Tumour victim's benefits wrangle
Reporter: Iram Ramzan
Date published: 20 December 2016
Debbie Abrahams, Oldham East and Saddleworth MP
A DISABLED man says having his benefits stopped for four months while he was in hospital with a brain tumour felt "like a death sentence".
John Ruane, from Lees, was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour, causing him to have several epileptic seizures each week and making it impossible for him to work.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) says John missed an appointment for a work capability assessment in May and stopped his employment and support allowance (ESA) payments at the end of July.
Mr Ruane, however, claims he was at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London recovering from medical tests to establish the cause, and potential treatment, of his seizures.
He insisted that he had informed the DWP of his hospital appointment, which would mean missing the work capability assessment.
His medical team supplied the DWP with evidence to show where he was, and that he cannot work due to his condition, but Mr Ruane claims this was ignored. The medical team contacted Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, on his behalf asking if she could intervene.
They were particularly concerned that John was refusing to consider a potentially life-saving operation because he feared he would miss the next scheduled work capability assessment during the time it would take him to recover.
Mr Ruane said: "Like most people I want to work but I simply can't with my condition and so I'm dependent on social security for the basics in life such as food, heat and rent.
"I couldn't believe it when the job centre said they were going to sanction me because I missed my work capability assessment. And they wouldn't even take notice of the letters from my consultant saying I was too ill to work and needed an operation.
"That's when my medical team went to Debbie for help on my behalf.
"The whole situation left me anxious and depressed because I had no money and my bills were piling up. I even got letters from my landlord saying I faced eviction.
"By the time Debbie got involved I just felt devastated."
Mrs Abrahams, who is also Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, raised Mr Ruane's case in Parliament earlier this month.
She said: "John's case is another shocking example of how this government's punitive sanctions regime is crushing vulnerable people as they pursue their slash and burn austerity policies.
"MPs from all parties know, from our constituency casework, just what a damaging and devastating effect sanctions can have on our most vulnerable citizens.
"That's why I have been campaigning to stop the Government's punitive sanctions regime since the Coalition Government introduced this in 2012, and, as Labour's Work & Pensions Secretary, have pledged that a future Labour government will do just that.
"The shocking evidence is there for the Government to see after I instigated the Work and Pensions Select Committee's inquiry on sanctions in 2015.
"The Select Committee made over 20 recommendations including stopping financial sanctions for people who were sick or disabled on ESA and for other vulnerable claimants.
"But unfortunately the Government refused to accept the Select Committee's recommendations on stopping financial sanctions, stopping sanctions to people who are in low paid work receiving tax credits or Universal Credits, and on setting up an independent body to investigate deaths associated with a sanction or to track what happens when claimants are sanctioned and stop signing on.
"Labour agreed to implement every recommendation."
After four months of having no benefits, Mr Ruane was able to attend a work capability assessment in early November and was found "not fit for work" as expected. He then had his benefits restored this month, including a back payment.
He is currently waiting for his test results ahead of a potential operation to treat the tumour.
Mr Ruane added: "Finally I was able to pay off my debts, including paying back my carer who had been helping me with food, for which I will always be so grateful.
"People who know me were kind and helpful, and I was able to get help from Oldham Foodbank too, but the way I was treated by the DWP was terrible and I can understand why people are driven to despair after being sanctioned for no good reason.
"The DWP just wouldn't listen to me, or the expert medical team supporting me, and they left me with no money for the basics in life.
"It felt like a death sentence."
A spokesman for the DWP said: "Mr Ruane has now been reassessed and all benefits have been paid up to date.
"It is important that people let us know if they can't attend a Work Capability Assessment so their appointment can be rearranged."