Thousands of Huddersfield people may have to travel to Calderdale to have assessments to decide whether they are eligible for sickness benefits.
A health watchdog has revealed that the Government plans to close the Huddersfield benefits assessment centre will mean that 18,000 people a year will need to travel to Halifax instead.
The service is currently provided for the Government by a private company the Centre for Health and Disability Assessments, part of multi-national group Maximus.
In Huddersfield the assessment centre is at Crown House on Southgate while in Halifax it is at Crossfield House on St James’ Road.
A proposal put forward to convert nine-storey Crown House into flats has been given planning permission.
The Examiner understands Crossfield House is currently being refurbished and Huddersfield could close by the end of June.
Local patient charity Healthwatch Kirklees uncovered the plans after hearing rumours in March at a group that supports carers in Kirklees.
Healthwatch team member Shabana Ali said: “We think that 18,000 people a year claim sickness benefits in Kirklees. This group includes people with long-term sickness and disabilities who will, under these plans, have to travel the additional seven miles to Halifax instead. We think it’s wrong that a private company is looking to increase its profits in this way and feel that people deserve a local service.”
Sickness benefits are now called Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and eligibility is determined by assessments completed by the Centre for Health & Disability Assessments.
Healthwatch director Rory Deighton was surprised when the charity discovered that the Department of Work and Pensions had failed to ask the opinions of any local people before making the decision.
He said: “We asked whether they had spoken to people who use the service, to Kirklees Council, or councillors or to local voluntary groups or the local NHS. The Department of Work and Pensions said that all they had done was write to local MPs. We’ve not seen that letter yet but if that’s all that they have done, then that really not good enough.”
He added: “When we first asked the DWP about this they said they were not prepared to discuss it. We’ve tried, but the government and DWP appears to have no interest in understanding how this will impact on people in Kirklees. So we need another way of challenging this decision.”
The charity is launching a campaign today to maintain a local ESA assessment centre. It has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVeigh MP, and is urging others to do the same.
In 2015 the charity led a successful campaign to open an assessment centre for Personal Independence Payments (disability benefits) in Huddersfield, arguing that with 440,000 residents, Kirklees deserved its own local facility. People who had originally been travelling as far as Rochdale and Oldham are now offered local assessments.
Healthwatch research officer Shabana Ali said: “On our website you can read all about the decision, see our letter to Esther McVeigh MP, and download a template letter that all sorts of people and local groups can use to register their concerns. We think it’s shocking that the views of local people have been ignored and think that if we work together, we can ensure that the voices of 18,000 people get their voices heard.”
Healthwatch Kirklees is the consumer champion for Health and Social Care services in Kirklees. Based in Dewsbury, it gives a voice to people who are not having their views listened to, involving patients, users and carers in the design of NHS and Care services.
A DWP spokesman said: “The changes we are making to our estate across the country will offer a more efficient service, and deliver good value for the taxpayer – saving over £135 million a year, for the next 10 years.”
The Examiner understands that people who have to travel to Halifax can claim the cost of public and private transport and parking from their current address.
Taxi fares can also be claimed if customers have a letter from a medical professional if they cannot travel by public transport. Home visits can be arranged if travel is difficult.