Thousands of people have died before being able to access welfare payments, charities say
Sat 11 Jan 2020 03.00 EST
Charities have called on the government to speed up a promised review of welfare support for terminally ill patients after it emerged that 2,000 people have died over the past six months while waiting for benefit payments.
They accuse the government of making practically no progress in the six months since it announced a “fresh and honest evaluation” of the benefit system would ensure it was more responsive to the needs of patients nearing the end of their life.
Campaigners had demanded law changes after thousands of people who had just months to live were unable to access benefits, often finding their claims bogged down in bureaucracy and unnecessary health assessments.
Current benefit rules state that claimants can only get their benefits fast-tracked if a doctor says they have less than six months to live – campaigners argue this is too restrictive, and want the definition widened to ensure benefits can be accessed as soon as a terminal illness diagnosis is made.
Government figures suggest 10 people a day in England, Wales and Scotland die before receiving their Personal Independence Payment benefits – a sum designed to help ill and disabled people with the extra costs of their conditions.
The then work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd promised in July to review the policy in consultation with claimants and doctors. She said she wanted people “to have confidence in what we do at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), ensuring no one is suffering unnecessary hardship at this especially difficult time”.
However, charities are becoming frustrated with what they consider the glacial pace of progress at the DWP, especially as the Scottish government is introducing a law change this year to ensure anyone diagnosed with a terminal illness can get fast access to benefits.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Marie Curie charity, said the new government’s clear Commons majority meant it had “no excuse not to act fast to stop 10 more people dying every day without the support they need. It’s time now to get this done.”
Jo Lynton spent months unsuccessfully trying to claim benefits for her husband, Mark, before he died in July 2019 after just 23 weeks with motor neurone disease. “It was very frustrating, very upsetting and emotionally it was a very difficult time,” she said.
“Claiming benefits was horrendous. We were entitled to claim income support of £50 a week and council tax benefits. I couldn’t get either of those because I couldn’t get anybody from universal credit to answer the phone.
“We were on hold for 50-60 minutes and I couldn’t be on hold for 50 or 60 minutes because my husband could choke on his own saliva so what was I supposed to do? Tell him to choke quietly as I’m waiting on the phone to get £50 a week?
“I would just sit and cry because there was nothing I could do. We needed the support and we just couldn’t get it and there was nothing I could do about it.”
Sally Light, chief executive of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said: “The announcement of the review into access to benefits for people with terminal illness, including MND, gave us some optimism that things would change. But, six months on, we are no further forward and people are still dying without the financial support they need and are entitled to.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “We recognise how devastating dealing with a terminal illness can be, and the impact it can have on families. This evaluation of support for people nearing the end of life is an absolute priority for us.
“This vital work is well under way and we are working closely with medical professionals and charities like Motor Neurone Disease Association and Marie Curie.”