Up until the winter of 2014, Mary (not her real name) was employed by a not-for-profit organisation helping jobseekers look for work and assisting disabled clients to navigate the social security system. For years she loved her job and her face lit-up as she talked fondly of her pride in helping people to get the benefits and support they were entitled to. It was May 2014 and Mary received some devastating news, her consultant told her she had cancer for the second time in ten years and this time it was in her stomach. Doctors told her she’d need intensive treatment from the off and they felt the cancer was already showing signs of moving further into her digestive tract.
Treatment started with surgery to remove part of the stomach and within weeks, Mary started her first course of chemotherapy. It wasn’t long before it took its toll and Mary reluctantly agreed that she could no longer continue in work while balancing her treatment. She was in constant pain and discomfort and struggled to keep solid food down.
Being so used to helping others in their hour of need meant that Mary knew the support she was entitled to and she applied for both Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP). The ESA was sorted quite quickly but the PIP application dragged on and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided they wanted her to attend a medical assessment in Glasgow which she duly attended. She says the experience left her feeling humiliated and angry as the final report sent to the DWP bore little resemblance to her answers or her conditions and how they affected her. Mary asked for a mandatory reconsideration (precursor to an appeal) and the DWP decision maker overturned the decision and awarded her enhanced daily living and standard mobility.
Mary’s treatment had long concluded but she was left in chronic pain and with an inability to eat much by the way of solid foods and in October 2016 doctors said they had found more cancer and this time it was in her bowel. She was shocked, confused and angry; and the news floored her. Normally upbeat and positive, Mary found herself spiraling into a deep depression and with the doctors telling her that treatment would start almost immediately, she broke down and she tells me for three weeks she wouldn’t answer the phone and she wouldn’t leave the house. Following further surgery and her commencement of further chemotherapy, a support worker ex-colleague of Mary’s advised her that she should let the DWP know her condition had deteriorated and ask them to look at increasing the PIP award. She contacted the DWP in January 2017 and nearly three months later the DWP wrote to Mary to advise her they’d looked at their decision again but in their wisdom they had decided she was receiving too much and should only be receiving standard rate daily living with the mobility component removed entirely. That’s where my relationship with Mary began.
Mary reached out to me for assistance in appealing the decision and she told me her life ‘would be over’ if the DWP cut her PIP so drastically, she couldn’t see a way through it. I helped Mary write a request for a mandatory reconsideration and I assisted her in identifying and obtaining as much supporting evidence as she could. We sent over 30 pages of additional evidence to the DWP including details of her current battle with cancer and the two which came before. It took a number of weeks but we received a letter from the DWP advising that they had upheld their assessment and Mary’s benefit would be cut by nearly £50 per week. From the moment the letter hit the doormat, Mary said she couldn’t sleep properly and she reported being “terrified” of what her life would become if her support payments were slashed. Mary’s brother told me that she couldn’t stop thinking about it and she became increasingly withdrawn and would have regular panic attacks. In light of all this we wrote back to the DWP advising them we intended to appeal and we lodged the relevant papers with the tribunal.
I spoke to Mary on the telephone a week ago today and reminded her that one of our volunteers would be calling round to see her on Tuesday. On the call she told me for the first time in months, she had slept right through, for the full night on Sunday. She felt a bit more relaxed and she seemed much more positive and upbeat. We had made plans for the volunteer to run through some diaries Mary had kept and for us to look at other support she may be entitled to. On Tuesday as my volunteer ran through the evidence with Mary sitting in her comfy chair; Mary closed her eyes and died peacefully.
Mary was happy for me to discuss her experience as part of a case study and in keeping with this wish, her brother consented for me to tell you her story. Since the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition we have seen a ramping up of rhetoric against disabled people and those who are chronically ill. We see a system which has lost sight of the needs of the individual and policies which are so focussed on reducing welfare spending at all costs that it views the deaths of claimants as collateral damage. One less benefit to pay.
Rest in peace Mary.
Mary is a moniker chosen by the client’s brother and in keeping with his wishes; care has been taken to ensure that she cannot be identified from the story above.