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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.