A severely disabled woman with impairments including a heart condition and multiple sclerosis has been denied universal credit because she is medically unable to attend an interview for the benefit, BuzzFeed News has learned.
Janet Cooper, 55, from Widnes in Cheshire, worked as a nurse before her health deteriorated. She is now housebound after her wheelchair broke and has been forced to rely on food banks to survive.
She first applied for universal credit in January after calling a disability charity for advice on her finances. Her only income has been £450-a-month disability living allowance (DLA), designed as a top-up to cover mobility and care costs.
Cooper, who has had three heart attacks in recent years, told BuzzFeed News she was advised by a heart consultant that her health means any stress could prove fatal. “I’ve got an unstable health condition, with crescendo angina and ischaemic heart disease. The most important thing with that is that I don’t get stressed or anxious as I have daily angina attacks and each one could be fatal.”
Crescendo angina is an acute heart condition that results in a build-up of serious episodes of chest pain even when inactive – and is often a precursor to a heart attack. Ischaemic heart disease is the build-up of fat in the arteries that blocks bloodflow to the heart.
Work capability interviews, which assess whether someone is eligible for disability benefits, are notoriously stressful, with one recent study saying they significantly worsen mental health. Earlier this year, a grandmother told The Mirror that she had a heart attack during a benefits interview and claimed she was ignored when she said she felt unwell and needed to go to hospital.
Cooper said she sent medical evidence of her conditions, including original prescriptions and a letter from a heart consultant. She hoped this would be enough to avoid the interview process – particularly as the Department for Work and Pensions is already aware of her disabilities since it is paying her DLA.
But the DWP has closed Cooper’s four separate attempts to register for the benefit since January because she has refused an interview on medical grounds.
“The DWP say I’ve got to come for an interview and they won’t pay me until I do," she said. "It’s basically bullying – and meeting them would probably kill me. I’m on the higher rate of DLA so I am known to them. It’s a pretty weak excuse.
“I have been through so much in my life but nothing has brought me to my knees like the DWP.”
Under the Equality Act, the government is obliged to make “reasonable adjustment” to its services to make them accessible. Cooper feels that accepting her medical records and consultant letter as evidence rather than making her sit through a potentially stressful grilling would qualify as such an adjustment.
As well as MS, a serious heart condition, asthma, and diabetes, Cooper has been struggling with her mental health. She said fighting the DWP had only made things harder.
“The way they’re treating me is disgraceful. It’s making me more ill, if that’s possible, than I already am. I’m having two or three angina attacks a day. It’s making me feel absolutely dreadful. To be honest, I’ve felt suicidal.
“They’re saying there’s no debate and that they’re not paying unless I attend an interview – and that’s not happening. The stress and anxiety would, without a doubt, give me a heart attack, which would be fatal. They’re a nightmare to deal with and they don’t care.”
Cooper did not realise until this year that she was eligible for significantly more state help. “I stopped nursing when I was diagnosed with MS in 2005,” she said. “Since then I’ve been living on DLA. I didn’t realise I could get more benefits.
“I phoned up Welfare Rights and said I was really struggling and they said you should be on universal credit and a severe disablement allowance.”
Tom Carter-Woods, a family friend of Cooper, who has been trying to help with her benefit application and put himself forward as a point of contact for the DWP, said: “I was appalled by the DWP 's treatment of Janet and could see her health suffering so I decided with Janet’s permission to step in to relieve her from the stress and anxiety of the situation.
“Janet is very kind-hearted, loyal, and showed great friendship and empathy to me after my wife passed away. I am always amazed at how Janet always tries to help and support others despite her own health situation. She would give you the coat off her back if you didn’t have one. It is so wrong that she has to beg for her entitlement.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “Unfortunately, we have not been able to speak to Ms Cooper despite our best efforts, including offering to visit at her home. It’s important that we have all the information to understand someone’s needs and process their claim, and would encourage Ms Cooper to contact us if she needs help.”
Cooper’s case comes as research from Citizens Advice published this week claims the planned expansion of controversial universal credit is “a disaster waiting to happen”. The charity found that more than three-quarters of people they helped on the government’s flagship welfare reform are in debt on their rent or council tax, putting them at risk of eviction.
The charity says that the government’s plans to accelerate the expansion of the benefit from five to 50 areas a month from October could have catastrophic consequences, as there are still significant problems with it, including a built-in long wait for first payment.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "While the principles behind Universal Credit are sound, our evidence shows that if the government continues to take this stubborn approach to the expansion of Universal Credit, it risks pushing thousands of families into a spiral of debt, and placing an even greater strain on public services.
“People face severe consequences – like visits from bailiffs and eviction – when they can't pay their bills. But government can help protect these households by taking the simple step of pausing Universal Credit and fixing the underlying problems, so families are less likely to fall into arrears. The government should also ensure that everyone has access to the support they need to adapt to Universal Credit.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We are committed to helping people improve their lives and raise their incomes. Universal Credit does that by providing additional, tailored support not available under the old benefit system, including more help for those in work so they can eventually stop claiming benefits altogether, and under UC people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system.
“The vast majority of claimants are comfortable managing their money, and for anyone who needs extra help, we have budgeting advice and benefit advances.”
This story originally included an image that was not of Janet Cooper.
Emily Dugan is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Dugan at email@example.com.
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