I try to tell myself: I am a human being. My existence is worthwhile

Intrusive questions about your health. The fear and uncertainty of a claim being rejected. Trying to make ends meet through bureaucratic delays. What is life really like for those who claim disability benefits?

“Most of the time I try to remind myself: ‘I am a human being. My existence is worthwhile.’ But sometimes it’s just impossible to keep telling yourself that.”

Lisa Egan is in the middle of re-applying for her employment-related disability benefit. The 33-year-old's mobility impairment and chronic health problems meanthat - as much as she would like to - she’s unable to work, and is reliant on the benefit. If her application is turned down, she tells me, she won’t have enough money for food, heating, or her non-prescription medications. 

When I spoke to her in late December, she was worrying she wouldn’t complete her paperwork in time for her face-to-face assessment in January. “As it is, my form is currently three weeks late. I've got so much to gather and so much to write about,” she says. “I'm almost there, but I’m not going to get it done in time to post it to them. I’ll have to hand it to them on the day.” She’s been given four weeks over the Christmas period to fill in an extensive form and collect all of her medical evidence. But, given how unwell she often feels due to her condition, it simply isn’t enough.

“The fear of ‘I can’t get this done in time, they're going to stop my money’ is pretty rough," says Egan. "My depression has definitely been made worse by the whole experience. Sitting there with the form in your hand to beg for ‘taxpayers’ money’ to fund your burdensome existence makes it really hard to find any reason to not just give up.”  

The reason Egan cannot give up - as anyone receiving benefits will know - is necessity. Disability benefits, whether work-related or for care or help with mobility, are fundamental to millions of people's lives. They are an "entitlement" that has to be asked for, repeatedly. They pay for the things that most people will never have to consider and needs that most people will never know exist.

The word "benefit" is, in many ways, a misleading one. There is no physical, emotional, or social benefit to being reliant on government support. The situation is made even worse when the rhetoric of "scroungers" or "freeloaders" is employed.

 

Lisa Egan: "The fear of 'they're going to stop my money' is pretty rough

 

The benefit Lisa Egan is currently applying for is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the process will take at least 13 weeks. It includes an invasive interview and assessment by the Department of Work and Pensions.

After that process is completed, a claimant's application is either rejected outright, or placed in one of two groups. The first, the "support group", comprises those who are deemed unable to work. The second, the "work-related assisted group", are judged to be capable of taking a job provided they are given support.

For Lisa Egan, this means that the best possible result she can expect is not to be forced to do a job she cannot physically do. She is fighting for around a hundred pounds a week

That money won't be spent on luxuries, but essentials. To be without such things is something 41-year-old Daniel Mann* knows well. He was a newly qualified teacher when two brain injuries left him visually impaired and largely unable to walk or use his arms. 

Mann completed his first ESA assessment in December 2012. It was successful, but due to a delay in processing the application, he has been left waiting for the money for weeks. When I spoke to him, he was clearly frightened by the shortfall, and was spending the days before Christmas chasing his benefit payment while trying to work out short-term ways to get by. “I called to apply for a crisis loan after running out of food,” he tells me. 

He stopped the crisis loan application after a “very helpful lady” at the Department of Work and Pensions promised his ESA payment would arrive the same day. It didn’t, having been lost between two government departments. “I’ve called my energy supplier and council to explain and to request they hold off legal proceedings for outstanding bills,” he says.

There doesn’t need to be a major error like this for the application process to be fraught. Claiming disability support is generally an unpleasant experience; one that simultaneously involves cold bureaucracy and uncomfortably personal declarations. Health is a private thing, but this is a system that demands exposure, intimacy disclosed face-to-face to a stranger and fitted in endless boxes.

Deborah Kelly, 32, has just re-applied for Disability Living Allowance (DLA)  two years after last doing so. DLA is a key benefit to many people: it is not means-tested and unrelated to the applicant's employment status, and it brings in between £20 to £125 to help with costs such as transport.

“The most difficult but necessary task in filling in the DLA form is to think about your life in a very negative way,” Kelly says. “Why can’t you do X? What goes wrong if you do X?” She was diagnosed with ME as a teenager, and spends most of her life in bed, asleep. “But I don’t really think about that, until I have forms like this to fill in.”

It took her 4,300 words to complete the form. Because of her cognitive and physical problems, each of these had to be typed, printed, cut up and stuck into the relevant boxes. Some of the questions were unhelpfully unclear, and the need to constantly quantify your limitations can make many impossible to answer honestly. “There’s a box only big enough for two digits beside the question ‘How often?’ and you don’t have a clue if you’re supposed to answer how often in a day or how often in a week,” Kelly says. “The form’s designed so that it’s easy to feel that they’re trying to trip you up.”

