The disability benefits system takes your dignity in exchange for money

It's not pleasant to have to ask for help. The cuts to the Independent Living Fund - delivered in a court room that wasn’t accessible to wheelchairs - are a stark reminder of the reality of life as a disabled person in Britain.

I haven’t been well enough to work much recently. I feel I should say that, though it’s none of anyone’s business. It doesn’t feel good. The fatigue, the pain, whatever. Yes. But the confession of it. Stripping off your privacy in front of strangers. Admitting that you are not doing the things you’re supposed to be able to.

No one should have to do that. No one should have to invite anyone into the most personal aspects of their lives. No one should have to present their incapability and sit with the shame that comes along for the ride.

But, as a society, we force people to do that constantly – that is, after all, how a benefit system works. We take people’s dignity in exchange for money and judge them for needing it.

We could pretend we don’t - or perhaps, increasingly, admit we do and term it the "right choice for difficult times". It does sound uncomfortable when you start to acknowledge it. It begins to feel like the sort of thing that good people shouldn’t talk about. As time goes on, and progression looks more like regression in this country, good people are the ones who start talking very loud.

The disabled, the chronically sick, have always had to lay themselves bare to be deserving. That’s just how these things (apparently) work. There’s a dominant group, and the needy are judged to see if they meet the standards the former in order to get help. Lately, as the welfare system shrivels and shrinks, and our collective empathy seemingly with it, we’ve been judging people for even asking. We’ve been getting very good at that.

It isn’t pleasant to need help. Perhaps, on a pile of falsities and illusions that keep this whole thing going, that’s the central myth that needs to be destroyed. The idea that there is something easy or enjoyable in asking for someone to help you meet basic needs, and that this is such a common, logical trait to being human that swathes of people do it daily.

It is not pleasant to need someone to help you. It is not enviable to have to ask, to admit that you – person, adult – are not able to take care of yourself. That feeling will only ever increase when who you’re having to ask for help makes it clear they’ve really no desire to give it to you. Perhaps they talk badly about you; they might even have nicknames they use behind your back. They might feel so confident that others share their opinion that they say it to your face. Maybe they give you the help but do it begrudgingly, deceiving and demeaning whilst expecting you to be grateful.

And what do you do? You take it. There is no avoiding that. When meals consist of sandwiches and biscuits because you can’t cook hot meals or you’re incontinent but can’t afford the toiletries to clean yourself, there is no avoiding any of it.

That’s the moment of vulnerability; the state that well-meaning supporters often find themselves referring to. It’s a myth that it comes earlier; that a group of people, by virtue of sickness or disability, are simply ‘the most vulnerable’. As if it’s a fixed, natural position, unaffected by how others act. Vulnerability is potential; the risk that one day, on the whim of political pandering the support system crumbles, and you will be lost. Vulnerability is the wait. When you know the fabric of your life is at the mercy of others, the threat is more than enough.

In Britain, that threat has become real. The Independent Living Fund, which has been cut or abandoned to local authorities, is the latest loss to respect and dignity. This particular benefit gives, by definition, life and independence to 20,000 severely disabled people. Although it is a number on a spreadsheet to some, to others it is the personal assistant who comes to help you to the toilet in your own home. A handful of disabled people took the Government to the High Court over it but today lost their case. The news was delivered in a court room that wasn’t accessible for wheelchairs, reminding the excluded and the isolated of their place.

There will probably be talk of the consequences over the next few days. Perhaps stories of how the fund helps recipients get washed each day, or avoid sitting in adult nappies in their home, or being put in residential care. No one should have to say those things but at this point there is little choice.

The system has always demanded that you parade your pain and now the fight against it demands the same. Dignity is donated to the cause. The cause is protecting as much dignity as you can.

A mobility scooter. Photo: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation