When things go wrong, we have to own up – minister Mike apologises after woman in a coma is told to find work


Government minister and Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning has made an ‘unreserved’ apology to the family of a woman sent letters demanding she make an effort to find work – even though she was in a coma.

As minister for disabled people Mr Penning accepted that the buck stopped with him when he was challenged in the House of Commons.

“It’s about time politicians did stand up and apologise when things went wrong,” he said.

“It clearly has gone wrong and the family have every right to be aggrieved. I hope she makes a full recovery, as much as she can.”

Sheila Holt, who has physical and mental health problems and has not been able to work for nearly 30 years, had been invited to attend “intensive job-focused activity”, according to her MP Simon Danczuk.

But when she fell into a coma in December the government and its contractor were informed, the Labour MP told the Commons.

Despite repeated reminders, the letters kept coming, amounting to harassment of the family, he said.

He added his Rochdale constituent had suffered from severe bipolar disorder since childhood.

“She has not been in employment since she was 16 years old. However she was pushed into the Work Programme before Christmas and she was finding it extremely difficult.

“She was also concerned about the fact around the increases in the council tax that she had to pay.

“On December 17 she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act because she was struggling to cope.

“While in hospital she had a heart attack and that’s caused her to be in a coma since then. We are now at the end of February. She is stable, she is still in the coma.

“Before the election when the prime minister often talked about ‘Broken Britain’. I have to say that if this is the prime minister’s idea of fixing broken Britain, hounding disabled people who suffer from mental breakdowns, harassing their distressed relatives, then I prefer the broken Britain that existed before.”

Sheila’s father Ken, 74, said the government’s welfare to work scheme was to blame for the severity of his daughter’s condition.

The retired labourer said the stress of the threat of having her benefits stopped left Sheila clinging to life after she was hospitalised.

He said her last job was 27 years ago but that she had been told that she had to go on a job-seeking course for eight days.

After each day she became more and more agitated until she “cracked” her father said, and was hospitalised following a “manic episode”.

“If they had left her alone she would not be in this condition. They were threatening her with cuts and she needs the benefits.”

“I just believe it’s all wrong, you should be chasing the people who are fit, get them to work, not them that are not fit. It’s outrageous,” he said.

Ken said he visited his daughter in hospital daily and that she has suffered “very, very serious brain damage” following a heart attack.

“It’s a matter of life and death,” he said. “She may not survive, that’s how bad it is. All she can do is open her eyes and she shows she’s in a lot of pain.”