A specialist centre, which processes financial support applications for those suffering from industrial disease, is set to close.
Pheonix House, in Barrow-in-Furness, handles claims for industrial disablement benefit (IIDB) from across the UK. Claims include conditions ranging from noise induced hearing loss, to serious and terminal diseases caused by exposure to asbestos, cancer of the bladder and leukaemia.
In 2015, there were more than 23,000 industrial disease and workplace injury claims and campaigners fear the closure of Phoenix House – expected to take place in March 2018 – would seriously damage the service provided to vulnerable injured people.
In parliament, John Woodcock - the local MP - suggested that the sensitivity of the work carried out by the staff in Barrow-in-Furness could not be easily replicated elsewhere.
“Due to the nature of the benefit, closing Phoenix House and taking the facilities somewhere else in the country, inevitably employing new people, will do damage to the service provided.”, he said.
“The team say proudly that they have more than 100 years’ experience between them of processing that benefit. Due to that build-up of expertise, the Barrow team has taken part in a process that has reduced the processing time for that benefit from 175 days to 33 days. That is an achievement and welcome in itself, but we must also take into account who receives the benefit.
“It goes to people who have developed terrible conditions. Many of them, such as those suffering from the likes of asbestosis, are terminally ill due to negligence in past decades. That is why they have been given compensation in the form of the benefit.
“The whole point of focusing on driving down the time that it takes for them to get it is that it makes the difference between them receiving it while they are still alive and receiving it after they have died.”
Employment Minister, Damien Hinds, confirmed that the government intends to move all IIDB work to an existing DWP office in Barnsley as part of plans to reduce the Department of Work and Pensions’ estate by closing 1 in 10 job centres, nationally. He suggested that the government expects to see demand for the service drop in the next five years and that the closure of Phoenix House would not be to the detriment of claimants.
However, the Royal College of Physicians suggest that the number of cases for certain conditions will rise in the coming years. They expect that instances of the asbestos induced cancer, mesothelioma, will peak between 2020 and 2025.
Clare Gammond, an industrial disease expert and solicitor at the national law firm, Stephensons, said: “Specialists in this area are acutely aware of the complex and sensitive nature of IIDB claims.
“Speed and efficiency are of real importance to the vulnerable people who depend on the service and it is vital that this is not lost in the name of cost-cutting.”
A petition, opposing the closure, has been set up with campaigners aiming to gather 10,000 signatures and raise awareness of the proposed changes.
For more information on industrial disease and workplace injuries, or to discuss the claims process, contact Stephensons’ industrial disease team on 0175 321 6399.