Neil MacVicar is now in remission from a brain tumour (Photo: Fabio De Paola)
Neil MacVicar was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25 in December 2016. Doctors found a tumour the “size of a plum” on his brain.
Just twelve days after neurosurgery to remove the growth, when he should have been recovering and preparing for gruelling radiotherapy, Neil was forced to go to the Jobcentre to sign on for Universal Credit.
The application can be difficult for claimants in good health. For a cancer patient struggling with exhaustion and confusion from an operation, it was nearly impossible. It took Neil six gruelling hours in total to complete his application.
He was staying with his family in Inverness at the time, and Neil cannot understand why, given his circumstances, he was made to endure that and why the Jobcentre could not have obtained the information from his doctors.
He is now in remission after successful surgery and treatment, and says he was let down by the “bizarre” system.
Neil told inews :“They had me sitting in the actual Jobcentre for a little bit trying to fill in the forms. Then I went home and had to do it. My concentration was all over the place so it took me absolutely ages. I don’t understand why they couldn’t just get that [information] from the doctors.”
“I thought I was being perceived as scamming the system. I had cancer. I felt really let down to be honest,” he says.
It took Neil a while to realise there was something wrong with his health. He moved to London from Scotland seven years ago, was working hard as a bar manager at the time. The work was “stressful work with long hours” but he started to experience dizziness, which he suspected was related to an earache. With his symptoms getting worse, he went to hospital while visiting his family in Inverness, on Scotland’s northeast coast.
He said: “Doctors realised I had a brain tumour the size of a plum. They rushed me through to Aberdeen for surgery. And then a week or two later they phoned me to say it was cancer. It wasn’t a benign tumour.”
Knowing he would have to stay in Scotland for the duration of his treatment, Neil decided to keep renting his room in Islington, northwest London. “I thought I would be bouncing back and returning to my normal life relatively quickly.”
Before he began six weeks of aggressive radiotherapy, Neil tried to sign on to Universal Credit. Following the stressful and lengthy application process, his anger and disappointment only intensified as he had to wait about six weeks for his first payment to come through. When his money did arrive, Neil was shocked at the amount: £780. It covered his rent and bills for his room in London but left him with barely anything to live on day-to-day.
“I phoned them up to say there must be mistake. I was kept on hold for an hour at a time when I was going through my radiotherapy only to be told because I’m 25, I’m not an adult so I should just move back in with my parents. And then they told me it was my fault for living in Islington and that it’s expensive there and I could just move somewhere cheaper.
He added: “I’m very independent. I’ve lived by myself since I was 19 so hearing that I’m not an adult was absolutely insane to me. I was old enough to get married, buy booze and serve in the army but [I wasn’t considered an] adult [to get] benefits. It really got me down.”
After recovery over a few months, Neil moved back to London in June 2017 and continued to receive Universal Credit. He was eager to get back into work but could only do a part-time job because the cancer had left him with severe fatigue.
“There was no support there. I kept saying to my work coach [Jobcentre employees who help claimants move into employment] I was desperate for work. She didn’t lift a single finger to help me find anything. Nothing at all. Which has really pissed me off to be honest.”
Neil, now 27, has found a job as a support worker for a charity which helps people with mental health problems receive their benefits. He says his experience with Universal Credit has left him feeling “down, angry and upset”.
“I had multiple times when I was in tears because of it. On top of everything; the amount of shit I had to go through with the cancer and surgery.”
He added: “I think if I didn’t have the support network of my parents and friends I’d either be homeless or dead and that’s the reality. As a cancer patient, every single bit of this has penalised me for trying to move forward in my life. There has been no help or support [from the Jobcentre], only from charities which are inundated with people struggling with Universal Credit.”
Macmillan Cancer Support’s chief executive Lynda Thomas said: “People with cancer should be able to focus their energy on their health, not worrying about how to make ends meet when they are too unwell to work.”
“It is unacceptable to force patients to risk infection at Jocentres, log onto computers from hospital and wait more than a month for vital financial support, even at the end of their lives.
“The system is failing people with cancer and we urge the Government to fix this benefit, before tens of thousands more vulnerable people are put at risk of hardship.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Universal Credit is a flexible benefit, and we can reschedule appointments, if people make us aware that they are unwell.
“We’re committed to ensuring that people with health conditions get the support they’re entitled to. Decisions on PIP are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant, including supporting evidence from their GP or medical specialist.”
The Department seem to disregard the fact that sometimes people are simply too ill to provide an indifferent wall of bureaucracy with endless evidence that they are ‘really’ ill.
Anyone in need of welfare advice can call Macmillan’s free support line on 0808 808 00 00 or visit www.macmillan.org.uk
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