May 19th, 2018
A disabled woman from Luton has been found dead in her home after having a “massive heart attack”. Sandra Burns was repeatedly denied Employment Support Allowance (ESA) by the DWP over a five-year period.
Heartbreakingly, her struggle is commonplace in Britain’s benefits system.
Debt and anxiety
Burns was found dead on 16 April, collapsed at the bottom of the stairs in her home. Her brother painted a desperate picture of her death:
She was surrounded by letters informing her that the gas, electricity, water, telephone and television were all in danger of being cut off. This debt and anxiety lay all around her on the floor.
Burns suffered from chronic back pain due to five fused vertebrae, rendering her unable to work since 2010. She failed a number of benefits assessments over a five-year period, but she successfully challenged them all on appeal. In a letter sent to the DWP before her death, she wrote:
I am old school and would still be working if I could do it. Do you think I would be silly enough to do this? I have always worked. Why do they think it’s ok to treat me like this? It’s not acceptable.
In response to Burns’ death, the DWP issued the following statement:
Our thoughts are with Ms Burns’ family. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that people get the support they’re entitled to. Assessments are carried out by qualified healthcare professionals who look at how someone’s disability or health condition impacts them on a day-to-day basis.
Currently, the company Independent Assessment Services (IAS) carries out the bulk of assessments. IAS was formerly called Atos Healthcare. Her brother claims Atos:
based their assessment on the fact she could walk the five or six steps of the stairwell to the interview room … She described how one man said, ‘I’ve been watching you walk from the waiting room and as far as I’m concerned, you’re fit for work’.
Burns successfully appealed every negative decision, which challenges the DWP’s claim it is “committed to ensuring that people get the support they are entitled to.”
Unfortunately, Burns’ treatment by the DWP is not remotely surprising. Atos Healthcare, now called IAS, exited its contract to deliver ESA assessments in 2015. However, new provider the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments has continued its shocking legacy. So far in 2017-2018, 68% of the DWP’s negative ESA decisions – based on the assessments the company provides to it – have been reversed upon appeal.
The process of appealing is incredibly stressful for claimants. Burns’ brother described how:
appeals would take six to eight months. Every single time, she won the appeal and got a backdated payment. But in that period, she would get into debt and lose her credit rating.
A former Atos employee recently revealed to the Daily Mirror that assessors were offered financial incentives to finish assessments quickly. This was for the PIP benefit, which covers more severe disabilities. All the while the DWP continues to pay out massive staff bonuses and attempts to coerce GPs into saying disabled people are fit-for-work.
In trying to make sense of his sister’s death, Burns’ brother concluded:
It was terrible heartbreak and I just feel it could have all been avoided… everyone is treated as cheats or maybe the DWP have an agenda. Whatever it is, it’s putting people like Sandra under incredible amounts of stress.
If a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable, then Tory Britain is failing.