In scenes reminiscent of Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake, Irishmen unable to work are being penalised by a punitive system. A Carlow woman is leading the fight for better conditions among the ageing Irish community in London.
Margaret Geiger, 65, is a Welfare Advisor at the Irish Elderly Advice Network – a charity organisation which seeks to combat poverty, isolation and distress. It rents a space at the London Irish Centre in Camden Town but Ms Geiger also runs an outreach programme at the Mazenod Social Club off Quex Road for the Irish community based in Kilburn and the surrounding areas.
Here she sees up to 30 people each Wednesday, offering support and practical advice to those who would otherwise struggle.
“The majority of people who come to see me are men aged between 55 and 65,” she said. “These men are not old enough to take their pension but are also unable to work.”
However, while it is clear to Ms Geiger and, more often than not, a doctor that these people would struggle in the workplace, they are frequently told that finding a job would be the most appropriate course of action.
“They are told that they have to go and find work or take Jobseeker’s Allowance but, if they do that, then they’re admitting that they are able to work,” Ms Geiger explained.
“And having left Ireland with minimal qualifications, most struggle to complete a 44 page application.”
This is just one of the problems facing these older Irish people who require support. A lot of those who utilise the outreach centre have spent the bulk of their lives working long hours doing manual labour. This, naturally, has taken a toll on their bodies and now they would struggle to do any work nowadays which requires some form of lifting or carrying.
“These are hardworking Irishmen who have spent years on building sites,” Ms Geiger said. “You’ve got big, hulking men who are well over six foot and now they’re literally begging for money. It’s awful; I’ve seen several grown men break down crying.”
Her clients struggle because they are in a state of limbo. If they are unable to work but officials say otherwise, how are they going to be able to support themselves? Originally, this came in the form of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) – a benefit which was granted on the basis of obvious incapacity.
This has since been replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) or the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
As Ms Geiger notes, the chances of receiving these new methods of support are much slimmer than the original scheme. In the case of PIP, 90 per cent of applicants score zero points on their medical assessment. For ESA, the figure stands at 95 per cent.
“I’m not sure what these people are doing,” Ms Geiger said. “I understand that they’re just doing their job but I can’t see how they can process it.”
The fact that the vast majority – more than 95 per cent – of her clients win their appeals suggests that she has a point. And this is where the work of the Advice Network is so valued. People who rely on Government support to survive would ultimately be lost without the guidance of Ms Geiger and her colleagues.
“I really don’t know what people would do – they’ve got nowhere else to go,” she explained. “They’re told to go to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau but there are mile-long queues just to get seen. And there’s no way they could do it on their own.
“I also think it’s good for the Irish community to have somewhere to go to. A lot of our applicants are encouraged by hearing a familiar voice.”
But helping them lodge an appeal only solves part of the problem. Once an applicant is told they have been denied ESA or PIP, their benefits cease immediately. The appeal process usually takes around three months and can take up to six. This means that people are left without necessary income for this period.
“What’s more they lose their housing benefits, meaning that there is a genuine reality that they could become homeless,” Ms Geiger said. “We’re building up case studies to highlight this problem and we also intend to write to Ministers.”
One of the most eye-opening cases involved a man deemed ineligible for PIP who died while he was awaiting an appeal date. Those at the Irish Elderly Advice Network intend to continue his appeal on behalf of his estate and will use the case to draw attention to what they see as a flawed process.
They have also brought up the case of Lawrence Bond, a ‘fit to work’ man who died after signing on at a jobcentre in Kentish Town. Mr Bond suffered from prolonged health problems, including difficulty with mobility and breathing, but had seen his ESA cut after assessment.
While practical assistance is vital to those who need it, Ms Geiger explained that her organisation also offers other forms of support. “We want to empower people, we never hold them back,” she said. “It’s about showing them that they can still enjoy themselves as they get older.
“There’s the cultural aspect of things – people can join the choir or come to tea dances, for example.
“And we’ve seen it firsthand. People who were perhaps a little lost at first have truly grown.”
She is proud of what she and her colleagues have achieved but added that they must continue to work on behalf of those who require such guidance. They will continue with their efforts in terms of housing – offering people a route to a home without going through the council; something which is particularly useful to single men.
More and more people are becoming aware of the services offered through the Irish Elderly Advice Network newsletter and word of mouth. Last year, the number of benefits gained was estimated at £2 million and it is anticipated that this will only increase in the future.
Ms Geiger continues to work tirelessly at the outreach centre and also conducts home visits around the Home Counties for those who struggle to travel.
She explained that her mission comes in two parts: to support people in the practical process of receiving benefits and to renew their freedom. “There are some cases which resemble the conditions in I, Daniel Blake and this isn’t what we want to see,” she said. “Applicants are being told to write out simple words as if that proves that they are fit to work.
“And then they receive letters which have obviously been cut and pasted without any specifics to the patient’s condition.
“We will help people with their appeals but, in the end, we want to see the whole process reviewed.
“We also want to empower people; to show them that they can gain control of their lives and get involved with the community – this is so important to us.”