PARTIALLY-sighted and only able to walk with the aid of a stick, Jacqueline Harris suffered crippling pain due to slipped discs in her back and neck. Her mobility was reduced further when a dog savaged one of her wrists.
Despite being in agony which strong pain relief could not ease, the 53-year-old was deemed to be fit for work following a government health assessment and told to find a job.
Her sister claims the verdict that she was ineligible for disability benefits drove her to take her own life earlier this month.
Nurse Christine Norman, top right, said her fitness-to-work assessment at a government-run centre lasted only a few minutes.
It is claimed that during the test she was only asked one question – “Did you come here by bus?”, to which she answered ‘yes’. The widow later received a letter by post telling her to find employment.
Ms Harris contested the ruling but was found dead at her home in Speedwell Road, Kingswood, on November 2 having taken an overdose.
A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) tribunal hearing had been due to take place to consider her appeal two weeks later.
Her older sister Mrs Norman, 57, from Whitchurch, said her sibling was already low due to her health problems but could not bear the pressure of being forced into work.
She said: “She said couldn’t do it anymore and that no-one was listening to her and no-one cared. She told me she couldn’t work and that nobody believed her.
She just wanted her benefit so she could have avoided the pressure of work – it wasn’t a massive amount of money.”
Of the appointment at the assessment centre last year, she said her sister spent two hours on two buses travelling to the centre, run by private firm Atos Healthcare, and spent only two minutes having an assessment. Mother-of-two Mrs Norman said her sister was only asked one question at the assessment: “Did you get here by bus?”
“She replied with one fateful word – ‘yes’,” said Mrs Norman. “She hadn’t even had the chance to take her coat off.
“If she was addicted to alcohol or drugs, she would have been given a sick note.
“Being a nurse and a health professional I am so disappointed – anyone could see she wasn’t fit to work. She would have loved to have had a job but couldn’t.
“How much grief, pain and anguish do you have to go through before they realise?”
Following the ruling, her benefits were stopped in January and she sought help through the Citizens’ Advice Bureau.
Her first appeal against the decision failed, but the second appeal was due to be heard at HM Court Tribunal Service in Cardiff on November 15.
Ms Harris suffered from arthritis in her neck and back due to her slipped discs but her pain was exacerbated after an unsuccessful operation on her neck last year.
She was left in agony every time one of her arms was touched, making everyday tasks a huge challenge.
Bones from her hand had been removed during separate surgery after she had been attacked by a dog she had agreed to look after at her home.
She had previously been a recipient of incapacity benefit but was trying to claim its replacement called an Employment and Support Allowance, first introduced in 2008.
Paying tribute to her sister, a former nurse who lost her husband Brian six years ago, Mrs Norman said she tried to remain positive despite facing an uphill struggle every day.
Mrs Norman said: “She was gregarious and loved dogs, and music and to boogie as much as her back would allow. She was an intelligent girl.”
An inquest into Ms Harris’ death has been opened and adjourned.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman said: “Our sympathy goes out to the family of Mrs Harris during what must be a very difficult time.
“A decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough assessment and after consideration of all the supporting medical evidence.
“Through a series of independent reviews and by working with medical experts and charities, we have considerably improved the work capability assessment process since 2010 to make it fairer and more accurate.”
An Atos spokeswoman said: “Our sympathies go out to Ms Harris’s family.
“Atos Healthcare carries out assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions and under its guidelines. But we do not make decisions on people’s benefit entitlement, nor are we involved in the appeal process.”