Sweeping national reforms to the way people claim sickness benefits has created a crisis in Burnley with many claimants left for weeks without money to buy food and other essentials.
That is the verdict of welfare adviser Mr Richard Chipps who said he has been inundated with record numbers of people, some of whom are suicidal, seeking help to claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and appeal decisions which have declared them fit for work despite some of them suffering from serious health conditions preventing them from holding down a job.
He said one woman, in her mid-fifties, was deemed fit for work so she failed to qualify for ESA. She died half way through her appeal.
Another woman, mum to a 14-year-old son, was left without money for 13 weeks without money due to a DWP error, which was only rectified when they were threatened with legal action.
Many claimants are being reassessed to see whether they qualify for sickness benefits and can face lengthy waits for appeals to be heard.
Mr Chipps said the service, which he runs from Thursby Gardens Community Action Group, in the former Colne Road Library building, is struggling to cope with the number of claimants asking for help and said he is referring them in droves to receive food parcels from the food bank.
“There are some horrendous cases. In the last two years we have held 2,500 appointments, thousands of telephone advice calls, dealt with more than 600 cases and represented and attended more than 200 assessments and tribunals.
“To date we have not turned anyone away but currently our appointments are booked up almost three weeks in advance and with the Department for Work and Pensions generally putting a 28-day deadline on most correspondence, it is inevitable that the time will come when we are unable to satisfy demand.”
ESA, to replace incapacity benefit, was first introduced in Burnley in 2010 as part of a pilot scheme with the aim of getting people who had been on the long-term sick get back into work.
But Mr Chipps said far from targeting “spongers,” the reforms have caused upset and worry for hundreds of Burnley people who are genuinely unfit to work and in many cases made their conditions, particularly for those suffering from depression, worse.
“We do a lot of referrals for the food bank and at Christmas we worked in conjunction with Iceland and did our own food parcels. That worked really really well and it’s something we’ll do again next Christmas.”
“We always said it’s not our job to decide who warrants help, we are a community group but what we’ve done, simply because it’s coming to a point where time and appointments are precious, is start to vet people and when they are a bit more capable we encourage them to go through the process without as much help from us.
“We don’t get any core funding but we’d like to expand what we are doing. It’s really upsetting, the numbers that are coming through.”