Classical Pianist Died Penniless After Being Judged Fit To Work
A classically trained pianist has died penniless after government assessors deemed him fit for work and stripped him of his benefits – despite doctors explaining he needed a new heart.
Robert Barlow, who died aged 47 in his native Liverpool, had his Employment and Support Allowance stopped after benefit assessors Atos ruled he was healthy enough to hold down a job.
Mr Barlow had worked for the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as a microbiologist for 15 years before poor health forced him to give it up nine years ago.
Doctors diagnosed him with severe cardiomyopathy – failure of the heart muscle – and recommended a heart transplant, saying that without it he might have as little as 18 months left to live.
However, despite never having a transplant he survived for a further nine years.
After years on benefits and despite his diagnosis, in January 2012, Mr Barlow was ruled healthy enough to work and, three months later, his benefits were withdrawn. He also lost his right to free NHS prescriptions.
He died almost two years later, in November 2013.
Towards the end of his life, Mr Barlow developed a brain tumour, could not walk and struggled to even read due to poor eyesight.
His family – backed by Labour MP Luciana Berger – now want the Government to learn lessons from the tragic case.
His aunt, Joan Westland, 85, said: ‘I don’t know how they expected him to work. Nobody would have loved to work more than him, but he simply couldn’t.
‘Robert said he wouldn’t have the heart transplant.
‘He had no commitments and thought it would be better if there was a heart for it to go to somebody else. We tried to talk him into having the operation but he wouldn’t do it.
‘It’s too late for Robert but there must be so many other people out there who are going through the same thing. It’s horrible.
‘They need to rethink the whole system because they are ruining people’s lives.’
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said Mr Barlow initially challenged the decision to stop his benefits but then withdrew his appeal.
His aunt – who was awarded the British Empire Medal for her work for the Government – claimed that was because he became too ill to fight the case.
She added: ‘Robert had very little money on benefits and nothing at all when his money was stopped. I know there are scroungers but he was not one of them.
‘I want these fitness-to-work tests to stop because I don’t want other people going through the same trauma. Robert was very, very distressed after his assessment.’
Roger died after a fall at home last November and since then Atos has quit its £500million contract to carry out fit-to-work tests and ministers are looking for a new provider.
Wavertree MP Ms Berger, a shadow health minister, raised Mr Barlow’s tragic story in the House of Commons last month.
She said: ‘It’s not enough to change the provider. The whole process needs to be totally redesigned.
‘My constituent is someone who lost his life at a time when his ESA was suspended.
‘He was too sick to appeal the decision and died while he had no access to benefits.’
A DWP spokesman said: ‘Our thoughts are with Mr Barlow’s family. However, it is not true to say he died after being found fit for work.
‘Mr Barlow appealed to the Tribunal Service, but the appeal was then withdrawn so we couldn’t continue the benefit claim. He died over a year later.
‘The WCA was introduced by the previous Government and we knew it wasn’t working as well as it should, which is why we introduced a series of independent reviews and have made significant changes to make it better.’