What is life really like for people who are part of Britain’s “Benefits Culture”?

Being on benefits is looked down on in today’s world, by the politicians, the media, and large numbers of people we encounter in our day to day lives. According to papers like The Daily Mail, the majority of us who are on incapacity benefit, or income support on grounds of incapacity, are really just lazy scroungers who should be forced in to work.

We’ve become frustrated with how people take up the media on their assault on people with disabilities, and particularly invisible disabilities like mental health problems, chronic pain, and ME. Most people who haven’t experienced those problems, or have perhaps experienced them for short periods and then got better, can have little idea what it’s like. We hope to help overcome that barrier by writing about our lives, what we can and can’t do and why, what it’s like to be us, and why the press and politicians (of both leading parties) are actively harming people who already struggle to survive.

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Yes, we’ve been crap about blogging lately. This is because we’re just, well, crap. Or maybe I should cut myself some slack and say it’s because I’m mentally ill… which often makes me feel like crap.

I love snow. I love looking at beautiful snowy landscape. I love the crunch of snow underfoot in the brief minute I spend outdoors before giving up from the freezing cold and running back inside to huddle under my bedcovers again. As you can imagine, this makes shopping for the holidays difficult, and this makes having enough food in stock difficult, and this makes getting out of bed difficult. Should I pay for a taxi to the supermarket and back, or should I spend the money putting my heating on? Choices, choices.

Still I’m lucky, I have a family to go to for Christmas, and on top of that a family who’ll have the heating on and probably even a log fire burning. Some of the other people I know who live on benefits for mental health problems aren’t so lucky. One of them is in the psychiatric ward, unlikely to get out by Christmas because it’s taking weeks for him even to see a psychiatrist. Another’s family have gone to be with a very ill relative, and she can’t afford to travel to be with them. Others just have shit families. So I may be feeling crap, but at least I have some blessings I can count.

It’s an especially tough time of year for people who are socially isolated, who don’t have supportive families or any family around, and who have many inner demons to fight with at the best of times. I hope we can all spare them some thoughts, and some love and support to the ones we know personally, whether we celebrate any religious festival around now or not.

Today’s the winter solstice, the longest shortest day of the year. Happy solstice to any pagans out there, and to everyone else, remember the days are now getting longer and the sun will be with us for a little longer for the next six months!

Ah, winter, with its combined joys of dark afternoons, SAD, and plummeting temperatures. Hands up if you wear a hat and gloves indoors in the evenings, so you don’t have to turn the heating on!

Today I’m getting my links from the excellent Carer Watch blog, which I highly recommend you add to your reading lists.

Employment Benefit Reforms “Forcing” Disabled People into Jobseeking.

The Parkinson’s Disease Society revealed that two-thirds of people under the age of 65 with Parkinson’s disease who had responded to its survey, believed they had been wrongly forced into job seeking, despite being physically unable.

The charity said the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) tick-box style medical test, used to determine whether a person is capable of work, did not allow for fluctuating conditions such as Parkinson’s, in which people can be capable one minute, but severely disabled the next.

It believes decisions are based on the opinion of the assessors, who in many cases, do not refer to a person’s medical history, and are untrained in Parkinson’s.

The same goes, of course, for people with a variety of conditions and disabilities, particularly the “invisible” kind like ME and mental illness.

Carer Watch also points to the damage the Welfare Reform Act will do to people on benefits because they’re out of work, and single parents:

On 12 November, it became legal to force unemployed people to work for their benefits – to do 40-hour-weeks for under a third of the minimum wage. The Government’s Welfare Reform Act introduced ‘Work for your Benefit’ pilot schemes, which once completed can be rolled out without any further debate. It also attacked single parents – who face sanctions if they fail to prepare for work outside the home as soon as their child turns three – and people with impairments, disabilities or severe and enduring illnesses.

I strongly agree with their call for solidarity amongst people on benefits, of whatever sort.

The Act seeks to make our worth dependent on work; work defined in the really narrow terms of waged work for someone else’s profit. By making us compete with those in waged work for non-existent jobs, it helps drive down wages and conditions. We all take the brunt as the rich make even more money out of us.

