Terminally ill cancer patients and people undergoing chemotherapy are being threatened with benefit cuts if they do not attend back-to-work interviews; warn leading charities, Macmillan Cancer Support and Citizens Advice.
A new report by the two charities has found the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) process, introduced last October to encourage job ready people to return to work, is failing seriously ill and disabled people, despite assurances from the government that they would be safeguarded from the system.
Findings from the report show:
Terminally ill cancer patients and people receiving non-oral chemotherapy are being required to undergo medical examinations and attend work-focused interviews, when they should be automatically exempt from both
People undergoing or recovering from radiotherapy and inpatients are being refused ESA when they should automatically qualify for the benefit
Cancer patients suffering from the long-term effects of cancer or cancer treatment are failing the medical assessment and being refused ESA
Patricia Watson from London was on a career break and about to start a new job when she was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer. She says, "I was so shocked when I received a letter asking me to go to an assessment centre during my third cycle of chemotherapy. I was told that if I didn't attend the interview my benefits would be stopped. No one was thinking about my condition or applying any common sense, I just felt part of a conveyor belt system."
According to the report, poor knowledge of ESA rules among Jobcentre Plus and DWP medical staff, inadequate administration systems and a lack of understanding about cancer and the effects of treatment, is resulting in ESA claims being incorrectly handled. Some terminally ill people are dying before they get the financial support they needed.
Since April 2008, Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales have dealt with over 85,000 enquiries about ESA and Macmillan's benefits helpline has taken over 600 calls about the benefit since May this year.
Mike Hobday at Macmillan Cancer Support says, "It is cruel and completely unacceptable that people who are terminally ill or going through gruelling treatment are being made to jump through hoops to get money they should receive automatically. The safeguards to protect cancer patients clearly are not working, and the ESA system is riddled with problems. The DWP must address these issues without delay to make sure people living with cancer are spared unnecessary distress and financial hardship."