Epsom man Edmund O’Leary driven to brink of suicide blasts "cruel" welfare reforms
A man driven to the brink of suicide by the Government’s "cruel" welfare reforms has condemned the system used to assess whether people with mental health issues are able to work.
Edmund O’Leary, of Aspen Close, Epsom, has suffered from clinical depression and anxiety for six years after his job as a customer services trainer ended and his marriage broke down.
The 45-year-old had been receiving £101 a week in income-support (IS) because he is unable to work.
But in November last year he was informed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that he would have to undergo a work capability assessment to see if he was eligible for the new benefit replacing IS - the Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
But to his horror the doctor who assessed him declared he was fit to work and he was informed that his benefits would be stopped on January 17.
With the support of his mental health team at Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS, Mr O’Leary has now got the decision overturned at appeal.
But he said the whole process had put him in a "very dark place" and he has decided to speak out about it on behalf of others.
The father of twin boys said the assessment is simply not "geared towards people who have mental health problems".
He said: "Everything I said to the doctor was misconstrued.
"I was told I didn’t get any eligibility points for turning up sober, not using bad language or travelling by bus even though I was offered a taxi.
"They had an idea of what they thought someone with mental illness is like."
After being told that his benefits would be stopped he said: "I wondered how I would be able to feed myself. Would I have to steal food?
"I was worried I would do something silly to be sectioned and put in hospital. I was almost suicidal.
"The system is very cruel and harsh on those genuinely claiming the benefit.
"I believe I am speaking up for people who won’t be able to speak up for themselves."
Paul Farmer, chief executive of the charity Mind, said it believes the assessment for ESA is "deeply flawed" and does not recognise the impact of mental health problems on ability to work.
He said: "We welcome improvements the Government has made to the system in recent years, but we believe significant further changes are needed.
"Particularly, much greater use of additional evidence about applicants, expert assessors, and improvements to the criteria used in the assessment."
The amount of ESA advice given out by Citizens' Advice Bureaux nationally rocketed last year.
Maria Zealey, unit manager at Surrey Welfare Rights, said Mr O’Leary’s experience is "not uncommon".
She said: "People of all manner of disabilities, particularly those with mental health issues, are being found fit to work under the assessment and many of those choose to appeal successfully which is concerning.
"The number of appeals which Surrey organisations are helping with are dominated by ESA and this is reflected across the country."
Last Friday, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) criticised the DWP's complacent attitude to the high number of inaccurate decisions leading to successful appeals - with 37 per cent of appeals upheld.
The PAC's report said: "In far too many cases the department is getting these decisions wrong at considerable cost to both the taxpayer and claimant."
But Employment Minister Mark Hoban accused the PAC of scaremongering and of failing to recognise the improvements made to the system since the Government came to power in 2010.