The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Steve Punter


I set out, from my direct experience, why I believe the DWP's medical assessments are not suitable or indeed safe for people suffering from severe depression.

1.  Just before Christmas 2010 I went to the Accident and Emergency department (A&E) of my local general hospital St Thomas's. I had been feeling very depressed since about July that year when my contract with an independent production company was not renewed.

2.  I had been struggling to pay my credit card bills that were carrying debts of around £25,000. I had racked up this amount in an attempt to pay my way in terms of my mortgage and service charges and other outgoings including an annual interest rate of approaching 30% on the two credit cards I had. As a freelance TV producer it was common to be unemployed for long periods.

3.  By the time I arrived in the A&E my thoughts were extremely gloomy and I was seriously contemplating taking my life.

4.  I had made one previous serious attempt to kill myself in 2007. Again the triggers had been debt and unemployment.

5.  I had been treated in 2007 by the CREST team at Guy's Hospital.

6.  In order to be seen by the crisis team again I needed to be referred by either my GP or the hospital's consultant psychiatrists.

7.  I received exemplary treatment from the staff at the York Clinic where the CREST team is based.

8.  On the 24 December I signed on for ESA with the DWP.

9.  The doctor at Guy's issued a medical certificate confirming I was unable to work.

10.  Over the next eight weeks I was in the care of the CREST team, the local community mental health team and my GP.

11.  I had been prescribed an SSRI anti-depressant.

12.  I applied for help with my housing costs. I began to receive the assessment rate of ESA of £63 a week.

13.  My GP continued to issue medical certificates confirming I was not fit to work. I was also referred by my GP for ACT. I am currently waiting to find a practitioner.

14.  I had stopped functioning on a day to day basis by August 2010.

15.  I was failing to take care of myself and found carrying out the most basic of tasks impossible.

16.  My post remained unopened and bills unpaid. I became reclusive and started to drink heavily as a self-harming strategy. I bought a car tow rope and attached it to a beam in my flat ready to end my life. Thoughts about killing myself filled my mind constantly.

17.  My hair and my beard grew long and I looked, and no doubt behaved, like King Lear.

18.  I had little money and was living on a diet of baked potatoes and whatever Lidl's had reduced in the local shop. My daily trip to Lidls, my fridge was broken, was the only time I left the flat prior to seeing the doctors at St Thomas's.

19.  By December I had decided it was time either to end it or to get help. It was listening to Mr H talk about his cancer and remembering Alastair Campbell saying that however bad things appear they do get better. I had experience of this from 2007. I knew that people were there to help.

20.  I started seeing three of my friends once a week. They were supportive and encouraged me to see the CREST team again.

21.  My recovery started soon after I was referred to the CREST team. I saw members of the team on a regular basis. I was referred to the local Citizens Advice Bureau to help with my debts and a claim for benefit.

22.  My landlord's solicitors took me to court for unpaid service charge and a county court order was granted. I had missed the deadline for submitting a defence as I had not opened my letters for weeks. I was issued with a summons for possession of my flat. I had debts totalling in excess of £35,000.

23.  In March 2011 I was called for a medical assessment by the DWP. I had one previously in 2007 when I had been claiming Incapacity Benefit. On that occasion I had passed it.

24.  At this time my mood was stable. I was waiting the outcome of my claim for help with my housing costs. Waiting and also trying to buy food on the money the state was giving me was praying on my mind. Most days I was still thinking of killing myself.

25.  At the assessment the doctor went through, as he explained, a checklist of questions, many of which were not relevant to me as I was suffering from a mental illness. I tried to explain, as best as I could, the symptoms I had including my recurring thoughts of suicide.

26.  I was told that someone else would determine if I was fit to work. They would take into account what the doctors who had treated me had to say.

27.  Dr M told me, however, that he did not have any information from my GP in front of him. I understand despite asking for permission to see my medical notes no one from the DWP has approached my GP.

28.  The doctor also appeared slightly irritated if my explanation did quite fit the question on his computer screen. The test appears to me to be a snap shot and it is not best fitted for those with mental illnesses like mine.

29.  In the event I scored no points despite telling the doctor about the state of my flat and my neglect of myself and my affairs and my gloomy moods.

30.  The doctor then took my blood pressure and listened to my heart.

31.  I was extremely anxious that if I failed the assessment I would not get the help with my housing costs.

32.  I made another attempt, unsuccessfully, to take my life by swallowing 30 plus pills.

33.  Within a few days I received a letter from the DWP explaining that I had failed the medical assessment. No one at the DWP was able to tell me why.

34.  My GP has been reviewing my care on a fortnightly basis. I explained what had happened. Perversely for some reason the whole episode made me reassess my life. I stopped drinking and now the medication appears to be working.

35.  I have started to manage my affairs. My mood is very much better.

36.  My GP continues to issue medical certificates as she believes recovery from mental illness takes time and is pendulous. She says I should not be under any unnecessary pressure even though my mood is much improved.

37.  I have checked the Government website for information about the medical assessment and found that there is an exceptional circumstances clause. I would argue that my case is covered by this clause and have appealed the DWP's decision to stop my ESA.

38.  From my experience I think the medical assessment is not suited to deal with people with severe depression or other mental illnesses where there are peaks and troughs. I had not been asked about the impact a rejection from the medical assessment might have. Nor were my doctors' asked for their advice.

39.  I do not believe I am overstating it to say that people lives are being put at risk. If I had taken a few more pills or if they had been a little more potent I would not be writing this to you today.

April 2011

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Prepared 26 July 2011