Disabled Luton woman ‘hounded’ for benefits claims

Sandra Burns
Sandra Burns

A disabled woman who struggled for years to claim benefits was found dead in her home – surrounded by unpaid bills and letters from the DWP.

Sandra Burns, 57, suffered chronic back pain with five fused vertebrae and repeatedly underwent health assessments in order to claim disability benefits.

Over a five year period, Ms Burns failed the work capability assessment and won on appeal each time – getting into debt during the process.

On April 16, she was found by police dead at her home in Thatch Close, Lewsey Farm.

Her brother Ian said: “She was found dead at the foot of her stairs, apparently of a massive heart attack.

“She was surrounded by letters informing her that the gas, electricity, water, telephone and television were all in danger of being cut off.

“This debt and anxiety lay all around her on the floor.”

In one of her last letters to the DWP, Ms Burns heartbreakingly wrote: “I am old school and would still be working if I could do it. Do you think I would be silly enough to do this? I have always worked.

“Why do they think it’s ok to treat me like this? It’s not acceptable.”

Ms Burns worked in retail for over 30 years until 2010 when her condition worsened. Her last job was at Marks & Spencer at Luton Airport and she previously ran the shop at Luton & Dunstable Hospital for many years.

Ian said the stress of the process had a degenerative impact on Ms Burns. He claims that the work assessments were punitive and that they ignored the comments of her GP.

Mr Burns said: “It seems to me every time she was assessed, they based their assessment on the fact she could walk the five or six steps of the stairwell to the interview room.

“She could walk small distances and couldn’t stand for long. Every time ATOS assessed her, they judged her fit for work. She described how one man said, ‘I’ve been watching you walk from the waiting room and as far as I’m concerned, you’re fit for work’.

“These appeals would take six to eight months. Every single time, she won the appeal and got a backdated payment. But in that period, she would get into debt and lose her credit rating.

“And then she’d get back on an even keel until the next year, when the same thing would happen.”

Her brother – who lives in Copenhagen, Denmark – said that she became reclusive in her final year and he last spoke to her on April 3. After not hearing from her for nine days, he asked a neighbour and a friend to check in on her.

He said: “They knocked on the door and went around the back. Through the kitchen window, they could see piles of dishes.

“The police came quarter of an hour later. They got through the back door and found her at the bottom of the stairs.”

It is believed Sandra had lain there for more than a week. Mr Burns said: “I came the next day ... all around the sofa was a pile of letters and debts.

“It was terrible heartbreak and I just feel it could have all been avoided... everyone is treated as cheats or maybe the DWP have an agenda. Whatever it is, it’s putting people like Sandra under incredible amounts of stress.”

A DWP spokesman said: “Our thoughts are with Ms Burns’ family. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that people get the support they’re entitled to. Assessments are carried out by qualified healthcare professionals who look at how someone’s disability or health condition impacts them on a day-to-day basis.”

According to the charity Disability Rights UK, work capability assessments have two parts.

The first, the ‘limited capability for work assessment’, finds out whether or not people can remain on an employment support allowance (ESA).

The second part, the ‘limited capability for work-related activity assessment’, finds out which of two groups people will be put in: the ‘support group’ or the ‘work-related activity group’.

The group people are put in will decide the level of ESA they receive, the responsibilities they must meet to keep getting the benefit in full and whether or not their ESA award may be time-limited.

>To find out more about claiming disability allowances go to www.disabilityrightsuk.org/