Irish charity wins tribunal appeal for woman with multiple debilitating tumours and whose surgeons say she cannot work
A former MoD civil servant told by the DWP that she was fit for work and denied illness benefits despite several severely debilitating brain tumours has won an appeal thanks to the intervention of an Irish welfare advice charity in London.
Helen Hookins was diagnosed with a typical menigioma in 2005, with four substantial brain tumours, for which she underwent surgery at King’s College Hospital. She subsequently had four more operations and her neurosurgeons told the DWP that given how debilitated she was going back to work would in all likelihood kill her.
Her husband Steve, who had also been a Ministry of Defence civil servant, quit his Whitehall job to work locally in the NHS at a greatly reduced wage so he could be near home and Helen’s carer. But last November the DWP and the assessment company it still uses, ATOS, told her she no longer qualified for Disability Living Allowance and Employment Support Allowance, which she had been receiving since 2005, and should report to Job Centres for work.
Despite protests by her surgeons wholly-owned ATOS subsidiary Independent Assessment Services andthe DWP pronounced her fit for work.
The couple, who had only £4,000 left in savings and which they used up ended up missing mortgage payments and were on the verge of losing their home in south east London.
Sheikh Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, who is known to the Irish community here as an accomplished sean nos singer but whose day job is as Senior Fellow in Islamic Studies at the Westminster Institute, approached the Irish Elders Advice Network’s Margaret Geiger at the London Irish Centre in Camden.
He asked if the charity only helped Irish people or could it intervene to help prevent this English couple he knew from losing their home. Margaret said that as a charity it seeks to help anyone who comes to it in genuine need of advice and help and successfully took the case to an appeal tribunal last week.
“The tribunal comprised a judge and a doctor, both independent of the DWP or us. They had the file and took less than three minutes to overrule the DWP. They said they were not going to put Helen through the ordeal of questions because they had read the file.
“I just want an MP or member of the House of Lords to ask how much did this end up costing the taxpayer,” said Margaret to the Irish World. “This is about no more than just forcing deserving people off benefits to which they are entitled. They received this official letter and accept it. It has all got so much worse since 2010 and especially since Ian Duncan Smith was responsible for social welfare.
“The organisations doing these assessments are being paid to force people off benefits to which they are entitled and the people doing the assessments have no qualifications or specialist medical expertise.
“I’m bringing an appeal to tribunal at least once a week and winning 99.9 per cent of them, they rely on people not appealing or contesting, they just want to wear them down.
“The people I see most often are middle aged men, often unskilled, who after a lifetime of work are unable to continue doing physical work, often through something like back injury, sometimes mental health, but are just not yet old enough to qualify for pensions and can’t get work.
“I’ve had two clients who were refused following assessment die shortly afterwards, one three years ago and another five years ago,” said Margaret. “If you compare the amount of benefit in question compared to the cost of tribunals – which will overturn the DWP ruling in a deserving case – you have to ask how much is this all costing taxpayers – the whole assessment process and then the appeals. We need someone to ask these questions in Parliament.
Cost to taxpayer
“Just how much does it cost the taxpayer in administrative, assessment staff and tribunal costs, from the time a claimant fails the ESA, PIP or UC assessment to the point when she wins the tribunal? How many such cases are there?” asked Margaret.
Steve and Helen told the Irish World that without the intervention of the Irish charity they would have lost their home in Crayford near Bexley in Kent.
“We both had good jobs when we bought this house and then Helen got sick,” said Steve. “Helen is in constant pain with headaches, has memory loss, falls over, has mobility problems, numbness in her arms, cannot sleep and is a liability to herself and to anyone else. No-one will employ her. When we went to the Job Centre the guy behind the counter just looked at her with astonishment and said she really shouldn’t be there, he could see that.
“After she went to King’s College in 2010 she was diagnosed with more tumours. We were told that they would never be able to cure her or make them go away, just to take away some of the discomfort and pain.
“The ATOS report was 13 pages long and kept repeating the same paragraph, it was a bad cut and paste job and the assessor got the diagnosis and illness wrong, referred to the wrong one in the report, and clearly knew absolutely nothing at all about neurological conditions. They just asked her to touch the top of her head and said out of a possible 16 points she scored just five, the whole assessment was so totally biased to making her fail it.
“Helen still has to go back to hospital in August for brain and full body scans because of the tumours but I will believe this bit, the bureaucratic bit, of the nightmare is over once we get appeal to get her Personal Independence Payment restored and we get the money she is owed paid back,” said Steve.
Following publication we were contacted by ATOS’s public relations firm and have been asked to include on ATOS’s behalf the following comment by the company:
“The Independent Assessment Services role is to undertake PIP assessments in line with DWP guidelines and deliver the information to the DWP so that they can take the appropriate action around the benefits of the person involved. This was a DWP decision.
“Disability Living Allowance (which is now PIP) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) are separate benefits. ATOS does not deliver assessments for ESA; this is done by a company called Maximus under their Centre for Health and Disability Assessments brand.
“Independent Assessment Services does not determine individual claims as this is done only by the DWP. The reference to ‘fit for work’ is a reference to ESA, not PIP. PIP is designed to help to help with extra costs of a long-term health condition or illness and can be claimed whether one is in work or not. Again, Independent Assessment Services has no involvement in the assessment process for ESA.”
While this does not significantly alter the substance of the story, or the Hookins’ account of what they have gone through, or Margaret Geiger’s comments that she has had some 99 per cent of tribunal appeals upheld the Irish World, is happy to provide clarification on behalf of ATOS for the purposes of accuracy.