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A former vet who claims the stress of losing his benefits has put him in a wheelchair and a former teacher who believes the UK welfare reform agenda is worsening her multiple sclerosis (MS) will give evidence at Holyrood this week.
Ian Megahy, from Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, and Marlene Hepburn, from Stirling, will appear before the Welfare Reform Committee as part of its ``Your Say'' appeal for testimony on the impact of the Department for Work and Pensions` (DWP) benefit reforms.
Last week, the DWP revealed that more than a quarter of Scots on incapacity benefit prior to October 2010 had now been reclassified as "fit for work'' - in excess of 17,000 people. But those giving evidence to the committee believe the DWP and its private-sector assessors Atos Healthcare are not listening to the difficulties and fears of genuinely disabled people.
Mr Megahy, a former veterinary surgeon with debilitating chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, was reclassified "fit for work'' after eight years on incapacity benefit. He said he was sent home from his Atos assessment in a courtesy taxi after being deemed too sick to travel from Glasgow to Hamilton by public transport, and later collapsed in a doctor's waiting room and required an ambulance after being told his appeal had failed. "The diagnosis was a severe flare-up of my condition caused by stress and I believe that the call from the DWP was a major contributing factor,'' he wrote in a written submission to the committee. ``My condition has continued to deteriorate in that I have begun to use a wheelchair.'' He added: "I find living a major difficulty and work would be an impossibility. The attendant stress that this process has caused over the last 11 months has caused a real worsening of my condition.''
Ms Hepburn, a former teacher with MS, was reclassified "fit for work'' after five years on incapacity benefit. She said: "My fear is that this whole experience will trigger a relapse. The emotional stress has been enormous and has had a detrimental impact on my health. "I appreciate the benefits system needs to be reformed, but not to the detriment of genuine claimants.'' She added: "My level of anxiety has reached an almost unbearable level. My MS nurse has advised me to keep my stress levels down as stress has a damaging impact on MS. "Welfare reform is a good idea in principle but when it has such a negative impact on the vulnerable then somebody needs to listen and action needs to be taken to protect people like me.''
Committee convener Michael McMahon, a Labour MSP, said: "It is all too easy for talk of welfare reform to be about numbers or to generalise and stereotype. "The reality is it affects individuals with unique circumstances and challenges. "From the start, our committee was clear it wanted to give those affected a voice. Hearing their stories helps demonstrate the impact the policies are having on the vulnerable in our society.''
Deputy convener Jamie Hepburn, an SNP MSP, said: "Hearing from witnesses about the fear welfare reform is causing them is never easy. "It is our duty to then ask the hard questions of those in power about how they propose to solve the problems our witnesses face in their daily lives.'' A DWP spokeswoman: "The previous system abandoned people to a life on benefits without checking to see if they could, with the right support, go back to work. "We've made substantial changes to the work capability assessment and the proportion of people being placed in the support group has more than doubled in just two years. "Employment support allowance has regular reassessments to see if a person's condition has improved or worsened, and assess how this affects their ability to work. "Our reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities and Universal Credit will make over three million households better off through making work pay.''