“I keep being kicked in the gutter": the cruelty of multiple cuts

Thousands of people with disabilities or long-term illness are now being affected by simultaneous cuts. As the welfare state undergoes unprecedented changes, the same people are being hit over and over again, says Frances Ryan.

It’s just gone 5am and Ray* is awake again. He emails me to tell me, on a laptop he’s been loaned by his local HIV charity. He’s been getting up in the night a lot over the past few weeks, thinking about money and feeling a thump in his head. His benefits, one after one, are disappearing and no one is listening.

“This past few weeks, months has made so feel so ill,” Ray writes. “The feelings in my head and body from not knowing how the hell I’m going to pay the bills or if I’m going to lose my home, the little home I love and feel safe in… Yet feeling like scum in the way this Government has and is treating me.”

Ray has mental health problems and, in addition to having HIV, is diabetic and insulin dependent. He’s unable to work and, at 47, pieces together a small income from disability benefits and help with his rent and council tax.

As the Government’s shrinking of the welfare budget kicks in this month, he’s watching as each part of that help is being withdrawn.

“I feel as I am being hit from all sides,” Ray says when we speak again. “Yet [there’s] nothing I can do.”

He is one of thousands of people with disabilities or long term sickness who, from this month, are being affected by multiple, simultaneous cuts. Disabled people often rely on a variety of different benefits and services and, as the welfare state undergoes its fundamental change, are as such being hit again and again and again.

The "bedroom tax" means Ray has now lost 14 per cent of his housing benefit for living in his two bed house. At the same time, cuts in support for council tax mean that poverty no longer exempts him from having to pay. He’s already lost nearly £50 per month.

“That’s one hell of a percentage out of my meagre monthly income,” he tells me. “I don’t know how I’m going to manage it.”

Ray is already in debt after his Incapacity Benefit, the outgoing benefit for people who cannot work due to a health condition or disability, was stopped last September and he was rejected for its replacement (Employment and Support Allowance). He tells me a social worker spent twenty minutes on his application for the new benefit and after being assessed by Atos, he was found fit for work. His benefits were suspended entirely for six weeks and it’s against this back-drop of debt and worry that the other cuts hit.

Ray’s depression is worsening. His vacuum cleaner found itself smashed in anger and a blood vessel in his eye has burst; diagnosed by his diabetic nurse as being due to the stress. 

It doesn’t seem surprising. Push an already vulnerable person and effect would be expected. The Government, either ignorant or unfeeling, is choosing to ignore it.  

”Subjecting individuals to frequent reassessments and the financial hardship experienced as a result of losing benefits will cause the mental and physical health of many people to deteriorate,” Mind, the leading mental health charity, stresses to me.

Ray tells me that right now he feels as if he’s at his “wits end”.

As the bedroom tax and council tax charges begin, he’s going through the process of appealing his ESA rejection. He’s been told that, due to the backlog in cases, it will take up to a year to get a tribunal date. In the meantime, he must live on the appeal rate of ESA – 30 per cent less than he would otherwise receive.

“I’ve had to use my credit card, overdraft…” he says. “[I] even had to ask dad for help as I was unable to afford to feed myself properly.”

He’s currently trying to get by on his Disability Living Allowance (DLA) but, as its replacement, Personal Independence Payments (PIP), begins to be rolled out, does so with the awareness that this will be the next benefit at risk.

“I’ve had enough of it all,” he says. “It’s as if I keep being kicked in the gutter.”

Despite the Government failing to assess the cumulative impact of the changes, the cuts aren’t coming in isolation, after all. Nor are they coming for comfortable people in secure conditions; those who won’t miss a tenner a week or have the bodies and minds that mean, if needed, they can do a few more hours at work. By the nature of need, the people relying on disability, unemployment, or rent support are the people who were already struggling before each string of their safety net was pulled away.

People like Alex Baker who, due to his chronic neurological condition, can’t cook for himself. His £20 a week DLA isn’t enough to purchase care so he lives on pre-cooked meals that don’t need heating up. It means he buys multiple lots of pasta salad and a takeaway for heat a couple of times a week.  

“This is a miserable way to live at any time,” he says. “But in winter not having a hot meal means that you’re cold all the time.”

