The minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, said that he apologised 'unreservedly' to the family of Sheila Holt.
Sheila Holt was contacted by the Department for Work and Pensions who invited her to attend 'intensive job-focused activity'

A government minister has apologised after it emerged that a Whitehall department sent letters to a woman demanding she make an effort to find work even though she was in a coma.

The minister for disabled people, Mike Penning, said he apologised "unreservedly" to the family of Sheila Holt after he was challenged in the Commons.

"It's about time politicians did stand up and apologise when things went wrong. It clearly has gone wrong and the family have every right to be aggrieved and I hope she makes a full recovery, as much as she can," said Penning.

Holt, who has suffered from physical and mental health problems, was contacted by the Department for Work and Pensions, which invited her to attend "intensive job-focused activity", according to her MP Simon Danczuk. She fell into a coma in December last year and the government and its contractor were informed, the Labour MP told the Commons.

During his speech, Danczuk read from a letter sent to the Holt family, who live in Rochdale in Greater Manchester. "It said, 'Dear Ms Holt, you are now approaching the end of the first stage of your intensive job focused activity. We hope that all the activity or training intervention completed so far has not only supported you to achieve your aspirations but has moved you closer to the job market.

"'You will shortly enter the second stage of your intensive job-focused activity. Sessions and workshops may vary depending on the centre you attend'."

He said the letter was dated 30 January. Danczuk added: "I should inform the House that members of Sheila's family repeatedly informed the DWP and Seetec (a contractor carrying out work capability assessments) about this fact that she wasn't well but they continued to get harassed by those organisations."

He added that Holt has 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 benefit that she had to pay. On 17 December she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act because she was struggling to cope.

"Whilst 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. I can report to the House that Sheila is stable, she is still in the coma."

He added: "Let's make this important point - before the election when the prime minister toured the TV studios he often talked about 'Broken Britain'. Well 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."

Speaking after the exchange, Holt'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 Seetec wrote to her and she was forced 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," he said.