I was going to blog about this myself but one of the people involved asked to do so instead. This is her account of trying to claim ESA for her sick partner. I was present during both phone calls made and was disgusted with the result. I have not been so angry in a very long time. This guest post is written by my real life friend and Dragon Dictate, spell check by WordPress and me. Names changed.
EDITED TO ADD: we have no idea if what Thomas’s partner was told by the DWP call centre is actually correct and haven’t been able to speak with anyone yet to have the situation clarified. If you can clarify please do so in comments at bottom of page. Can do so anonymously. Will update when we know more.
Our Joint Claim for Employment Support Allowance.
My partner, Thomas, recently became severely ill with a relapse of Bipolar Disorder. He had been getting more and more hyper and one day he woke up and was psychotic. I had never seen him like that before and was shocked at how quickly he changed. He couldn’t move for fear of everything real and imaginary. He was diagnosed Bipolar over a decade ago but hadn’t been too ill with it until recently. He was unable to work and lost his job and it was suggested by Citizens Advice that he applied for Employment and Support Allowance to tide him over until he was well enough to return to work. I, myself, am in receipt of Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living allowance for degenerative illnesses and disability.
Thomas made the phone call to apply for ESA using our mobile phone as we do not have a landline. We are waiting to see how much it will have cost us. It took almost an hour to complete the call and when he hung up he broke down in tears. Throughout the call he was holding back tears as they asked him violating and very personal questions about his illness, his work, his income and everything else. Oddly they asked about my illnesses too, and my inability to work and my income. Not once was Thomas told why they needed my information, even when he asked the lady direct. When the application arrived a few days later we both looked over it and a lot of the information was wrong. They also wanted letters of proof from both of us on income matters. I did not understand why they wanted my income proof so we called the ESA line again to ask for advice.
I spoke to the most helpful man I could have hoped to get. He bent the rules quite openly and was honest about a lot of things relating to ESA that I didn’t expect from a member of DWP staff. At first he didn’t understand why they had asked for my information too but eventually he discovered that it was a joint ESA claim. Something we were never informed of at the start of application or by Citizens Advice when they told Thomas to apply.
The DWP man asked what Thomas’s illness was and then said this joint claim was a really bad idea. He told me that someone with Bipolar Disorder wouldn’t pass the Work Capability Assessment so we would both lose our money, regardless of how ill I was. He said we would probably have to wait for an appeal before Thomas would be awarded ESA and that would take about 6 months, and that my illnesses would not be taken into account. After checking with his supervisor he suggested cancelling the claim and adding Thomas to my Incapacity claim as we would be financially safer and better off and that we would not be put through the stressful assessment until I was to be transferred. He then put me through to the Incapacity Benefit people.
The lady working on the Incapacity Benefit line was less than helpful. Her attitude was completely different. She was rude, abrasive and always on the defense. She wouldn’t let me talk or ask my questions and instead got angry at what the man on the ESA line said. While she did apologise for the false information the ESA line gave me, she did so with a sense that somehow I was at fault and was stupid and not them. She told me I could not add Thomas to my claim, that the ESA department had their information all wrong and we would have to apply joint for ESA. She also told me that there was no way the man on the ESA phone line could have known whether Thomas would pass or fail the Assessment. I’ve read the stories, I know who I believe, I know she is technically right but I felt the ESA phone line were being more realistic and honest with me. She also told me we had to put in a joint ESA claim and that we would be better off doing so. I tried to ask her about the make-believe situation where if Thomas failed the Assessment would I lose my money too despite being ill? She would not answer this make-believe situation, instead repeating we don’t know Thomas would fail and giving me confusing information about me still getting Incapacity Benefit credits while claiming ESA. When I asked would I still receive my money? she would not answer and kept giving me information faster and faster making it harder for me to keep track of what she was saying. I told her countless times I was getting confused by all this but it didn’t make her give me information any slower or in clearer words. She also told me that I wouldn’t be on Incapacity for very long anyway as everyone was being transferred to ESA, so why was I worrying?
I’ll explain why I was worrying. The assessment rate for couples on ESA is less than I get claiming Incapacity on my own. If on our joint claim Thomas was found fit for work we would have no income. I’d have lost my incapacity benefit and we couldn’t claim Jobseekers allowance as our respective Doctors would never sign us both off as being fit for work. My conditions are never going to improve and I have been told I will never work again. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with this and the realisation of having no income at all terrifies us. The guilt of not being able to work or support my family is killing me.
The ESA phone line told me if I was the primary claimant with all my conditions we would not have this problem, as I would have no problem with passing the Work Capability Assessment but as I am currently on Incapacity Benefit we have to wait for the system to transfer me. He did say I could cancel my Incapacity claim but that it would take weeks for any new money to come through after reapplying for ESA and that he wouldn’t advise this.
In the end we stopped the ESA claim and haven’t tried to make any other claim. I do not understand how it can be right that a couple both with serious disabilities can in theory be left with no income because one person is deemed fit for work by a computer system. It seems unfair that the most ill out of myself and Thomas could potentially suffer because the person who can appear well occasionally would pass a Work Capability Assessment.
We could not take the risk of losing our entire income based on a dodgy assessment. Combined with the information the people on the dwp phone line gave us, we decided it wasnt worth the risk. We have decided that we will have to survive on my Incapacity Benefit alone as the financial stress of living off a meagre amount is less than the emotional and health related stress of living off nothing.
I’m disappointed that this is how sick people are treated. We have both worked all our lives until we became ill. We have both paid our taxes and contributed to society. When we need the help most, society is failing us. I’m just grateful for our family and friends who are helping us through this difficult time but we cannot rely on them forever.