Alison had a heart attack and stopped working in the textile industry after 30 years. Since Burberry closed its factory some time ago in East London, some might say this was a shrewd career decision. She can keep on claiming sickness benefits for the rest of her life- what a slacker!
After she had her second heart attack walking in the park following medical advice, she was refused disability benefits. With increasing disbelief her daughter argued with officials at the Department of Work and Pensions, with the medical assessors from ATOS, the French company with a multimillion pound government contract to administer tests for sickness benefits (and official sponsors of the Paralympics).
Finally they go to the Tribunal unrepresented, and after humiliating cross examination Alison’s Disability Living Allowance was grudgingly restored at reduced rates.
Some years later, after the insertion of two more stents into her heart, Allison renews her benefit claim and is awarded nil points. As her heart condition and general health gets worse, her benefit is slashed to zero. She must go back on the appeal merry-go-round.
Alastair comes from a far off land where learning to write the spoken language of your village in school can lead to imprisonment, beatings and torture. He and his family were repeatedly locked up. His brother died of a seizure before his eyes.
Years later Alastair has his papers and can live safely in London. Yet he hears voices, has trembling fits, is terrified to go out alone. He is stick thin. His eyes are haunted. He has been under the psychiatrist for ten years.
The ATOS medical examiner tells Alistair that there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with him. He must claim Jobseekers Allowance, and be sanctioned if he cannot go to the Job-Centre. He doesn’t tick the right boxes.
Which is where we come in.
Thanks to Legal Aid funding for Welfare Benefits cases, we are able to gather 60 pages of medical letters for Alistair.
We travel to the Tribunal and as we sit down I have rehearsed in my head the arguments, the case-law, the garnering of 15 points from the descriptors.
The descriptors are like a 17 alternate Chinese set menus- from menu A pick mobility- If you can’t walk get 15 points, if you can walk 50 metres get 6, go on to Menu B- do you lose your temper with strangers on a way that would make you unemployable? If you have another 6 points let’s talk about your hygiene- if you only wash sometimes another 3 points and you win!
Win the wooden spoon. Win 70 quid a week jumping at your shadows.
Without opening my mouth the Tribunal award Alastair 24 points, and recommend he should not be put on the appeal merry-go-round for another 18 months.
Thanks to Legal Aid funding I can spend some time with Alison (who is afraid of our lift) and with her daughter who has put her life on hold for years to care for her mother. I can tell the daughter is on the brink time and again, caring for her mother, arguing with corporate clods. She is a carer made faceless by our system.
On the day the lift at the Tribunal breaks down. Alison hauls herself to the second floor but she is grey faced and clammy. She takes the nitro spray for the chest pains.
The Tribunal is merciful or embarrassed, or clearly terrified of a damages claim, or a panel of clear eyed humans doing the job they have been given. I hardly open my mouth.
Alison’s Employment and Support Allowance is restored for a long time.
Alistair and Alison thank me, and I thank them.
Too many people are on sickness benefits. It seems to me that it is true that we shunt our sick and ill onto benefits when it is expedient to take them off the unemployment figures, then we kick them onto the unemployment list when we cut the services that would help sick people into work.
On 1 April 2013 there will be no more Legal Aid for at least 99% of Welfare Benefits cases.
In the case of Alison and Alistair, we won’t have Legal Aid any more. We won’t be able to listen to anxious people with serious health conditions and help them say what they want to say, that which helps them keep their dignity intact, and tell their story for themselves.
As I shut up shop, it seems absolutely heartless. I could say something more, but the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act has gagged me- we have no more funding.
No more Legal Aid for Gimps by law. Get used to this.