He should have been helped by the system, the welfare state which was established to help people like Chris.
Instead, the bombarded him with texts telling him he had to apply for jobs, and letters urging him to come to ‘job workshops.’
Lee Marlow reports.
It’s hard to know exactly where to start with the tragic story of Chris Smith, a plumber from Leicester who died last month. You could begin with the disease which claimed his life. Chris had cancer; lung cancer, skin cancer and a cancer that spread to his spine. He was diagnosed in April. Although Chris refused to believe it, he was dying.
As he was dying, Chris, 59, and his partner, Maggie, were embroiled in an unnecessary row with the Work and Pensions department.
Chris, a qualified plumber, had been ill. A poorly knee had kept him off work and then he began to feel sick.
He was called in for health tests. Government assessors told him he wasn’t ill enough. They deemed him fit for work. His benefits were stopped. Chris didn’t think it was right, but he didn’t complain, either. He started to look for work.
Chris didn’t know it, but he already had cancer. He was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer a few weeks later.
And, by rights, this is where the story should end. A man with terminal lung cancer should not be ordered to find work. He shouldn’t have his benefits stopped. This is what the Welfare State was created for, the safety net which cares for the sick and the poorly.
Chris Smith slipped through this safety net.
His partner, Maggie Black, told the job centre about Chris’s cancer. They nodded and made all the right noises. They agreed Chris was not fit for work.
But nothing changed. His benefits were not reinstated.
And then came the texts. One a week usually, sometimes more, imploring Chris to get on his bike to find work, to apply for this plumbing job or that one.
Chris, meanwhile, was in hospital, having chemotherapy, whiling away his days vomiting as the cancer ate away at him, from his lungs to his skin and into his spine.
And then, after the texts, there was the letter. The letter from the job centre informing Chris he needed to report to the benefits office for a special meeting to step up his efforts to find work.
The letter arrived the day after Chris died. It was opened by his grieving partner.
“I stood by the front door and read it and had to reread it, again and again,” says Maggie. “I couldn’t believe it. How could they be so insensitive? How could they get something like this so wrong?”
No-one from the job centre, no-one from the Department of Work and Pensions, apologised. Instead, they carried on texting Chris job vacancies.
Another letter, inviting him to apply for more jobs, landed on their doormat this week, along with letters from the council informing Maggie her housing benefits had been stopped. “This is what happens,” she said. “One thing goes wrong and it’s like a domino effect – everything else tumbles, too.”
Maggie didn’t know where to turn. Now, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and her MP are helping out.
Leicester West MP Liz Kendall says she is “appalled” by the case and has promised the family she will send “a strongly-worded letter” to Secretary of State Iain-Duncan Smith.
The real tragedy here, though, is that what happened to Chris and Maggie is not an isolated incident.
“I see it a lot,” said Margot Wood, the Macmillan welfare benefits case worker supervisor at Leicester’s CAB office.
“We investigate many complaints from people about Employment Support Allowance and the way it is administered.
“The Government is supposedly streamlining the benefits system, stripping away the bureaucracy and making it easier for both claimants and administrators.”
They haven’t, says Mrs Wood. “It’s a complicated, cumbersome system – and quite often, as you can see in this case, one part of the system doesn’t know what the other part is doing. And that leads to the kind of error we’ve seen here. It should never happen.”
It didn’t just happen to Chris and Maggie. It happened to Sarah, too.
Sarah is a single mum from Leicester. She lives in a safe house after she fled a violent relationship. We’ve agreed not to reveal her real identity.
A mother of a three-year-old child, Sarah recently gave birth to another daughter. Tragically, her baby died a few days later.
A grief-stricken Sarah received a letter, telling her to report for a meeting to help her find a job. The meeting was two days before her daughter’s funeral.
Still, she made it. She showed up. She sat in their office and answered their questions.
And then they wrote to her and said, because she managed to make it for the meeting, she was fit for work. Her Employment Support Allowance was cancelled.
Advisers at the CAB say it was a “cruel and heartless” decision and are helping Sarah to appeal against it.
So why is this happening?
You have to go back, back to October 2008, when Employment Support Allowance was introduced by Gordon Brown’s Labour Government.
The benefit replaced Incapacity Benefit and Income Support and was paid to disabled or long-term ill people who cannot work.
Initially, the benefit was paid only to new claimants. Under the coalition Government, a huge programme began to migrate existing claimants to the new system. It has led to many complaints, according to Leicester CAB’s Margot. “It takes up a lot of our time.
“The set up is very complicated, with various departments involved and a lot of bureaucracy.”
Inevitably, mistakes are being made – as was the case with Maggie and Chris.
Maggie and Chris lived together in Beaumont Leys, with their daughter, Jodie, aged eight.
Chris was a fully-qualified plumber. A divorced father of four, he worked all through his 20s and 30s until a knee injury forced him to work part-time.
“His knee injury was such that, if he walked too far, or if he put too much pressure on his knee, it would swell up like a balloon,” says Maggie.
For the past few years, it didn’t seem to matter much, says Maggie. Chris stayed at home and looked after their daughter, Jodie, while Maggie worked full-time as an adult carer. “It just seemed to be the best way to do things for us,” she says.
And then at the end of last year, he received a letter.
There were new rules, new guidelines, new tests to determine who could work, who could receive benefits – and who couldn’t.
Chris had to go for tests. They booked him into a test centre in Halford Street, Leicester. “But, ridiculously, it was at a first floor office and he couldn’t manage the stairs,” says Maggie.
She wonders how many other people, called for eligibility tests in Leicester, had to go to Nottingham instead, because they couldn’t manage the stairs at the Leicester test centre.
And that’s when it started. The official ruling that Chris was fit for work, the stopping of his benefits, the cancer, the arguments, the upset.
MP and shadow care minister Ms Kendall says the mistakes – obvious and insensitive mistakes – need to stop.
“This is not the first time we have heard of problems like this,” she said.
“Macmillan Cancer Support have highlighted countless cases across the UK.
“My opinion is simple – anyone with a terminal illness should be taken out of this continual assessment for ESA.
“If you can work, you should work. I am a firm believer in that and the Government should provide help and support to get as many people back into work as possible.
“But these cases are not about that. I think it’s appalling someone like Chris Smith, a man with terminal cancer, who has faced such problems, should then be treated in this way.
“When you have cancer, you should be free to focus on that. The current system does not recognise that.”
There are an estimated 45,000 people in the UK claiming ESA who have cancer.
“We need to find out how many of those 45,000 people have a terminal cancer and make sure they are not asked to apply for jobs and not asked to be assessed for work,” said Ms Kendall
“In Chris’s case, to be sent texts, as he lay in a hospital bed, saying he should be applying for jobs is unacceptable.
“To receive a letter, the day after he died, a letter opened by his grieving widow, saying he had to come to a meeting to find a job, is even worse.
“I will be writing to Ian Duncan Smith on behalf of Maggie Black to express my outrage at how she and her late partner have been treated and I will be demanding action so this kind of needless error does not happen again.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions apologised for the mistakes in the way Chris’s case was handled.
“We have apologised to Mr Smith’s family for any distress caused by sending a letter and text messages in error,” she said. “We have since reviewed our processes to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
But is Chris’s case the tip of the iceberg? The spokeswoman insisted it wasn’t. Rigorous procedures were in place to eliminate mistakes, she said.
“A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and after consideration of all the supporting medical evidence provided by the claimant.
“Anyone who disagrees with a decision has the right to appeal.”