“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the Government’s shrinking of the welfare budget kicks in this month, he’s watching as each part of that help is being withdrawn.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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage