seeing a significant rise in anxiety levels and deterioration in the mental health of their service users due to issues around the Work Capability Assessments.”

By last March, 333,000 people nationally had gone to tribunal to appeal against an employment and support allowance (ESA) ruling since 2009.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The Government is absolutely committed to supporting disabled people and continues to spend over £50bn a year on support for disabled people and their services.

“Our welfare reforms will ensure the billions we spend, better reflect today’s understanding of disability and offer the targeted support disabled people need to live independent lives.”

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