***Correction*** When I first posted this I got a few dates wrong. The Tribunal’s Judgement was made in October 2011, not December 2011. I was notified of the Tribunal’s Judgement at the time, and I requested the full Statement of Reasons in order to decide whether to appeal. It was the Statement of Reasons that was given in December 2011, but which I did not receive at the time as it was sent to the wrong address. I received the Tribunal’s Statement of Reasons on May 13th, not June 13th. June 13th was the deadline of my decision whether to appeal or not. Apologies for the lack of clarity the first time round, I managed to confuse myself. A salient lesson in proofreading and perhaps sitting on a post for a while…
Hi there. My name’s Paul Anderson. You might know me. Maybe you know me as a writer, a publisher, an editor. Perhaps you’ve come to know me on Twitter as a an English teacher.
But did you know that I’m also a benefit cheat who deliberately set out to make a fraudulent claim, whilst lying about having a mental illness?
You didn’t? It’s all true. I have a court judgement from the First Tier Social Security Tribunal in Sutton which says as much.
Allow me to explain…
In February 2010 I was made redundant. I didn’t resume work until January 2011. For 11 months I was unemployed, and in that time I had two job interviews, one of which I was successful in (hence my return to work). During this period I was suffering from depression, receiving psychiatric treatment, lost my unemployment benefit and my housing benefit twice due to mistakes made by the Department for Work and Pensions (which they admitted) and the London Borough of Hounslow (which they also admitted). My landlord also made an attempt to evict me and Julia, and things got so difficult that at times I was sat in tears in front of my Jobcentre Plus advisor, and a senior manager at LB Houslow, sobbing my eyes and telling them that I would be better off dead.
And then I got a job, and that’s where, rather than get easier, things got more complicated.
I informed all relevant departments that I was going to be in work. It seems that, despite telling departments this, they take it upon themselves to pretend you didn’t. LB Hounslow started sending “we believe you are in work and are suspending your housing benefit pending investigation” letters. The letters said that if you had already informed them of a change of circumstances, you didn’t need to take any action. I had, so I didn’t.
Letters kept coming. So I phoned them. I was verbally assured that everything was fine. I wanted to be sure. I told them I didn’t want any money being paid that I wasn’t due. They told me I wouldn’t.
Shortly after I began work, I got a payment. As I was paid fortnightly in arrears, this seemed to be due to me. Then another came. I called again. “No Mr Anderson, you are not receiving any money that you are not owed.”
The subsequent demand letters indicated otherwise. Except the demand letters were interspersed by letters telling me I was about to be paid increasing sums. Over the course of three days I received four letters each telling me I was getting a different amount, plus several hundred pounds in previously owed housing benefit.
I complained. A lot. Over several months, involving my local councillor and others, I had investigations launched, apologies from LB Hounslow, extensions on deadlines, mountains of letters.
It eventually went to a Tribunal hearing. Which I lost.
I trained as a lawyer. I thought I had an arguable case, but every case that goes to court is arguable for either side. I can take losing on a point of law.
But I didn’t lose on a point of law. I lost on facts, facts which the Tribunal Judge (whom I shall not name as, despite my personal opinion that he was biased, prejudiced ignorant fuck, deserves some measure of respect due to his position) chose to interpret to suit a prejudiced conception of who I am.
With the result that, in the eyes of the Tribunal, I defrauded the system. I lied about my state of mental health in order to further my deception. I am a benefit cheat.
My favourite parts of the judgement. No record was provided by LB Hounslow of the phone calls were I was assured that any money I was receiving, I was entitled to. Apparently LB Hounslow keep records of all calls. So the absence of the call proves it never happened.
Despite the fact that I submitted into evidence the letter from LB Hounslow apologising to me for the wrong information given to me in those calls. So, LB Hounslow conducted a full investigation and decided that they were at fault for something which apparently never happened!
The Judge queried why it took me so long to respond to a letter. The letter was dated 10 January, and I responded on 21 January. He held that an unreasonable length of time, proving my intention to delay responding in order to receive further money. I didn’t begin work until 13 January (though I informed them of when I would be starting). The letter of 10 January was received c. 12 January. It was the letter which said I didn’t need to respond if I had already told them of my change in circumstances. The follow up letter arrived c. 18th January. I called on that date to query, to be assured all payments received were due to me, but that I should put what I was telling them in writing. I did, in a letter dated 21 January.
Despite recounting this in my own evidence, the Judge elected to hold that it was evidence of my intent to defraud.
None of this can be appealed. Appeal can only be made on points of law, and I agree with the findings of law the Judge made. On the facts, his legal reasoning is sound.
My problem is that the facts are wrong; no amount of evidence I submitted seemed to be sufficient. He disbelieved that the Council could lose letters or make mistakes, despite them mistakenly stopping my payments twice, conducting internal investigations twice, and twice holding that they completely failed to carry out their duties, lost correspondence and generally failed me.
I am angry about this, and what really pissed me off was the statement about my mental illness.
To recap: suffering from depression, receiving psychiatric attention, twice mentioned suicidal ideation.
I did not have a mental illness, according to the Tribunal, despite sending in letters from the psychotherapist treating me. The proof? My commencement of responsible employment, and my ability to write clear, well-argued letters.
Fuck. That. Shit.
The judgement was given in October 2011 and I didn’t receive the Statement of Reasons until May 13th 2012 (since the Tribunal sent it to the wrong address—mistakes never happen, remember?). I didn’t read it straight away. I couldn’t face it (y’know, the rational response of someone without an problems).
It was supremely ironic that when I did read it, I had been re-diagnosed as depressed, was back on anti-depressants, was commencing counselling again, and the very next day I was going to run the BUPA London 10,000 on behalf of Mind (y’know, the mental health charity which I don’t really care about because by order of the courts I’m faking it?).
So what is the point of this post? What do I am to achieve?
Well, firstly since a court judgement is, strictly speaking, public domain, I wanted a chance to address the claims in it, since I cannot challenge them in court.
Secondly, and more importantly, I wanted to come out. I’ve got a mental illness. I’ve had it for a very, very long time. It comes and goes. And I refused to admit to it, or seek help for it, because I was scared. Scared of being labelled and judged. And mostly scared of being disbelieved. I still am scared, which is why I get so angry so quickly when people accuse me of lying.
I was furious at this letter, barely able to sit still. And then I just sat down and cried my eyes out, and all I could say was “I’m not a liar, I’m not making it up”.
Mental health funding has been hit badly by the austerity measures. People still treat mental illness as a stigma. The MPs who recently spoke out in Parliament did something groundbreaking. As part of my fundraising for Mind I let people at work know that mental illness was something that I suffered from, something I would never have wanted to do before. I’m becoming comfortable with admitting to it, as it is part of me, and I need to cope with it.
We should be able to be as open about being mentally ill as we would be about having cancer; that is to say, we should be able to reveal it, or keep it private, but not be judged for having it. And in this day and age we should not be told that if we aren’t sitting in a corner of the asylum, rocking back and forth, drooling gently, then there is nothing wrong with us, which is the apparent attitude of some in the judicial system.
On Twitter there is a very active hashtag campaign called #whatstigma, aimed at removing the stigma of mental illness, and drawing attention to the problems still associated with revealing mental health problems.
What stigma? The stigma that by admitting to your problems, that by admitting that your problems have made it difficult for you to function in some areas of your life, you’ll be labelled a fraud and a liar, not just casually by people who don’t understand, but officially, by an institution empowered to punish such frauds.
Apologies if this isn’t the coherent, flowing prose you might expect of me normally. But this is one issue I find it enormously difficult to stay calm about.