We want solidarity with and from people in low-income, temporary and insecure work. These are the jobs that ‘work-for-your-benefit’ would replace.

We want caring to be recognised as important work in society. Single parents are already working and benefits are their entitlement to a social wage.

We want justice for people with severe or enduring illnesses. The drive to get people off incapacity benefits and Employment and Support Allowance and into work is making people more ill with stress. Only we know what we are capable of and it is wrong for conditions and sanctions to be imposed on us to force us into unsuitable work, unwanted “work-related activity” or “motivation sessions” which press us into their programmes of treatment for addictions and other conditions.

Forcing people to work for under minimum wage is outrageous. If these jobs are available, people seeking work should be given them at the wages they deserve.

And what about carers in particular, and David Cameron’s call for “big society” to take care of those who cannot work, rather than “big government”? Big Society would demand many more carers, yet if removing “big government” means taking away benefits, how are carers to survive? You cannot attack those who are not working for profit as “economically inactive” and at the same time insist they take on more of the workload – not unless you don’t mind being an intellectually bankrupt hypocrite, at any rate.

Carers need strong and reliable support services. They need allowances and benefits. They need recognition and appreciation for the vital work they do. And they need us to speak up for them, just as they so often speak up for us.

Welcome coverage from The Guardian today: Benefits conundrum fuels the cash-in-hand economy “Welfare reform should recognise that harnessing people's desire to work is more effective than the threat of jail or poverty"

Living on benefits is tough. Tony McNulty, former employment minister, admitted to Radio 5 Live earlier this year that he couldn’t survive on the money his department gives out to people. The minimum income standards for Britain estimates that a person needs £158 a week in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society. A single adult receives £60.50

As the article points out, most benefit fraud is committed by people who are trying to earn that extra £100 they need to cover their basic needs. As Oxfam asked, could YOU live on £60 a week? (People on disability benefits get a little more, almost £90 a week, but that’s still a far cry from £158 and current government reforms have made it ridiculously difficult for people with mental illness or chronic fatigue to qualify.)

Oxfam also points out how the system penalizes people with mental health problems:

It is never unpopular for politicians to say they will be tough on people on benefits; but in our experience, people on benefits are often not lazy and milking the system, but claiming because they are in genuine need. By being tougher these people, some of the 40% of those on incapacity benefits because of mental health problems will fall through the cracks as their illnesses are less easy to prove.

The Labour government’s ESA “work capability test” focuses on physical abilities like reaching and bending. However it ignores questions about energy, stamina, illness, or mental state, making it far more difficult for people with mental health problems or illnesses like ME to get enough points to pass. The people failing this test aren’t faking an illness, they have an illness which the test does not even attempt to measure. Disability organizations say the ESA tests penalize many who are genuinely ill.

In other news, last night the Mind Mental Health awards celebrated positive contributions from the media on breaking the stigma about mental illness – congratulations to all the winners! Former Labour party Director of Communications and Press Secretary Alastair Campbell was amongst them, for broadcasting his own personal story of mental illness. Wonder if he’d care to broaden the scope of his admirable work with mental health charities, and stand up for the people being harmed by Labour’s Employment Support Allowance tests?

Something I hear a lot from people who complain about others being on benefits is that they have no problem with people who truly can’t work getting them, it’s all those other people they’re pissed off about.

The trouble is, they imagine they are a good judge of who really can’t work.

What I’d like to say to these people is this. Every time you attack benefits, every time you call for them to be cut, every time you sit in the pub and have a rant about how benefits claimants are stealing from you, you perpetuate the myth that lots of people on incapacity benefit could work if they really wanted to and you’re increasing the stigma that makes it even harder for us to live our lives.

I’ve had people I know do this to my face. “Oh, but I don’t mean you“, they say when I speak up. Well, that’s the nice ones, I know very well that some of them do mean me because they have no idea about mental illness, no idea about depression, and generally no idea about other people’s lives. But even if they don’t mean me, they still mean some other person they don’t know, who they look at and think doesn’t look disabled so must be a cheat.

