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5 benefit changes the government don't want you to know about

Threats to take away children from families is a new low for the coalition government's war on benefit claimants.

Conservative government ministers watching David Cameron deliver his keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference. Photo: Getty.

It used to be that when politicians wanted to bury bad news they’d orchestrate its release to time with a distracting event. Seeing Iain Duncan Smith publicly criticized for wasting at least £140 million of public money over Universal Credit at the start of this month, it struck me how we’ve slowly reached another level. “Unmitigated disaster”? “Alarmingly weak”? These words were used to describe Universal Credit but could easily have been levelled at a number of largely unreported changes to the benefit system. Nowadays, bad news is buried by even worse news. The sheer volume of inefficient and unethical changes to social security this Government has enacted means some of it doesn’t even get noticed. Which, for a set of politicians hacking at vulnerable people’s support systems, is worryingly convenient.

So, here’s five benefit changes the government doesn’t want you to know about.

1. Disabled people denied a key benefit have had their right to appeal reduced 

On 28 October the Department of Work and Pensions introduced a major change to the appeal process to the main disability benefit for people who are too ill to work, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). If a claimant wishes to appeal against a decision that they are not entitled to ESA, they must now ask the DWP to reconsider the decision before lodging an official appeal – and receive no money in the meantime.

Dubbed the ‘mandatory reconsideration’ stage, not only will the claimant not receive ESA income during this period, there will be no time limit on how long it will take. People with disabilities and illness are being left with no income for an indefinite period of time. This would be bad enough for a system that works. It’s particularly alarming for a system where 40 per cent of appeals overturn the original decision. 

The DWP response is the claimant can claim Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) during this appeal stage. Campaigners tell me, however, many disabled people say they won’t apply for JSA due to the fear that doing so will be interpreted by the DWP as evidence they are indeed fit for work.

There’s also concern that the disabled and long-term sick having to enter a system not designed to cope with claimants with poor health will leave them vulnerable to sanctions. As Sharon Brennan points out on her blog ‘Diary of a NHS buff’, statistics of sanctions against JSA claimants show that every month 12% of job seekers are referred for sanction. These are sanctions given if Job Centre Plus feels claimants “are not making themselves available for work” – an accusation easily targeted at people who find it a physical struggle to make appointments, let alone look for work. Which brings us to number two.

2. Long-term sick people are having their benefits sanctioned ... for being sick

The increase in sanctions placed on claimants of jobseeker’s allowance has been widely publicised, with most headlines on the issue last month dedicated to statistics revealing that nearly 600,000 have had adverse benefit sanctions taken against them.

Less publicized is the fact 45,000 sanction decisions have been made against sick and disabled people. This means the number is set to have doubled from the year before

11, 000 sick and disabled people had their ESA penalized in just seven months – either for not participating in work related activity or missing a meeting with the Job Centre. 120 disabled people receiving JSA have had their benefits stopped for three years.

I reported in October the Work Programme’s failure to help disabled people gain employment; things as basic as making an effort to find them suitable work or understand that, when you’re dealing with claimants with health conditions, some days an appointment will be missed as they will be too ill to get up. Put this together with an increase in sanctions, and the system’s failings are now seeing sick and disabled people losing parts of their benefits.

Sarah Davidson*, 43, was threatened with a sanction for being physically unable to do her assigned work activity. Sarah has ME and was awarded ESA on the basis of limited mobility and her inability to sit for more than an hour.

Despite having a meeting with a personal advisor at Seetec, her Work Programme provider, where her inability to sit and concentrate for long periods were noted, Sarah’s now received a summons to an ‘employability programme’ that requires her to have four weeks of twice weekly work related activity lasting over three hours.

My support worker called and explained I could not do this programme because of my disability,” she tells me. “They were very rude apparently, refused to take my health condition into consideration, and said they would be reporting me to DWP for failing to participate.”

In fact, when the programme was due to start two weeks ago Sarah had a flare up of her condition and was physically unable to leave her home all week. Job Centre Plus is currently considering whether to sanction her for non-attendance.

Sarah tells me she’s tried to discuss this with both JCB and Seetec but neither has responded.

“My support worker called JCP and was passed to at least 3 different people ... it turns out my adviser has left. We were given the name of a new adviser, who wasn't available to speak to us. We asked if she could give us a call to explain the situation but I’m not hopeful” she says. “Seetec has rarely if ever returned my support worker’s call or emails.”

She adds she’s normally able to use the phone herself but due to the stress of sanctions and inappropriate work activity, she now needs her support worker to make contact for her.

“I developed an anxiety disorder because of the treatment I've received at JCP and Seetec,” she says. “I'm not able to call them or deal with them without experiencing symptoms of panic.”

That Sarah is now physically unable to even get to her work programme provider’s offices due to Seetac moving to an area that’s inaccessible to her by public transport is only adding to that stress. She knows she could well be penalized for this as well.

“They’re 0.7 miles from a station, and it involves a combination of trains and buses with between 17 and 25 minutes walking involved. I can't walk more than 200m. My Work Capability Assessment report states this,” she says. “I've asked if they would pay cab fares but I’ve had no reply.”

3. 50,000 disabled people are being cut out of work

The cocktail of cuts being made to benefits mean the DWP are managing to simultaneously penalize disabled people for not working and stopping them from having a job. 

50,000 disabled people could lose their jobs due to the Government removing Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC), an organisation of over fifty leading charities, has found

One in five disabled people who receive the now scrapped DLA are in work and use the benefit to cover the additional costs that come with that – be it help showering in the morning or a motability vehicle to get to the office. 

