“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the Government’s shrinking of the welfare budget kicks in this month, he’s watching as each part of that help is being withdrawn.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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change