Hastings people with illness and disabilities hardest hit by benefit ‘crisis’, says expert

Becky Polain has worked solely in the benefits system since leaving college
Becky Polain has worked solely in the benefits system since leaving college

A specialist in welfare benefits says she has witnessed first hand the ‘destruction of a support system’ designed to help those in need in some of the poorest parts of the country, including Hastings.

Becky Polain has worked solely in benefits since leaving college.

She has spent 12 and a half years with the DSS/Department for Work and Pensions and nine and a half years with the charity Hastings Advice and Representation Centre which specialises in welfare benefit advice.

She said: “I have witnessed the systematic destruction of a support system, designed to help those that need it most, to create a widespread situation of poverty, ill-health and despair.

“This may sound overly dramatic, but it is exactly what has been happening, especially since the introduction of ‘austerity’ and the disastrous ‘welfare reforms’.

“Arguably, the hardest hit have been those with illness and disabilities.”

Becky said the bulk of her work currently revolves around the benefits Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Universal Credit (UC).

Of these cases, Becky says the majority are concerning poor assessments that need to be appealed.

She added: “Over 95 per cent of the cases we take on are won at tribunal with an increased rate of benefit.

“We are finding that the health care professionals who carry out these assessments are completing reports that are regularly inaccurate.”

According to Becky, this process has left people feeling ‘desperate and undervalued’ by being made to feel as if they are lying or being targeted.

She added: “Despite most appeals being successful, a claimant may have to wait over a year from the initial decision to their case being heard at a tribunal.

“The knock on effect of this cannot be underestimated.”

What has the Department of Work and Pensions said?

A spokesman for the Department of Work and Pensions disputed Becky’s claim saying it was ‘untrue’ ESA and PIP assessments were inaccurate.

They said: “Universal Credit replaces a complicated and outdated system that often trapped people on benefits.

“Where there are problems we are addressing them – like providing 100 per cent advances repayable over a year and putting a further £4.5 billion into the system to ensure no-one loses out.

“It is untrue to claim that ESA and PIP assessments are inaccurate, they are carried out by medical professionals who understand that everyone’s condition is different. All claimants have the right to an independent appeal and only 4 per cent of all decisions are overturned following that.”

‘Complete overhaul’

Becky says there needs to be a complete overhaul of the assessment process to protect people’s health.

She said: “They suffer financially, having to make decisions between rent, food and bills with what little they have, often falling into debt or becoming homeless.

“This puts greater strain on already overburdened services that have all seen cuts in their budgets, in all sectors. Some people will resort to crime, or turn to self-medication with legal and illegal drugs.

“The impact is felt by the NHS, police, local authorities and social services, to name but a few. The cut in funding to the voluntary sector means that fewer people can be assisted through advice centres, homeless charities and food banks.

“The demand ever increases for the services constantly receive less in funding. It is no coincidence that the demand at the Hastings Food Bank has increased by 87 per cent over the last few years.

“Public awareness is rising with regards to issues such as this, but more people need to get involved.

“Many articles detailing specific experiences of claimants tug at the heartstrings of those already with a social conscience, but will have no effect on those that simply do not care, that have no empathy, and view people claiming benefits as ‘scroungers’. Those are the people we need to target.

“If they are made aware of how much of the tax they pay is being spent on repeated unnecessary assessments, the appeals process, the emergency services, the NHS, etc. maybe they would feel as passionate about this problem as we are.

“If you are concerned about these assessments and the impact they are having on all our lives, please write to your MP, and the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd. She need to hear your experiences. It is time for change.”

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