Universal Credit: Eastbourne woman who broke back on holiday of lifetime told she was ‘fit for work’ – and 11-month wait for tribunal goes on

JPIMedia Investigations has looked at Universal Credit nationwide
JPIMedia Investigations has looked at Universal Credit nationwide

A woman who broke her back during a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ has described how the Universal Credit system left her feeling like ‘just a piece of dirt’.

Mary-Lou Gregoire had waited years for her dream trip to the Arctic Circle to see killer whales and the Northern Lights, but an accident on a tugboat left her with seven months of ‘excruciating pain’ before doctors eventually realised she had broken her spine.

Universal Credit in Crisis

Universal Credit in Crisis

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The Eastbourne resident had successful surgery in October, 2016 but her injuries left her with nerve damage in her legs and mobility issues. She left her job at a Christian ministry about a year later.

Unable to work because of her debilitating condition, Mary-Lou, 53, was granted standard allowance Universal Credit – but to her shock she was denied additional payments because assessors claimed there were ‘no restrictions’ to prevent her working. This was despite her doctor signing her off for six months at a time, she said.

She is now in limbo, awaiting a date for a tribunal which she hopes will reverse the ruling – about 11 months after applying.

Mary Lou, of Pevensey Road, said: “When I went on Universal Credit I was met with a system that has made me feel like I am just a piece of dirt.

“I am in the loop and find it a very awful loop to be in.”

Mary-Lou’s trip to Norway in late 2015 came as an early 50th birthday present.

“For me it was something I wanted to do for a long time,” she said.

“I was out on a tugboat and the water was a bit choppy. We hit a wave and I remember being in excruciating pain - but my broken back was undiagnosed for seven months. I am really lucky not to be in a wheelchair.”

Read more: Our nationwide investigation into Universal Credit

Mary-Lou applied for Universal Credit after leaving her work, following months of compassionate and sick leave.

She said the initial process was relatively smooth but hit snags when she was invited for a Work Capability Assessment.

She described the process as a ‘tick-box’, which gave her a ‘zero’ score which did not recognise she had limited or no capability to work.

When asked how she put her shopping away, Mary-Lou said she told the assessor she managed – but it might take her all afternoon. She argued the system did not allow for ‘grey areas’ and assumed she had no issues with the task.

Describing her everyday struggles, she said: “It is really hard. I get up and I have to get dressed but that can take 30-45 minutes. That isn’t showering, that’s just putting my clothes on.

“Standing is difficult and my legs go numb. I suffer with anxiety and all sorts of things so I talk myself out of going out. I have felt ‘what is the point of my life’. It is a dreadful thing to think about but there have been some very dark days. I am a Christian so my faith helps me.”

With separate Personal Independence Allowance (PIP), Mary-Lou said she was usually left with ‘nothing’ after paying for rent, bills and food. She said she stayed afloat with the support of friends.

She called for a separate benefits system for the sick and disabled which better recognised those with complex needs.

To critics, she said: “I am not in this position because I want to be. I am in this position because I had an unfortunate accident and I am doing what I can.

“I would love to get back to work. My job was my world.”