An Eccles grandmother on disability benefits was accidentally overpaid £30,000 over five years because officials were unable to read the handwriting of a doctor who examined her.
Driving test examiner Angela Paisey, 57, had been seen by a consultant after being forced off work with a debilitating arterial disease which required surgery on her legs.
But the senior medic’s scribbled report was so illegible, civil servants at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) mistakenly believed Mrs Paisey was entitled to the highest level of mobility and carer payments, and waved through £500 per month in welfare handouts.
The blunder went unnoticed for five years until one of Mrs Paisey’s work colleagues tipped off investigators at the DWP that she might be claiming too much and officials began investigating her.
Last week Mrs Paisey, from Eccles, Greater Manchester was due to face court on benefit fraud charges but the case was thrown by a judge after civil servants admitted they had sanctioned the payments after misreading the doctor’s report.
Today she told how she had endured a ‘living hell’ since her house was raided by police in June last year. She had been suspended from work for 15 months whilst the case was investigated.
Her peripheral vascular disease is now so severe her leg problems have become inoperable while the case has gone through the courts.
”I could have been sent to jail simply because someone couldn’t read a doctor’s handwriting,” she said. “I just assumed I was getting the right amount because the doctor filed his report and you trust a doctor’s opinion.
“It’s been horrendous and a 16-month living hell – but it seems the DWP don’t care that my reputation has been completely tarnished. They made me feel like a criminal and it was awful.
”The bottom line is it was the DWP that should be blamed for giving me the money. I didn’t know the criteria for how much I would get – it was all in the consultant’s report and for whatever reason the DWP couldn’t read it.”
Mrs Paisey, a blue badge holder, had initially been twice turned down for Disability Living Allowance but applied for a third time in October 2008 when a further operation on her leg left her unable to walk more than 100 yards unaided.
She went to see the consultant who assessed her mobility and then filed his handwritten report with his recommendations to the DWP to help them decided how much benefit Mrs Paisey was entitled to.
Later she was able to return to work full-time but was able to continue claiming the benefits as benefits staff left them open-ended, rather than subject to a yearly review – a service usually reserved for those who have lost a limb or are confined to wheelchairs.
After the DWP were alerted, investigators began filming her as she worked at driving test centres in Blackpool, Preston and as far as London.
In total she received £29,303 in Disability Living Allowance.
Mrs Paisey said she initially applied for DLA because she thought she may be entitled to it.
She applied for the right for mobility and claims a member of staff from DWP phoned her and told her she was eligible for more money.
“She asked a couple of questions and said ‘leave it with me’ and I got it at the highest rate,” she said.
“I had been refused benefits altogether before. They refused and I asked for a review and they refused it again. Then I had my third major operation so I decided to apply again.
“I applied and they gave me it at the highest rate. As it’s off the consultant’s report I thought ‘I must be even worse than I think I am’.
“They gave me it for an indefinite period but I didn’t think anything was the matter. The benefit claim was awarded on the premise these people knew what they were doing but apparently I’m supposed to be psychic.
“I never saw any reason to question the doctor’s report and had no correspondence with the DWP regarding my benefits apart from her annual statement.”
Mrs Paisey claims she told the consultant she did not require any care and even specified this on the report yet the DWP said she was entitled to care payments and had no reason to question it.
“Everyone at work knew I was on benefits,” she said. “It wasn’t a secret. I explained what I had been through. Why would I hide it? It was legitimate as far as I was concerned.
”They had been filming me at work to try and prove I could do more than I claimed. I had said I couldn’t walk more than 100 yards and that was always the case.
“I used to come down the stairs and out to the car – about 20 yards. They filmed me for five or six months all over the country to try and gather some evidence. I didn’t have a clue this was going on.
“What’s really frightening is that when they arrested me they put me in the police station and searched my house, took my laptop and phone and got me in a room with just the duty solicitor and it was very intimidating.
“They were saying I was fraudulent from the off, which I never was. That night I could have said ‘it’s fair, you have me’, because they frighten you so much.”
Despite being thrown out of court because of the error, Mrs Paisey says she was made to feel like the guilty party throughout the investigation.
“It’s got to be the DWP who are to blame,” she said. “They are saying I should never have had benefits but they couldn’t prosecute me because it was their error.
“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. Innocent until proven guilty? That’s how I feel.
“In the police station everyone treated you as guilty right from the off. I don’t know where innocent until proven guilty comes from.”
At Blackpool magistrates court, 18 driving test centre managers from all parts of the UK were due to testify against Mrs Paisey.
But when doubt was raised about the way her claim had been handled by the Government, the prosecution offered no further evidence and the case was dismissed by District Judge Peter Hollingworth.
Mrs Paisey now faces a tribunal on October 7 to see if the DWP will pursue their case further and make her repay the money.
A DWP Spokesman said: “This case relates to the old system of Disability Living Allowance which is an outdated benefit with many claimants on indefinite awards without systematic on-going checks.
“That is why we have introduced the new Personal Independence Payment with a face to face assessment and regular reviews.
“This is to ensure the benefit is more objective and support better targeted at those who need it most.”
Story via Cavendish Press.
Main image courtesy of Kevin Walsh. Inset image courtesy of Facebook, with thanks.