Susan Kemlo was still mourning her daughter, Victoria, when benefits assessment firm Capita decided to drag her through the courts over supposed “reputational damage” – sustained because a judge ruled Capita pay Susan £10,000 for the appalling way it had treated Victoria.
Unite Community member Victoria Smith, who suffered from agoraphobia and fibromyalgia, died aged 33 of a brain haemorrhage in July last year – just months after her personal independence payments (PIPs) were stopped following a wholly inaccurate Capita assessment.
Mrs Kemlo, who with Unite’s assistance took Capita to court for mal-administration after Victoria’s death, said, “If Capita hadn’t have put the pressure on Victoria and hadn’t stopped her PIP she would have had the will to live. I hold them accountable. After her PIP was stopped she told me ‘I don’t want to be a burden, I can’t go on’.”
The decision to appeal the Telford County Court ruling was taken, the firm’s legal team said, because it caused “significant reputational damage to Capita’s business”.
But in August, Capita dropped the appeal and agreed to pay Mrs Kemlo the compensation. “I didn’t do it for the money. I launched the legal action to clear my daughter’s name. To prove that they’d lied,” Mrs Kemlo explained.
A Capita health care assistant visited Victoria’s home in Market Drayton, Shropshire, to carry out a health assessment in March 2018.
Despite suffering from constant pain and having previously qualified for PIP for six years, the Capita employee found that Victoria did not score any points on
the assessment and her benefit was stopped by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Unite Community in Stoke-on-Trent have appealed on behalf of a number of disabled people whose PIP has been stopped after being seen by the Capita employee who assessed Victoria, with every case being successfully overturned at tribunal.
Within a few months of her PIP being stopped, Victoria died from a brain haemorrhage, with doctors saying that her underlying health issues, especially the fibromyalgia, had also worsened.
Victoria’s PIP was later reinstated at a tribunal a week after she had died, while the court case brought by Mrs Kemlo in the months after her daughter’s death ruled that Capita had made numerous incorrect statements in regards to Victoria.
Mrs Kemlo said, “The system is not fit for purpose. It’s like being in Victorian times when the disabled and the poor were treated as second class citizens. Without our money my daughter would have had no food. It’s just so wrong.
“It’s changed our whole family completely. We’re not a complete family anymore. I had two children, I’ve now got one. We’re having to cope with life without Victoria.”
In support of Mrs Kemlo, Unite community branch secretary for Stoke and North Staffordshire, Duncan Walker, amassed 800 pages of evidence relating to Victoria’s case.He said, “In the tragic case of Victoria, this was just one more example of shocking maladministration by Capita at public expense.
“Every PIP case undertaken by Unite members in Stoke-on-Trent with the specific health care professional in Victoria’s case has been overturned by the social security tribunals.
“It is an abuse of public funds and plainly wrong that such reports are presented as fact and a shameful indictment of the government welfare reform ideology clearly persecuting disabled and vulnerable people.”
The decision by Capita to drop its appeal against the ruling should herald a new and more sympathetic way for assessing benefits, said head of Unite Community Liane Groves.
She said, “Despite the tragic circumstances of Victoria Smith’s case, we hope that Capita and other companies contracted to assess benefit claimants, on behalf of the government, will now adopt a new and more sympathetic approach to assessing claimants.
“Unfortunately, this case is not an isolated incident. Unite Community has an 80 per cent success rate in helping claimants with their PIP appeals. All too often the DWP and the private profit-driven companies that carry out work capability assessments choose to ignore expert medical evidence.”
Groves paid tribute to Susan Kemlo for “the courage and tenacity” she showed in pursuing justice for Victoria.
“We must all now work harder to ensure that what happened to Victoria is never repeated,” Groves added. “This is the message that Unite is strongly giving to Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd, as making a claim for benefits is stressful at the best of times and even worse if you are suffering from life-threatening conditions.”
Groves also lauded Duncan Walker for single handedly gathering the mountains of evidence needed for the case to be won, praising him for a “painstaking and diligent task carried out with dedication and great attention to detail”.
Though Capita apologised “for any additional distress” to Victoria’s family after reversing its decision to appeal the ruling, pledges from the firm to reform its deeply flawed assessment system have not been forthcoming.
Instead the firm said it had “considered this exceptional case on an individual basis (and) decided not to contest the original default judgement”.
In late July the outsourcing giant announced it had secured a two-year extension, worth approximately £112m, to its contract to deliver PIP assessments for the DWP.
The firm also signed an additional two-year extension, worth approximately £33m, to its PIP assessment contract with the Department of Communities (DfC) in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Kemlo’s voice cracked when she was asked if she had advice for disabled people and their families at the receiving end of inaccurate PIP assessments carried out by Capita and other benefit assessment firms.
She said, “God help anybody in that situation. I would tell them to fight back. Don’t take it lying down. You have to fight.”
This feature first appeared in uniteWORKS, Autumn 2019