Last week, the Salford Star visited former soldier Steven Fairhurst, who was in a terrible state. Steven had served his country in some of the worst zones in the world. Last week, however, it was Salford Council that nearly finished him off.
Steven was given a medical discharge from the army with a War Pension, including an Allowance for Lowered Standard of Occupation, and is registered disabled…
"My back's gone, I need two new knees, my neck's gone, a quarter of my heart doesn't work and I suffer from bi-polar" he told us.
In past years, Salford Council, in line with virtually every other council in the country, has `disregarded' the War Pension when working out benefits. But recently a letter arrived stating that, not only were Pension payments being taken into account when working out social rent and Council Tax benefits, but that he would have to pay back money he'd been given since April 2012.
The `arrears' and payments worked out at almost £100 a week. On top of his existing acute problems, for Steven this was just too much…
"The other day I was close to ending it, and I make no bones about it" he told us at the time "I've got myself to feed and the house to run. After these payments I'll have just £30 a week to live on. I'm not getting rid of my dogs because I've had them since they were pups. They're all I've got.
"I'll have to get rid of my car too which is on war pensions mobility as I can't put diesel in it" he added "But I need that car. If I don't have it I'm housebound, and if I can't get out I might as well pack it in. I might as well take all my medication in one go and just go to bed. Or I'll have to find a big piece of rope because there's nothing I can do."
Indeed, Steven talked of suicide four times during the interview. You could almost touch the stress levels in the room. He talked about the affect on thousands of other ex-armed forces personnel on similar pensions in Salford, and how they too had been let down by a country and a city they had served.
The Ministry of Defence Welfare Officer couldn't believe it. Even a Council staff member who Steven spoke to couldn't believe it…but it was there in black, white and Council pink. Double checked. Horrific payments… "This has broke me" the disabled soldier said.
Strangely, however, a Council Report on benefits from just under a month ago also stated in black and white that "discretionary arrangements…in respect of war pensions and Armed Forces compensation payments" would continue to be "disregarded for both working age and pensioner claims".
After a query from Salford Star, the Council has apologised for the error which almost cost a disabled soldier's life…
"An admin error resulted in around 12 people from the 30,000 benefit claimants we deal with each year getting incorrect information" said Councillor Bill Hinds, Assistant Mayor for Finance "They should have seen no change in their benefits. Obviously this was distressing for them and we are very sorry about that but I want to reassure them we will be putting things right quickly."
For Steven, an apology is the least he can expect, having already made some of the payments…
"I rang the Council saying there was a mistake but they wouldn't listen to me" he told the Salford Star today "They rang me back and said the amounts were right. I suffer from bi-polar and was going through a bad patch, and when I got the bill, which would have pushed me right under the poverty line, I nearly killed myself.
"For me, and other war pensioners, to be hit with this stress just wasn't fair" he added "I'm going to demand a written apology. Their `error' nearly cost my life…"