He tells me, like Ray, he’s sure that even this money will soon go. The Government’s own figures predict the change to PIP will see at least 500,000 lose their support. Alex speaks as if he’s already planning for it.

“[I’ll] live on sandwiches on the days I am well enough to make them,” he says. “Or biscuits, as I did before my DLA was awarded.”

His fear is increased by the fact that the last time he re-applied for DLA he was rejected. He lost his benefit for seven months and had to go to a tribunal, where it was re-instated. He tells me he still remembers the welfare support officer who’d been assigned to help him explaining she’d done nothing with his case for six months because “most people pull out, so we wait.”

“I received monthly letters from the Department of Work and Pensions asking if I would like to withdraw my appeal in the run up to the tribunal,” he adds.

It’s experiences like these that frame the welfare changes for many people like Alex; bureaucratic failure, disregard, and resulting months of having to skip meals. These experiences do not make a person feel they will be taken care of or that the system going through the rapid reform is one on which you can rely.

On top of the removal of DLA, Alex will have to be tested for ESA when his contributions based Incapacity Benefit is stopped. He tells me he’s awaiting the assessment with “terror” and expects the same will happen with his PIP claim and ESA migration as it did with his DLA.

“Only now I won't have any assistance because [my council] have closed their advice service and sacked their welfare rights officers,” he adds.

Alex’s council tax has now increased from £36 to £111 per year. His disability that means he can’t work isn’t going to heal itself but the bills are increasing.

He’s being handed extra charges to keep his home whilst facing losing the support that helps him leave it.

It echoes Janet Mandeville’s story; another apparently faceless sick or disabled person being hit by simultaneous cuts and another person who has reached the point where they are grateful if anyone even listens. The 50 year old has multiple health problems and tells me she’s been housebound for the past six months as she waits to be assessed for a wheelchair. All four of her benefits are being affected by the welfare cuts.   

Some have already come into effect for her, and others like DLA, are waiting around the corner.

Like many on the low rate of DLA, she tells me she’s sure the changes to eligibility under PIP will see her lose her support.

Janet’s doubly incontinent and the benefit buys some health and dignity.

“I use DLA mainly on complan, a food supplement,” she says. “And extra toiletries, wash powder and electric…”

From this month she’s losing over £13 rent a week due to the bedroom tax as well as £26 a month council tax. She tells me she’s already seeing the effect and is struggling with her finances.

“[I] had to pay less than the arranged instalment of water rates and TV licence and reduce food shopping to raise the bedroom tax and council tax,” she says. “It just isn't possible to take £20 a week from someone who is only just managing in the first place…The Government is taxing us out of our homes.” 

The sentiment is particularly painful for Helen Aveling. Twelve years ago the now 44 year old, who has cerebral palsy, was living in a residential home. She lived there for seventeen years before moving to Chatham, Kent to “escape residential life” and live independently.

She’s been doing that with the help of the Independent Living Fund (ILF); the benefit that assists around 19,000 people with severe disabilities to live in their own home. The Government has scrapped ILF from 2015 and devolved current user’s care to local authorities – and, even more worryingly, have not ring-fenced the money. The fund is the difference between independence and existence for Helen and the uncertainty around the changes come at the same time as she faces cuts and change elsewhere.

In addition to ILF, she also relies on Disability Living Allowance and tells me she doesn’t know what will happen to her when it’s removed.

“I’m scared witless,” she says. “I’m terrified.”

One of her biggest fears is not retaining her enhanced mobility points under PIP and her accessible car being taken away. It is impossible for her to make the repayments on her own.  

Meanwhile, though she has never been charged any council tax before, she is now being told to pay £25 for the next nine months. She starts with £28.29 this month, she says. She expects to be charged bedroom tax as well.

“I have the sense that all I had hoped for when I moved out of [residential care] is being eroded, little bit by little bit,” she tells me. “I'm angry, terrified and helpless all at the same time.”

Ray tries not to be angry, he says, but that it’s difficult when you feel discriminated against and sick with worry.

“I hope all this crying, pain and fear ends damn soon because I can’t take very much more,” he adds. “I just don’t know where to turn.” 

*Some names have been changed

A disabled parking space. Photograph: Getty Images

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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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