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?

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.

The tabloid press likes to tell us that “experts” say most people on incapacity benefits are making it up, but never actually quote any evidence for this.

Amazingly enough, they completely fail to print headlines about a real, actual expert’s testimony that hundreds of claimants are in fact unjustly imprisoned every year because overpayment amounts are being ‘wildly exaggerated’ by the DWP, as welfare benefits expert witness Neil Bateman has told MPs. In one case he assisted with, a woman prosecuted for a £47,000 overpayment had in reality under-claimed benefits.

According to Bateman, criminal judges and defending solicitors do not understand benefits law and it is very rare for a welfare rights specialist to be involved in defending claimants. As a result, the DWP get away with massively inflating the amount of benefit a claimant has been overpaid. Where this is more than £20,000 a prison sentence is the likely outcome, with the DWP getting positive press coverage for exposing the criminal.

Most overpayment cases that Bateman assist with arise not from someone deliberately plotting to defraud the system, but from foolishly failing to declare a change of circumstances.

I suggest you read Neil Bateman’s statement to the Commons select committee for yourself, because you’re not likely to see it in many newspapers.

So why have we been subjected to headlines falsely claiming that as many as 1 in 4 people on incapacity benefits are faking? Where do these figures come from, and who are the “experts” the Daily Mail refers to?

Not experts at all, it turns out, but computer systems based on check boxes and points systems, which fail to accurately assess people’s actual abilities.

The Labour government’s replacement for incapacity benefits, which new applicants now go through, is the employment support allowance (ESA). The “work capability test” for ESA 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.

The Guardian is one of the few papers which has reported on these problems.

Although the DWP claims that the WCA assesses whether the person can “carry out an activity reliably and repeatedly the majority of the time”, this is not borne out by the experience of claimants such as Wood and many disability organisations.

Daniel Berry, head of policy and campaigns at the MS Society, says: “MS symptoms can change by the day or even by the hour, so it’s vital that benefits assessors are trained to understand fluctuating conditions. Many people risk losing the financial support they need if they are inaccurately assessed.”

Welfare benefits officers working for the DWP also have grave concerns about the new test. One specialist benefits officer for sick and disabled people, and who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “What I’m seeing at ground level is that there are some people who do want to work but who are so ill and physically disabled that they can’t, and they’re being forced to go into the work-related group of ESA and to jump all these hurdles in order to get the benefit.”

So, under the new tests a large proportion of people with mental health problems and other disabilities face being put on lower level of benefits, or forced into “back to work” groups which may be deeply inappropriate for them and increase their level of stress and depression. Meanwhile, hundreds each year are unjustly imprisoned when they may in fact have been under-claiming benefits!

More people need to know about this. Please, please link, tweet, and post this to Facebook!

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.

Please share your comments, or see the About Us page for more info.

The media likes to complain about how much welfare and benefits cost the British taxpayer, but they tend to neglect to mention that the figures they quote include contribution-based pensions.

For instance, in the middle of the decade the annual “welfare” cost was around £100 billion. Sounds big, right? Well, over £42 billion of this was contribution-based pension payments (you know, the kind you spend your life paying in to in the first place). £10 billion was benefits for the disabled. In progressively smaller amounts there was also child benefit, income support, housing benefits, and JSA.

At that same time, corporate tax avoidance cost the UK taxpayer £85 billion, and business fraud racked up a £14 million price tag. Government fraud in Whitehall cost us £5 billion, tobacco smuggling 3.5. VAT fraud on mobile phones, 2.5, and welfare fraud £2 billion.

So here we have another example of how the media and politicians distort the truth and attack the least able, rather than pointing their ire at the ones who really cost us the most money.

The government also hands out billions of pounds each year in “corporate welfare” via the Department for Trade and Industry, but we don’t hear a lot about that from the mainstream press, do we?

I’d also like to bring a letter to the Guardian to your attention.

Even though the government says that benefit fraud has been more than halved, it can’t resist grabbing a headline to ease through tough benefit changes which are unconnected (Lie detector tests to catch benefit cheats, December 3). If this wasn’t bad enough, in my experience as an expert witness in benefit fraud cases, most benefit fraud is exaggerated.

Investigations I have carried out for the courts at the request of defence lawyers have shown that the amounts allegedly defrauded are frequently nowhere near as great as alleged. I have exposed many cases with inflated allegations and cases where people are still entitled to the money which they are alleged to have fiddled.
Flawed evidence on benefit fraud