What happened to Emily Field is unlikely to find its way on to the news. But the story of how one young woman with organ failure was denied help when she most needed it – and the subsequent battle between the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the outsourcing firm Atos, and a mother – tells us exactly how rotten Britain’s social security system has become.
Field, who is 28 years old and lives on the outskirts of Reading, has had type 1 diabetes since she started primary school. Over the past three years Field’s health has deteriorated rapidly – she’s struggled with chronic fatigue, pain and failing eyesight – and in the spring of 2015 she was diagnosed with diabetic kidney disease. By Christmas, doctors told her she was at “end stage”. “In essence, my daughter’s dying,” Field’s mum, Louise Hughes, tells me. “She won’t live for much longer without dialysis and a pancreas and kidney transplant.”
In a so-called civilised country, this is where the welfare state is meant to kick in: the safety net that can’t stop us from getting ill but can make sure we have money to pay the rent and buy food if we do. Instead, Hughes tells me, her daughter has been left without either of the Conservative government’s key “reformed” sickness benefits.
Last year, the jobcentre told Field she wasn’t eligible for employment and support allowance because her fiance works more than 16 hours a week. Two weeks ago – while she was waiting for a double organ transplant – Field’s rejection for personal independence payments (PIP) was confirmed. Looking through the rundown of the assessment sent to Atos’s customer service department, it is filled with references to Field’s appearance (“well kept”) and scatterings of medical detail in broken sentences (“she goes to the renal clinic … She has blood tests, it hurts her and stresses her out … she goes to eye clinic”).
Staggeringly, this was the third time Field had been turned down for PIP in two years – this goes up to four if we include the time the DWP lost the paperwork and she had to reapply. In 2014 – by the second time Field was judged as not needing the benefit – her health had deteriorated to the degree that Hughes had to become her daughter’s appointee because she didn’t have the strength to apply herself.
“You get an hour to prove to the DWP you’re sick enough to squeeze a few pounds from them,” Hughes says. “All of this with a so-called Atos health professional who’s never met you.”
She pauses. “After Emily had a [PIP] rejection [last time], she said she’d kill herself. She said, ‘I can’t do it any more, Mum’.”
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