Northampton man: ‘Not filling out sickness form left me in poverty’

Steven Allen and Neil Harwood, from the charity Re:store Northampton
Steven Allen and Neil Harwood, from the charity Re:store Northampton

A former butcher from Northampton has criticised benefit sanctions after he was certified too ill to work by a GP yet had all Government support stopped when he omitted to fill out a form.

Neil Harwood, 51, from Semilong, was made redundant then struck down by a chronic illness in 2013 and was unable to find a job.

He was relying on benefits while he looked for work but, despite getting an official sick note from his doctor, had all monies stopped when he missed a job seekers’ appointment through his ill health.

He said: “There was a form that I apparently had to fill in to accompany the sicknote.

“I filled it out as soon as I was told, but that was too late. My money was stopped and I was on my own.”

Although he eventually was reimbursed, it left him living on the breadline for weeks with no prospect of reinstatement.

He said: “The worst thing is having to borrow from friends, it hurts your pride.

“I ran out of food bank vouchers quite quickly so I had no money at all.

“Two or three days a week, I had no electricity because I’m on a meter.

“It basically means you have nowhere to go and nothing to do, through no fault of my own.

“It feels like the medical assessors are out to get you. If you are long-term sick it just feels like they will catch you in the end to save a little bit more money.”

Mr Harwood said his was a common plight among people he knew, a number of whom were on in-work benefits.

He said: “I have a few friends who have been hit by benefits sanctions and I know it really makes you struggle.

“I was really at rock bottom so I’ve got no idea how a family with young kids would get by, it seems impossible to me.

“Where do you turn? Shoplifting? Other crime? It makes people desperate.”

The DWP has defended benefit sanctions to the Chron, saying they are necessary to ensure appointments with assessors are kept.

Welfare experts in Northampton have repeatedly said that benefit sanctioning is their number one reason for clients finding themselves in crisis.

For many, the reason for the reduction or full cut is an administrative error, but that can send people spiralling into poverty until it is resolved.

Often, however, there are long waiting lists for cases to be reassessed, leaving some with little or no income and relying on charity handouts.

Mr Harwood found the Re:store Northampton charity, which runs the town’s food bank and an allotment skills scheme, to be an invaluable source of support.

Lottery-funded, it upgrades the CVs of people like him who have fallen on economic hardship and encourages them to “grow their own”. Some of the food grown is taken home by those referred - who may have been made redundant, have long-term ill health or are reformed criminals - along with stock and soup recipes.

Mr Harwood is benefitting from an allotment course, and wants to be a mentor himself, but said it was Re:store’s emotional support for which he would be forever grateful.

He said: “I really felt like they not only listened but actually cared. What they did for me I want to do for someone else.

“However, in an ideal world nobody else would go through what I did.”