VULNERABLE Irish people could be unknowingly falling into destitution as a result of changes to the benefits system, Luton Irish Forum has warned.
Senior members of the Bedfordshire charity’s welfare outreach team say that radical reform of the way in which those who are ill or disabled receive financial support from the Government is causing scores of eligible claimants to have their benefits cut.
Nicola McLaughlin, the Forum’s Adult Services Coordinator, told The Irish Post that many who have fallen through the net do not realise until it is too late – when they have depleted their savings.
“We have people coming in all the time when the first time they know they need to take action is when there is no money in the bank for them to do their food shopping,” she said.
“These people are totally helpless when their income disappears,” added outreach worker Mary Fitzmaurice.
“Many have been, or will be, facing homelessness and starvation before looking for help. Some don’t even look for help. Currently there is a raised level of concern regarding those with feelings of suicide.”
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) is currently reassessing the claims of 1.5million people who previously received benefits because of disability or illness.
To get the new payment – Employment Support Allowance (ESA) – claimants must prove that they are not “fit for work” by completing an 18-page questionnaire and undergoing a medical examination
The Government claimed a major victory when early figures suggested that a third of previous claimants were fit for work.
But Luton Irish Form says that the cost-cutting reform is driving more and more vulnerable people through its doors. In January alone, the Forum assisted 66 people with an ESA enquiry, twice the number of ESA enquiries received in January 2012.
Ms McLaughlin said that many of the Forum’s new clients have not read letters from the DWP informing them of the change either because they have poor literacy skills or because they are unaware that they are not excluded from the assessment even though a doctor has told them they will never work again.
Those who do not return the questionnaire and miss their face-to-face health assessment are automatically declared fit for work, at which point they stop receiving the benefit.
Although the DWP tries to call claimants to tell them they have been found fit for work, Ms McLaughlin said some of the people the Forum helps have ignored calls because they don’t recognise the number. Others do not understand what they are being told because of mental health issues.
For that reason, the Forum’s welfare team is worried that the most isolated people are suffering in silence.
“About 5.8% of Luton’s population claim ESA and if the same proportion claim in the Irish community, this would already be significantly more than we are currently dealing with,” she said. “And we actually expect the number to be significantly higher in the Irish community because it has a higher incidence of long term sickness and disability.”
The Forum has also seen a dramatic increase in its workload because of the number of time-consuming appeal cases it has taken on. Those who are initially found fit for work can appeal the decision, but normally have to live on the intermediary rate of £71 per week, £30 less than the full ESA rate, for up to 16 months if they initially waited longer than 28 days to launch a complaint.
“In light of the rising cost of living this is scarcely enough to survive on,” said Ms Fitzmaurice.
But those who do not appeal because they are unaware of the changes are moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance, also a £71 payment, which they lose if their illness or disability prevents them from seeking work.
Concerns have been raised in Westminster about the “misery and hardship” caused unnecessarily to thousands of eligible claimants after it emerged that more than a third of appeals result in the original decision being overturned.
In February, MPs from the public accounts committee lambasted the DWP for being “unduly complacent” with its faith in the accuracy of assessments made by ATOS, the private company contracted to perform the medical examinations.
To contact the Luton Irish Forum, call 01582 720 447.