Emily and Michael Bispham (Photo: cascadenews.co.uk)
A 44 year old man suffered his third heart attack after being refused disability benefits and being forced to work. Michael Bispham, who had already suffered two heart attacks, collapsed with a third on the day he started work as a delivery driver, just three hours into his shift.
He had been awarded zero points at his Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and was told he was not eligible to claim sickness benefit and must look for work.
Michael was told he was found “fit for work” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), despite 11 letters from consultants and other doctors that clearly stated he wasn’t.
Yet he received confirmation that he had won his Employment and Support Allowance tribunal – reversing the DWP decision – as he lay in hospital following his heart attack in work.
Michael had been fitted with a cardiac defibrillator – a device that delivers electric shocks as a treatment for life-threatening cardiac dysrhythmias – before he started work on February 13.
As a delivery driver, Michael was forced into an unacceptable situation of risk, both to himself and to others, potentially, through no fault of his own.
Anyone who has seen the film I, Daniel Blake will probably recognise parallels. It’s a work of art that really does imitate real life.
In February, the employer relationship manager at Jobcentre Plus in Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, who is based at the branch featured in the film I, Daniel Blake, said: “I, Daniel Blake is a representation … I hope people don’t think the film is a documentary, because it’s a story that doesn’t represent the reality we work in.”
“My team and I try to treat people as individuals, and we care about the work we do,” he told the Guardian. “There will be times when we get it wrong, but I don’t believe we are ever as wrong as how we are portrayed in this film.
“I remember talking about the film in the canteen. We were concerned about how it might affect our relationship with the people we were trying to help find work. How would they react to it?”
Ken Loach, however, defended the authenticity and realism of the film’s content. “I challenge anyone to find a single word in that film that isn’t true,” he said.
I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a joiner who has had a heart attack, and is no longer able to work. However, he becomes caught up in the nightmare bureacracy of the welfare state, is passed as “fit for work” at his Work Capability Assessment, and is told he has to look for work. He suffers a second attack just before his tribunal, as a consequence of the sustained psychological distress and strain he experiences because of the punitive Conservative welfare “reforms”.
Damian Green, the work and pensions secretary, said the film was “monstrously unfair” – though he added he had not seen it.
Michael’s wife, Emily, would disagree.
Emily has spoken out about the distress of helping Michael to recover, while having to fight the “horrendous and unfair” benefits system she says is designed to make “honest people feel worthless”.
She says: “My husband scored zero points when he was assessed for employment support allowance.
“He’d already had two heart attacks. That should have been it.
“We knew he was too poorly, we submitted 11 letters about his condition from consultants and the hospital, but they declared him fit to work.
“It nearly killed him. I’m so angry about it.
“Just when we needed help and support, we had to navigate the system with pages of forms.
“They stopped any money because he was no longer able to job seek and we were told to start from the beginning and apply again for the ESA he’d been turned down for in the first place.
“We had nothing for three weeks at what was the worst time of our lives. It was so difficult.”
Emily was forced to stop work herself last year after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. She is hoping to return to work as soon as she is well enough, though Crohn’s disease is a chronic illness.
She said: “We were just normal people with jobs. We’ve got a mortgage. This could happen to anyone. But the way you are treated by the government is appalling.
“Basically, it’s a case of guilty until proven innocent at these assessments. You are there to prove you’re not making it up.
A DWP spokesperson, giving what has become a standardised and somewhat meaningless response, said: “The decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment, including all available evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist.
“Anyone who disagrees with the outcome of their assessment can appeal.”
However, recently a Freedom of Information (FoI) request showed that controversial targets exist within the DWP that prompt decision makers carrying out mandatory reconsiderations of DWP decisions to favour their original decision, regardless of the evidence submitted and the quality and appropriateness of the original decision. Appeals cannot go ahead until the mandatory reconsideration has been carried out.
The key measures which are used by the Department for Work and Pensions to monitor Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) Performance are:
a) 90% to be cleared within target.
b) 80% of the original decisions are to be upheld.
The performance measures for April 2016 – March 2017 are:
% MR Cleared within target = 70.2%
% MR Original Decision Upheld = 87.5%
This means that DWP “reconsiderations” are not objective, as they are likely to be favourable towards the original DWP decision.
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