This feeling quickly leads to an inclination to understate the problem; many claimants are unsure what ‘counts’ and are afraid of being accused of ‘overselling it’ or looking for sympathy. Having previously been turned down for an award (only to be given it back on appeal), Deborah knows that impulse is only worsened by rejection.

“Being turned down is a bit like facing an accusation,” she says. “If you’ve said you need this help and they say you don’t, they’ve as good as said you’re lying.” She tells me that for some years,she has been on a lower award of the care component of DLA than she knows she’s entitled to. “I’ve not had the energy, physically, mentally and emotionally, to fight it.”  

 

"Nobody believed me"

The fear of inaccurate and unfeeling assessments has only increased in recent years as the Government, buoyed by misleading rhetoric and a desire for what they call a “greater use of evidence and re-assessment” , has set about sweeping changes to disability and sickness support. 

By 2015, DLA is to be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP); a change that will see an estimated 500,000 people lose their entitlement. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) has already replaced Incapacity Benefit (IB). All new ESA claimants, and existing IB claimants, are required to take the much criticised Atos-administered Work Capability Assessment (WCA).  

Fifty-nine-year-old Mary describes her assessment experience to me as “humiliating”. She’s had difficulty walking since an attack in the street left her with a broken back 18 years ago, and has arthritis in her spine and neck.

During her Work Capability Assessment, her assessor told her to stand in the middle of the room without her walking stick and touch her wrists. “It felt like she was teaching me to do the hoky coky,” she says. After explaining she was unable to do so without her stick, Mary was allowed to lean  against the examination bed to do the exercises. “After a very short time I felt myself sliding off the bed towards the floor, which she [the doctor] did nothing to stop me from falling. My husband caught me just in time.”

She was placed in the work-related assisted group. “I’m 60 this year,” she says.

“We all know ATOS are doing the government’s dirty work,” Gabriel Parlour tells me. Her son attended his Work Capability Assessment a year ago and the anger and distress of it clearly remains.

Born with a severe brain injury, Ashley, now 39, was found by a psychologist to have "no executive functioning" and his mum describes him to me as highly vulnerable. “The findings erred on the side of it being detrimental to my son's mental health to be found fit for the work group,” she says. “Even so, the so called ‘decision maker’ chose to ignore the recommendations.” He was passed as fit to work. After going to court to appeal, a judge placed Ashley in the non-working support group and told the family he should never be called to such assessments again.

The Parlours aren’t alone in this. As of 2012, around 40 per cent of those who were found fit for work were appealing against the decision, and about 40 per cent of cases which go to tribunal were overturned. “The period of waiting . . . was fraught for both of us, causing much stress and sleepless nights for me,” Gabriel says. “I am ashamed of the country I live in.”

For many, there is a feeling of being abandoned. Claire Whittingham, 31, had been awarded DLA in 2004 after a physical and sexual assault left her with post-traumatic stress disorder and a severe Crohns Disease flare-up.

After a period of homelessness led her to miss the renewal deadline for her award in 2008, she later reapplied, only to be rejected repeatedly. The experience made her feel let down by the system. “My own GP made me feel like a fraud by making snide remarks and saying he was reluctant to write reports," she says. "He mentioned that in his five-line report to the DWP too. I felt like nobody believed [me]."

The stress of this situation, compounded by facing homelessness again, saw Whittingham taking an overdose.

“It was a Wednesday,” she says. “I sent my last six texts as a suicide note to my ex-partner. She’d helped me with care needs, like showering. By the time I'd taken the overdose she’d arrived with a paramedic.” When asked by hospital staff why she’d tried to take her own life, Whittingham replied that it was because the government wouldn’t help her. “It had been intense fighting for DLA and I’d tried to commit suicide through the stress.”

By the end of 2010, after going to a tribunal, she was awarded low rate care and mobility support for two years; less than she’d received in 2004. The award runs out this month and the process has begun again. “I dread to think what 2013 holds,” she tells me. “I'm scared, confused and alone. I'd like a break from it all. I need to concentrate on various health issues.”

That’s the thing with necessity. No matter how the system treats you, there’s little choice but to go back and ask it for help.

 

 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) runs a telephone helpline giving information on benefits for sick and disabled people, their representatives and carers. In England, Wales and Scotland, you can contact the Benefit Enquiry Line on: Tel: 0800 88 22 00 Textphone: 0800 24 33 55.

If you need help from the Samaritans, the number is 08457 90 90 90. 

*name has been changed at interviewee's request

A protest about disability cuts in 2011. 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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.