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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.