But as DLA is phased out and replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – and half a million people lose their support – it’s been projected 50,000 disabled people will no longer be able to hold onto their jobs. (If a tenth of this number of people were due to lose their jobs at a company, this would be headline news. Tens of thousands of disabled people scattered around the country trapped in their house and unable to get to work receives a strange silence.)

Reflective of the general incompetence of new social security policies, the switch from DLA to PIP doesn’t even make sense financially. At best, it’s hoped to save the Government £145 million. Disabled people no longer being able to get to work, however, will lose the Government £278 million in lost National Insurance and Income tax, as well as £178 million in unemployment benefits it will have to pay out. 

Still, they can probably make some savings by cutting other vulnerable people’s safety net elsewhere.   

4. There’s now a one-year limit on hundreds of thousands of people’s sickness benefit

In fact, the government is way ahead of us. They have now ‘time limited’ Employment and Support Allowance – meaning many people who have been found too ill to find work without support can only get the benefit for a year.

700,000 people with long-term sickness or disability have had their benefit taken as a result. The means test is only £7,500 for this change, leaving someone earning barely £8,000 per year having to support themselves and their ill partner.

Gayle Lewis, 47, has fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and depression but had her ESA stopped last month. In addition to severe pain, Gayle’s conditions leaves her with muscle weakness, fatigue, and a lack of co-ordination that leads her to fall over her feet. She has memory problems that mean she forgets the words she’s looking for when talking and is sometimes unable to speak. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she has had her benefit stopped despite her health meaning she has little hope of finding long-term work.

“My illnesses have not got any better,” Gayle says to me. “In fact, my conditions have [gotten worse]… I’m in terrific pain and I’m on the waiting list to go back for yet another laparoscopy.”

Gayle’s lost £400 per month after having her ESA stopped. Due to the fact her husband earns more than the allowed £7500 a year, the two of them are left to get by on his wage alone.

As Sue Marsh, disability campaigner with We Are Spartacus, points out, “Families already overwhelmingly living in poverty will lose £4661 per year [due to ESA ‘time limiting’]. This is three times as much as higher rate taxpayers ... lose in child benefit.”

Gayle tells me she’s found some part-time writing work she can do from home but would have to write six articles a day to make up the money she’s lost from ESA. “I worry that there will be days when I am completely unable to work, even from home,” she says. 

The effective large-scale withdrawal of ESA comes with an extra layer of distress for those relying on the payments due to the fact the removal is done retrospectively.

As Sue Marsh says to me, “The government ... backdated [the change] retrospectively ... to the previous April, so April 2011 sending letters out to warn people even before the bill passed. So effectively, once it did pass, some people lost their entitlement immediately, just like that.”  

The damage of backdating the withdrawal of support is worsened when poor testing sees claimants having to embark on lengthy benefit decision appeals. Gayle was incorrectly found ‘fit for work’ last year and it took her six months to even be placed in the group receiving a benefit with the ‘365 day limit’. She then had the time limit on her benefit backdated to the date of her request for an appeal.

In the system the DWP have created, sudden, arbitrary, unplanned removal of support for ill and disabled people seems almost common. 

Gayle tells me she’s in a “vicious circle” as the removal of her sickness benefit makes her more ill. “That fact that our income [has quickly dropped] substantially does nothing to help the depression or the anxiety and both of these have a direct effect on the levels of pain, which are made worse by stress,” she says.

“I fear that, like many others, I will simply slip down the cracks now and disappear,” she tells me. “Which is what the DWP seems to be aiming for with this time limit.”

5. Eviction letters are now including veiled threats to remove people’s children

Depressingly, even the cuts that do gain media attention seem to have certain aspects that remain hidden. It’s well highlighted that policies like the bedroom tax are leaving people unable to pay the rent. Less well publicized is the scale of rent arrears social tenants are finding themselves in – or the tacit threats being used to get monetary blood from the stones.

Nearly three quarters of housing association staff say their tenants are falling behind on rent this year, according to a recent Unison survey. Over a third report the main cause is the bedroom tax.

Half of the housing association staff surveyed had seen an increase in tenants being evicted or forced to move out due to financial pressures, Inside Housing reported.

Stuart Hughes was one of the first to receive an eviction notice after being unable to pay the extra rent the bedroom tax had left his family with. I spoke to him back in June and looked at the eviction letters that had been repeatedly sent to his home; bold, black words of ‘possession’ and ‘legal proceedings’. It’s now emerged some housing associations are sending out letters that include the threat eviction proceedings may lead to the tenant’s children being taken into care.

“If you have children in your household we may also inform Social Services,” reads one such letter.

Or the mildly more subtle: “...we must make you aware that if there are children at your property, a referral has now been made to Children’s Social Care (Social Services) as the children at your home are now at risk of becoming homeless.”

As housing solicitor Giles Peaker says on the blog ‘Nearly legal’, these are threats that are “unsustainable and unjustified in both law and practice.” “Most, if not all, people evicted solely on bedroom tax derived arrears would most certainly have an argument that they were not intentionally homeless. The Council would therefore owe a household with children the full homeless duty as being homeless, in priority need and not intentionally homeless,” he says. “Even if Children Services were to accept a s17/s.20 Children Act duty (or Children (Scotland) Act 1995 equivalent) to the children of the household, there is a very strong Article 8 human rights case for the family being kept together, so the proper response would be provision or securing of accommodation for the family…”

Empty threats concerning people’s children may be a new low. Then again, against the recent actions of this Government – be it imposing sanctions on the disabled or removing the benefits of the sick – ‘a new low’ seems to come weekly.

* Sarah Davidson's name has been changed

Tags:Welfare