MS sufferer trapped in own home hits out over new benefits system cuts
A man with multiple sclerosis (MS) has told how he became a virtual prisoner in his own home as a result of the controversial new benefits system.
Simon Matchett, who is unable to even get out of bed at times, saw his payments slashed by £120 a month, while his car was also taken away.
Mr Matchett is speaking out today to coincide with a campaign by the MS Society calling for a review of a "senseless and unfounded rule in the disability benefits system".
The charity has said people with the neurological condition have been increasingly losing vital support since the introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIP) in Northern Ireland in 2016.
It estimates the benefit cuts to people with MS are costing the health service at least an additional £7.7m a year in GP services and attendances at overstretched emergency departments.
In particular, the charity has hit out at the introduction of the 20-metre rule - meaning that if a person is assessed as able to walk the length of two buses, they lose the higher rate of mobility support.
Simon, who was diagnosed with the condition when he was 32, explained: "The nurse who assessed me knew nothing about MS. My physical assessment consisted of asking me if I could stand on my tiptoes and my heels, which I couldn't, and I had to squeeze her hands.
"She actually said I could walk 40 metres even though she hadn't actually witnessed me doing that and it was not part of the assessment. As a result of that, I was given 10 points and I needed 12 points to get the higher level of benefits.
"It meant I was on the standard rate of mobility, so I lost my car, and I received £21.80 per week but that only covered two return taxi fares to the supermarket.
"The nearest bus stop is 200m away from my house and I use a crutch so walking to the bus would be a massive challenge.
"Then I would have to get a bus into the town and then another bus to the supermarket and do that all the way back with shopping, while using a crutch.
"It impacted my life massively and it was so isolating. There are days where getting up and getting dressed, or going into the kitchen and making myself something to eat, are massive challenges.
"I knew nothing about MS before I was diagnosed but it can be extremely debilitating and I have never regained the use of my left side from when the condition attacked my nervous system before."
Simon, who is now 38 and was forced to give up his job as an account manager and move back to Northern Ireland from Edinburgh following his shock diagnosis, was subsequently assessed as being entitled to a motability car following an intervention by his local MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon.
After three and half months without access to a vehicle, he was finally given a new car.
However, he remains on the lower band when it comes to the living element of his PIP payments.
This equates to a £120 monthly reduction, from £320 under the now defunct Disability Living Allowance to £200 a month.
He has been forced to reassess his finances in order to live within his means.
"I have to be careful with my money, and I had to get rid of little things that people might regard as a luxury but make a massive difference to my life," he said.
"I cancelled my Netflix subscription which might not seem a big deal but for me, who might not be physically up to leaving the house for days at a time, it is significant."
Patricia Gordon, Northern Ireland director of the MS Society, said that contrary to the Government's insistence that PIP is meant to help those with the greatest needs, it is actually causing enormous harm to people with the condition.
"Many of them are losing their independence as a result," she said.
"This senseless and unfounded rule is leading to people with the highest need facing the biggest losses.
"The 20-metre rule was strongly opposed by charities, people with MS and medical professionals when it was first introduced.
"We can clearly see the negative impacts in Northern Ireland. Enough is enough - PIP needs to change, starting with scrapping the 20-metre rule."