Victory, at what cost?

Pyrrhus, Sense Activist

Having ranted over the award of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) only being awarded for six months to ‘M’ on the  Sense oldblog, for whom I am a benefits appointee, let me tell you the following tales of welfare reform concerning council tax benefit and housing benefit.

M’s local authority, which had previously not charged council tax, decided that with few exceptions, most people would pay a proportion.  There was an “exemption from” category which M would be eligible for, but required a claim to be made…

Again phone calls and effort by his care providers found it impossible to trigger the “exemption”. So it was down to me to complete an online claim. I found it very daunting so enlisted the help of Sense’s legal support service, who filled in the online claim with info from me.

Then I had to take the benefit award letters to be scanned into the local authority system, to prove M was receiving the benefits. This required time and queuing at local office of the local authority. Next, I had to phone to be sure that the claim had been received online. Another couple of weeks elapsed and the “exempt from” letter came. Success? Only with determination and support.

Surely it was time to relax and only think about the reassessment of ESA, due in November 2013. Two weeks ago, two letters were received by M (not in brown envelopes, but white with coloured edging) from the local authority. The contents told M that he had been overpaid housing benefit which had to be repaid, and that his housing benefit was reduced by nearly a third. It seemed to be as a result of “increased income”.  If this was correct he would be unlikely to stay at his address as he needed the housing benefit to pay the rent.

Back to local authority helpline at 8am, there was already a “high volume” of calls. I was third in queue, and 20 minutes later I was informed a housing benefit assessor would call me. So I waited and waited at home, not using the phone.

In the meantime, I had spoken to Sense’s legal team who advised that it was likely to be about ESA. I trawled “benefit cap” info on the net. The Department of Work and Pensions were contacted twice to check that M had the correct ESA.  Still waiting, I emailed them urgently and phoned again to check if I was still to be contacted.

More days passed, and then I decided to try another phone call. I was reassured that someone would ring. When? I arranged to be home for 2 hours and waited. Again, no phone call. However an email was received to say an “error” had occurred and the wrong coding had been applied and Ms Housing benefit would be reinstated .

Did I feel relieved? I was too tired to feel this. I emailed back and asked for a written apology. All this distress because of an error. which could have had severe implications for M’s future. Hearing nothing I phoned a manager whose number I had obtained that day. I referred to the claim and she assured me that I would receive a call back. I did, from a senior person who was most apologetic about all that had happened and about the casual email I had received informing me of the “error”. I now have an apology.

A victory? At what cost? What if I had not pursued this and what if Sense legal services had not advised me on what the likely reason for housing benefit reduction was?  What if I had not spent time surfing disability websites?

I am now hyper vigilant about any welfare/ benefit changes and I open any letters brown or white with coloured edges with great trepidation.

Back to my knitting and cuppa.

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