A friend with schizophrenia does voluntary work in a charity shop, and every week another volunteer, a retired man, says to him “haven’t you found a job yet?”, swiftly turning something that should be helping boost his sense of self into something that destroys it. Robin wrote eloquently about how the stigma of being on benefits prevents recovery from depression, and I see and experience that all the time – even from mental health workers.

There are many barriers to employment for people on benefits, and increasing people’s misery and lack of self-esteem by haranguing them for not having a job does nothing to reduce any of them. People on incapacity have been assessed by doctors and continue to be assessed (how often varies according to the severity of the disability – for someone with suicidal depression for instance, it’s about once every three years).

Politicians on both sides, pompous newspaper columnists working for tax-avoiding companies, bloggers, tweeters, and guys down the pub, all harp on about cutting benefits with little to say about how we can really get people out of poverty, apparently blind to the fact that cuts in benefits will only make poverty even worse. They might occasionally say “but I don’t mean you“, but in reality it’s exactly people like me who schemes to cut benefits end up hurting.

I was surprised and pleased to see we got a link from a Benefit Fraud blog, which says of us:

This is not because I agree with everything there. But too often the blogosphere is a dialogue of the deaf, with no conversation between people of different views. It’s no good just staying in our boxes.

So thank you to them!

In this post I want to address a comment left by Eve, who said “I’m astounded how much rage people feel towards benefits cheats who make an illegal fifty quid cash in hand, or get a year’s housing benefit when they shouldn’t, yet DON’T express rage towards billionaires like Sir Philip Green who get away with avoiding £300 MILLION tax bills by being resident outside the UK (but still getting knighthoods).”

According to the DWP, intentional benefit fraud costs the UK taxpayer £1.1bn a year. It’s rather more difficult to get an accurate figure on how much business fraud and tax avoidance of the very rich costs.

Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK estimates that abolishing the domicile rule (as used by Sir Philip Green) would raise £4 billion a year. When we turn to corporations, rather than individuals, the figures get even more enormous.

According to the Guardian,

A leading accountancy expert, Professor Prem Sikka, estimates that £25bn is lost to the Treasury each year through multinationals basing themselves in low-tax environments. ‘The precise figure is impossible to work out. Some say it could be as much as £80bn. We don’t know because the Treasury refuses to undertake detailed research to get accurate estimates. It is dodging the issue.’

Rupert Murdoch’s main British holding firm paid no net corporation tax in the UK throughout the Nineties. Some companies are based off shore to avoid paying tax, yet still get subsidies from the British government – “Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is based in the Caribbean, yet Virgin Rail has had £500m in public subsidy over the past year.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that need, not greed, motivates most cases of benefits fraud. This certainly can’t be said of the mega rich. We could cut taxes for the average working person AND increase the level of benefits if these tax loopholes were closed, but with business interests firmly in control of our politicians this isn’t likely to happen any time soon.

As to why there’s not more rage about the issue, well, it’s not very surprising that the mainstream press doesn’t spend a lot of headlines on it when the companies who own the papers are benefiting to the tune of millions of pounds a year.

Community Links is an excellent resource and their post on Fraud and Error in the benefits system is brief but essential reading.

They point out that giving out statistics that lump fraud and error together is misleading, and causes everyone to focus on the fraud and ignore the error.

Secondly underpayment of benefits (this year running at £1.2bn), is arguably an even bigger problem, because it leaves vulnerable people in a desperate situation, evicted or unable to buy food. They often end up seeking advice at Community Links, because the system has let them down so badly. And don’t forget this is just people claiming a particular benefit but getting less than they’re entitled to. It doesn’t include people who aren’t aware they’re entitled to a benefit at all.

Thirdly, ‘customer error’ is not the fault of the claimant. The report separates out intentional fraud (£1.1bn), unintentional ‘customer error’ (£1.1bn), and ‘official error’ (£0.8bn). Our experience at Community Links shows that claimants make errors because they are left to navigate a hugely complicated system with very little guidance, bombarded with unintelligible forms, and offered very little support. It’s a stressful experience, made worse when DWP tries to claw back money they’ve overpaid. The high level of customer error is an indictment of the DWP (if a business was losing £1bn a year because customers couldn’t work out how to use the payment system, they’d sort it out pretty quickly).

