Views & Reviews Personal View

It is too difficult for ill people to claim benefits

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 30 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7209
  1. Anne E Dyson, general practitioner, Brickfields Surgery, 4 Brickfields Road, South Woodham Ferrers, Essex CM3 5XB, UK
  1. annedyson58{at}

I have worked in the NHS as a principal and partner in general practice providing primary care for patients since 1986. I have met patients who have told me of the difficulties they’d had claiming sickness benefits, but I had previously had no personal experience of the system.

Recently I was diagnosed as having breast cancer and had to have a mastectomy and sentinel lymph node biopsy and needed chemotherapy, trastuzumab (Herceptin), and radiotherapy to give myself the best possible chance of long term cure. This treatment meant that I have been unable to work since early July 2012 because of illness. I have regularly paid national insurance contributions throughout my working life, since 1982.

I wanted to claim employment and support allowance, which is a non-means tested benefit based on the amount of national insurance contributions that has been paid to date. I looked at the Department for Work and Pensions website, naively thinking that I would be able to complete a claim online. But this is not possible, and neither can you obtain a claim form to complete at home and send back. Instead, I was expected to ring an 0845 telephone number, which is charged at a non-geographical rate, at my own expense; wait for 30 minutes for the phone to be answered; and complete a 40 minute telephone interview with someone in a call centre. She said that she would send the forms for me to check and sign.

Unfortunately, when I received the forms they contained several errors; the most important was that I had been recorded as a dental rather than a general practitioner, and the dentist’s address had been given instead of my surgery. So I had to telephone the 0845 number again, wait another 30 minutes for the call to be answered, and tell the representative that the forms had been wrongly completed. I asked if it were possible to send the forms back with amendments, but that was not acceptable. Instead, I had to write a covering letter pointing out the errors and discrepancies and providing the correct information.

I was also asked to produce my original birth certificate, marriage certificate, and medical certificate of sickness and to provide details of any pensions or sickness insurances that I had paid for privately. These documents had to be sent by recorded delivery to the local Jobcentre office to process my claim.

I was shocked by the bureaucracy of a system that is supposed to be a safety net for people who fall sick through no fault of their own and have paid national insurance contributions all their lives. Fortunately, I am not reliant on receiving any state benefits for my living expenses because I have sufficient private provision, but I am sure that many of my patients are not in such a lucky position. Furthermore, I do not feel ill or unwell as such, otherwise I might not have had the strength and perseverance to persist with my claim. And nor do I have hearing loss or a speech impairment, which would make a telephone interview impossible. I am also organised enough to know where to find my birth and marriage certificates and so on.

It is a scandal that the system is so complicated: it is likely to fail the very people who are most in need of help. I suspect this may be a deliberate government ploy to reduce the number of benefit claims and reduce the overall cost of welfare. If so this should be publicised and shown for what it is: the government withholding funds from sick and needy people through a bureaucratic claim system.


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7209


  • Competing interests: The author has completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at (available on request from the corresponding author) and declares: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Provenance and peer review: Submitted on 15 August 2012 as a rapid response to BMJ 1988;296:1341; not externally peer reviewed.

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