Fearing the brown envelope: sickness benefits and welfare reform

"I try not to read about it cos it’s so frightening."

For the past three years, and at a time of increased anxiety for sick and disabled people given ongoing welfare reform, I have been studying the lives of long-term sickness benefits recipients in North East England as part of my PhD research.

Narratives revealed a huge amount of fear and trepidation over ongoing welfare reform. Participants spoke about worrying about the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos on a daily basis, accompanied by a deep mistrust of the entire system. Below, Fred (all names are pseudonyms), 53, who has been receiving Incapacity Benefit (IB) for 9 years and suffers polyarthritis, gives his thoughts on the process:

I think it’s gonna cause breakdowns, possibly even the worst case scenario y’know topping yourself. If the Government could cut a penny in half, they would. I think if they could bring euthanasia in, they would. If they could find a way of getting round all the moral outrage they’d probably do it. Take all the lame ones out, just like a sick animal.

This is particularly noteworthy given that statistics suggest sick and disabled people have considered suicide as a result of fear over the assessment process. In a survey of over 300 people receiving IB, MIND found that 51 per cent of people reported the fear of assessment had made them feel suicidal.

Some respondents specifically mentioned their fear over receiving an official-looking brown envelope through their letterbox – a possible indicator of communication from the DWP. Sarah, 54, has battled with mental health problems all her life and is now dealing with a range of physical health problems such as arthritis and Reynaud’s syndrome, said of her daily dread of being selected for the reassessment:

When the postman comes with any sort of brown envelope it is really worrying… I try not to read about it cos it’s so frightening, it’s like 'oh my God they’ll send you to the dole straightaway' is what’s in your mind. Who will employ you, and what jobs are there? Where are the jobs? If they send me for a job 20 miles away, how do I afford the bus fare on minimum wage?

Aside from the obvious fear presented in the narratives, a feeling of stigma and shame was described as being created by political and mass media representations of the reform process. An increasingly unavoidable occurrence within government rhetoric and the media is the labelling of sick and disabled people who are receiving welfare benefits. There is no mention of the causes, symptoms, lack of diagnosis, treatment or support.

Upcoming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) reforms are poised to create further anxiety and distress for sick and disabled people. The Government has pledged to cut DLA by 20 per cent and are replacing DLA with Personal Independence Payments (PIP) which sees the end of the automatic entitlement of people with certain impairments and focuses instead on support for those deemed 'most in need' (pdf).

Iain Duncan Smith suggested that the 30 per cent rise for claims for DLA was a result of fraud in the system, despite the fact that official DWP figures estimate fraud is a mere 0.5 per cent. What is often unsaid is that DLA is not simply an out-of-work sickness benefit – it is intended to help people meet the extra costs of disability-related care and mobility whether in paid employment or not. In August the government announced that Atos will be responsible for carrying out the PIP assessment, a contract worth a huge £400m. Given that the handling of the WCA by Atos was "impersonal and mechanistic" and essentially deemed unfit for purpose, it can only be hoped that history will not repeat itself with the forthcoming DLA assessments.

Photograph: Getty Images

Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography at Durham University

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”