Thank you, Community Links. And don’t forget the evidence that the DWP routinely overestimates the amount it overpays, and lack of proper representation results in hundreds of benefits claimants being falsely imprisoned every year!

And what about that benefit fraud? Community Links has launched the Need, not Greed campaign, to highlight the fact that a number of people on benefits do cash in hand work not because they wish to cheat the system, but because benefits pay below poverty level and people feel forced into being a “cheat” in order to survive.

As they tell us,

With the economic recession, rising living costs and increasing unemployment, more and more people will be on benefits.A life on benefits, even for a short period of time, is tough. Benefits are not enough to live on (benefit levels are paid below the poverty line) There are many traps when on benefits and many barriers to taking up employment. This means that people may turn to cash-in-hand work to provide an income, as well as retain a degree of control and financial independence in their lives. There is no way to gradually move off benefits and there is very little support on offer to remain financially secure when doing so. People quickly hit a brick wall and are left with little choice but to turn to cash-in-hand work.

To take just one circumstance that pushes people into doing cash-in-hand work, consider the fact that most private landlords do not accept housing benefit. You may qualify for housing benefit, but it’s no good to you if you don’t live in council or housing association accommodation (of which there is a major shortage, and for which waiting lists can last for years). My £70 a week housing benefit wouldn’t come close to covering the cost of renting a single room in my area, but more to the point there’s not one single rental agency here who’d even agree to rent to someone on benefits, or private landlord who’d accept housing benefit as payment.

Why refusing to rent to people on benefits for disability doesn’t count as discrimination against the disabled is beyond me, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in. Meanwhile, the number of empty houses in the UK could house the homeless population, but no one seems to be willing to do anything about it.

Congratulations to Dave Allen for winning his landmark Disability Discrimination Act case against the Royal Bank of Scotland – and, I’d add, shame on some of the commenters on the Times article, for displaying the backward attitudes towards disability that are sadly still too common in the UK.

I often notice that a large number of shops and businesses in my town are completely inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs, in spite of laws telling them to build ramps. For some small businesses who rent space in old buildings this is understandable, and the law allows them other ways to make accommodations to serve customers with disabilities, but it seems that many who could make better efforts don’t bother, and they’ll continue not to unless cases like this continue to be brought and won (and I think it’s a pity that the burden is on people with disabilities to take the legal action against them).

Mr Allen said: “I’m glad the bank finally had to apologise in court and acknowledge they treated me badly.

“But I am still very disappointed that RBS, whom I have banked with since I was 10, when I was still able to walk, would not willingly comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and provide wheelchair access which not only I, but many of their other customers with disabilities need.

“They just failed to understand anything about the need for privacy and dignity.”

It’s a pity that many of the commenters on the article also fail to understand anything about dignity.

Elsewhere in the press, Liz Jones of the Daily Mail was distressed to discover she couldn’t afford her usual £800 monthly grooming routine when she tried to spend a week living on £64.30, the standard payment for Job Seeker’s Allowance.

It would be very, very easy to mock this article, in which the highly paid Jones discovers that in spite of being £150,000 in debt she isn’t really poor. Instead I’ll highlight just a few of her comments.

I am exhausted. I cannot move or think. I look terrible, ugly. I feel completely humiliated. The reason? I have just spent a week trying to live on benefits.

and

All your energy is consumed by getting through the day.

She’s not disabled, she’s not suffering from mental illness, she doesn’t have chronic fatigue, so imagine for a minute how much more exhausting the experience of living on benefits is for those who do. On income support for incapacity I get more than someone on JSA, but the difference between £65 a week and £90 a week isn’t huge when it’s all you have to live on for years, especially when unlike Liz, walking four miles to the shops is simply impossible for you.

Let’s hope that this piece will help at least some Daily Mail readers realize that being on benefits does not in fact mean an easy life lazing around enjoying yourself, and in itself can make you exhausted and depressed.

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