November 2009


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?

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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.

Given David Cameron’s remarks about the “economically inactive” and his wish to retest everyone on incapacity benefits to catch an imaginary 5% of frauds, it’s easy to see the Conservative’s launch of a campaign to protect disability benefits for pensioners as an opportunistic grab for some headlines.

In his Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, Cameron told us that ‘Big society’ is the solution to poverty, as opposed to big government. He wants to move the power from the state to communities, charities, and families.

In theory the idea of of big society over big government is one I strongly agree with. In my utopia, we wouldn’t have governments bossing us around and telling us what to do, or encouraging us to snoop on our neighbours if we think they might be benefit cheats because we see them unload a van. In my utopia, families and communities would care about each other and support each other, and human beings would be valued for more than their ability to be “economically productive”. In my utopia, we’d all work less and do more that has real value to the world. So you might think I’d strongly support David Cameron on this issue.

In the real world, alas, the Conservatives do as little to foster these human values as the Labour Party has done. You cannot shift the responsibility from government to communities and charities without first changing the negative attitudes people hold towards the disabled, the mentally ill, and people on benefits. A society that sees us as scroungers who contribute nothing is not going to be a supportive society. Many families want nothing to do with their mentally ill relatives, and workplaces remain hostile environments.

Charities do a great job, but they are hugely reliant on public funding, so this hardly shifts the burden from the taxpayer. Additionally, and crucially, no one has a RIGHT to be helped by a charity. While society is arranged in a way that overwhelmingly benefits the well, the working, the extroverted, the person with business skills, it is vital that a welfare system exists to help the people who cannot function in it. “Big Society” won’t be achieved by stripping away benefits, and making the poor and sick even worse off.

I’d like to point you towards an excellent blog post by Richard Exell, which examines some of the facts and figures: David Cameron’s Big Society Speech. As he says, “restrictions in access to benefits and reductions in their value will hit the poor hard.”

Cameron’s position is full of contradictions. For instance, he claims “no wonder that ‘society is broken’ when people are paid more not to work than work and are better off leaving their children than nurturing them.” Wait, hold on a minute, does he want people to be paid so they can stay at home and nurture their children, or does he want them to leave their kids in childcare (if they can find any they can afford) and go out to work? We see this double standard in the press all the time of course – women who work are bad for not staying at home with the kids, but damn those dreadful single mothers who live on welfare so they don’t have to go out to work!

“Big Society” will depends on volunteering. How are people going to find the time to volunteer when work hours are rising rather than falling? Why don’t the Tories and others recognize that a great deal of voluntary work is done by those who aren’t employed, who are on benefits? “Big Society” requires a move away from the values of consumer capitalism and big business, away from profits above people, away from the isolation and stigmatization of disability, mental illness, and the “benefits culture”. This is not something any of the major parties really has any interest in delivering.

I would love to live in a world where big society can take the place of big government, but in spite of the rhetoric, the Conservatives offer nothing to truly move us towards that utopian vision.

Two links for today:

Inequality based on disability is widespread, according to research.

The survey identifies a stark pay gap between disabled and non-disabled staff – the non-disabled being more than three times more likely to earn £80,000 or above – as well as far less access to the mentoring and support that many disabled people crave. In addition, while staff with mental-health conditions are far less likely to be top earners or board directors than those with more visible, physical impairments, they are also significantly less willing to disclose details of their condition for fear of being stereotyped or sidelined.

Interesting piece, though more about people towards the top of the career ladder than those struggling to get by on benefits.

And, Depression as deadly as smoking… “A study by researchers at the University of Bergen, Norway, and the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) at King’s College London has found that depression is as much of a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”

Also many thanks to cdaae for tweeting our posts, and to Mark Brown, who said of us “On the ground experience becomes interesting and combative citizen journalism”. All your links and comments are very much appreciated!

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