THE Department of Work and Pensions is creating “a benefits trap” that means people with “invisible” disabilities are unable to return to work because they will be denied thousands of pounds worth of the benefits they are entitled to, it is claimed.

Claimants with mental health problems, chronic fatigue and other hidden disabilities – backed by politicians, health professionals and welfare workers – also told the Sunday National they were being discriminated against when applying for Personal Independence Payments (PIP), supposed to help them manage daily lives.

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PIP, first introduced by the Conservative Government in 2013, has been gradually rolling out in place of Disability Living Allowance. The assessment process has been widely condemned as degrading, humiliating and unfit for purpose.

The National:

Now those claiming the benefit say they are being “punished” for finding ways to manage their conditions.

They are calling for better recognition of “invisible” disabilities such as fibromyalgia – a long-term condition causing pain all over the body.

They include Annie – not her real name – who this week will write to the Cabinet Secretary for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd protesting the decision to stop her PIP late last year, just months after she returned to part-time work.

Annie, who previously worked in mental health, has fibromyalgia, and claims that she is one of numerous people who have been penalised for self-managing the condition well enough to return to work part-time in a nursery.

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She previously ran a social enterprise, working regular 50-hour weeks.

Now the morning-only job allows her to nap in the afternoon so she can care for her children when they return from school.

She stopped work in 2016, after years of health concerns including fatigue and memory loss so bad she feared she was experiencing early onset dementia. “I was incredibly busy at work, was postponing doctors appointments because I didn’t have time to go and then suddenly I just broke down, I hit a wall,” she said.

“I was suicidal, I was totally lost and just over eight stone in weight.”

After going through “horrific” assessments for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and PIP, during which she was asked why she had not acted on suicidal thoughts, she was awarded benefits and started to rebuild her life.

Due to her determination to find coping strategies, she was able to return to work in September last year.

In November she had in re-apply for PIP. At the assessment she detailed difficulties with daily living – which PIP payments are intended to help those with disabilities manage – including pain every day, difficulties with cooking for herself and her children, fatigue, memory problems, and ongoing suicidal thoughts.

Her claims were backed by letters from health professionals, seen by the Sunday National.

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However, her claim was refused.

She now expects to lose her disability tax credits and council tax reductions as a result, leaving her £700 a month worse off, more than she currently earns.

She is frustrated and fearful that her condition will deteriorate without the support, leading to “the pit of hell” of relapse.

“The UK Government bang the drum about supporting people with disabilities to get back into work but the reality is I have been punished and penalised for being determined to get back to work whilst living with a disability,” she said.

The National:

“When I was working I saw this happening all the time to people.

There was a very definite connection with people returning to work and their PIP being removed.

‘‘Accessing the system made me feel like a second-class citizen. I was made to feel ashamed and unworthy of help.

“The Government talks about the benefit trap, but I think it’s of its own making.”

Difficulties accessing PIP are echoed by Heather Muir, 40, from Carluke, who first started to experience chronic pain after her friend died from cancer. Fibromyalgia was later diagnosed along with rheumatism and hypermobility disorder.

Her condition forced her to drop out of university after her third year of a psychology degree course and give up work as a domestic assistant.

She applied for PIP but was refused.

“I think my mistake was telling them how well I was managing my condition,” she said. She claims her experience of assessment was “terrible”.

“I was very tearful throughout the process. I’ve struggled to come to terms with my condition. It was very difficult to have to talk about my weaknesses.”

She fought the process with the help of her MP and won her appeal in September last year, which was backdated by three years. It’s a relief but she’s left deeply frustrated. Her mother decided not to apply for PIP when she was diagnosed with cancer last year despite her eligibility after watching the struggles her daughter faced.

Staff must be better trained to understand the complexities of invisible conditions, she claimed. “I felt that I was penalised for managing, for having friends and family who cared,” she added.

Angela Crawley, SNP MP for Lanark and Hamilton East, who has been supporting both women will raise the suffering being caused by in a Westminster Hall debate on mental health and the benefit assessment process on Tuesday.

She said: “I do not believe assessors have been trained adequately to assess mental ill health, and the descriptors within the PIP, ESA and UC assessments often do not allow mental health issues to score someone extra points for their application, even when the level of debilitation is the same as physical symptoms. This translates to the DWP justifying a benefits refusal.

“I have several cases open at the moment, and many cases in the past, where mental health is not given the same consideration as physical health in benefits assessments.

“Worryingly I have heard on numerous occasions of people who have been asked extremely blunt questions like ‘if you are depressed, why haven’t you killed yourself?’ by assessors.

This can be extremely disturbing to people who are suffering at the time of assessment.”

Brian Scott, development manager for the Glasgow Disability Alliance, runs its welfare project Rights Now which has supported more than 80 people in the city since its launch in September.

Interventions by the project’s two welfare officers have led to financial gains of £130,000 in just four months, including a successful appeal which resulted in backdated payments of £18,600. He said: “A huge concern for GDA and our members is that those with an existing award and who have lifelong conditions or severe mental health issues often have their supporting evidence from medical practitioners ignored.

“The default approach seems to be to insist on individuals having a medical assessment to reassess their PIP award, despite suffering from lifelong conditions with no prospect of improvement.”

The organisation is now calling for the PIP eligibility to be changed, allowing a “light touch” approach for those long-term conditions, with reviews only every 10 years.

Dr Simon Stewart, a clinical psychologist, said that he regularly saw the devastating impact cuts to PIP. “The benefits system is increasingly a massive issue for the people mental health clinicians are seeing,” he added.

“It’s a system that is punitive and doesn’t take into account that recovery is a long and non-linear process.

“I’ve seen people who are at their wits ends because they haven’t been awarded the money to which I believe they are entitled.”

A DWP spokeswoman said it was unable to comment on individual cases without more detail. But she added: “PIP assessments are carried out by qualified health professionals and decisions are made following consideration of all the information provided.

“One of the reasons we introduced PIP was to ensure that invisible and non-physical conditions were given parity with physical conditions.”

She claimed under PIP, 31% of people with mental health conditions receive the highest possible support, compared with just 6% under DLA. Last September Scottish Cabinet Secretary Shirley Anne Somerville spoke out against the “rigid” system.

The Scottish Government has pledged to change the assessment process when it takes responsibility, due to happen by 2021. A spokesman said it was “committed to having as few assessments as possible, but when they are necessary people will always be treated with dignity and respect”.