A forty-four year old former fisherman who has been suffering with Multiple Sclerosis for more than six years has been told he is fit to work, and not entitled to Employment Support Allowance.
Gary Macdonald, who lives in the Newmarket area of Lewis, has been receiving Incapacity benefits for five and a half years and Income Support for two years and says he was shocked when he was told he is no longer entitled to additional help.
In the letter from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) he was told: “I am sorry to inform you that you are not entitled to Employment and Support Allowance.
“This decision was made because after your Work Capability Assessment, we have decided that you do not have limited capacity for work.”
It continued: “If you meet the qualifying criteria, you may be able to get Jobseekers Allowance.”
But for Mr Macdonald, whose symptoms include slurred speech, confusion and mobility problems, the results of his assessment was not what he expected.
“I was diagnosed with MS about six and a half years ago,” he said. “It affects my memory, walking, my speech, coordination... I can be sitting drinking a coffee and just drop it.
“People sometimes think I am drunk so I show them my MS card.”
He continued: “I left school when I was 15. I told the headmaster there was a job for me on a fishing boat. I worked on the fishing boats for 26 years.
“I felt confident that I would pass it [the assessment] until I got the letter a month later. I paid my way for 26 years, paid tax for 26 years. I’ve paid my way and I deserve a wee bit of respect.”
Mr Macdonald undertook his Work Capability Assessment, which includes a physical exam by the private company ATSO on behalf of the DWP, last month.
He said: “She asked me to lift my hands up, bend down, there was an eye test and I had to lie on a bench. It took less than ten minutes. She didn’t look at my medical files or my medication I had brought with me.”
He explained that he would now be expected to live on £500 a month less than he was getting before and is concerned that he will be unable to go out if he can’t afford to keep his car.
“I’m very down in the dumps,” he said. “I’m on antidepressant pills because of this now.”
His friend described him as a “bag of nerves” after he got the news. He explained: “The other night we were on the phone to each other and he was very distressed – inconsolable. I’m worried about his future. His whole life has been destroyed by someone who only met him for ten minutes.
“I think this is just a numbers game. It is a private company that did the assessment, all they’re doing is numbers – they’re not really caring about what they’re doing.”
Mr MacDonald is appealing the decision – and has had support from MP Angus MacNeil who has written the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, asking for the case to be reconsidered. In the letter Mr MacNeil said: “As you know, MS is a degenerative disease and I, together with his MS Nurse, find it surprising that Gary had been assessed fit for work.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said they make decisions on the evidence that is provided to them.
She commented: “We shouldn’t automatically write off a person’s ability to work, solely on the basis of a health condition or disability. The assessment for Employment Support Allowance doesn’t focus on a particular diagnosis, but on the actual abilities of an individual, and whether that person - with the right support - could undertake suitable work.
“The previous system abandoned people to a life on benefits without checking to see if they could, with the right support, go back to work. We’ve made substantial changes to the work capability assessment and the proportion of people being placed in the Support Group has more than doubled in just two years.”
She added: “Everyone has the right to appeal a benefit decision they do not agree with.”
Predictions from the Citizens Advice Bureau forecast that by 2014 around 500 current Incapacity Benefit Claimants in the Western Isles will lose entitlement to sickness benefits.
It is believed that around 300 will be moved out of the benefits system altogether, 100 will be eligible for Jobseekers Allowance with the remaining existing Incapacity Benefit claimants moved to other benefits depending on the individual’s circumstances. It is expected this will result in a loss of £1.7 million in benefits which will also have an impact on the local economy.