From the Work Programme to the bedroom tax, there is a lot this government has got wrong. Photo: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty
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The Disability Audit: the eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people

After looking in detail at all the changes to the benefits system in the last five years, it’s only possible to come to one conclusion: the coalition’s attitude towards disabled people has been pointlessly cruel.

Listen to the Conservatives promise the electorate £12bn of social security cuts and you have an insight into the thinking that has plagued the last five years. Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have ended this parliament as they began: demonising disabled people and the chronically ill as expensive drains on the rest of society.

The coalition’s cuts have fallen 18 times harder on severely disabled people in poverty than on the average citizen. Disabled people are losing £28bn of support – with individuals hit by up to six different cuts.

It says something about the scale of this that what you’re about to read does not cover every measure this government has taken against disabled people – there are simply too many to list. Think disappearing respite care for families with severely disabled children, the failing Work Programme, or proposed student allowance cuts that stop young disabled adults being able to go to university.

From the “fit to work” tests to the onslaught of benefit sanctions, the last five years has witnessed the dismantling of disability care, work, and housing support. 

Here are eight coalition policies that have hit disabled people:

1. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

Ask a member of the public if they are aware of any of this government’s disability policies and it’s likely one name will come up: Atos. By the time last March the private firm had quit its £500m contract administrating the coalition’s now infamous “fit to work” test – the assessment used to determine if a disabled or chronically ill person is eligible for the unemployment benefit, Employment and Support Allowance – it had become the recipient of unprecedented protests by disability campaigners and an avalanche of slating media headlines: from assessors asking an amputee if his arm would grow back to judging people “fit to work” only for them to die a few weeks later.

But it would be to miss the core of the past five years to think Atos – rather than the government itself – created this crisis. Atos – and its replacement, Maximus – are the private sector monkey to the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) organ grinder. It was the DWP that designed the Work Capability Assessment and it’s the DWP who despite a committee of MPs calling the test not fit for purposehave continued to defend it.

Last year, it emerged that people with degenerative conditions – conditions that, by definition, are only going to get worse – were being judged by the WCA as likely to “recover” enough to look for work. A third of people with disabilities such as Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis are being denied the full version of ESA and pushed into “work-related activity” – the group expected to be well enough to work, that gets less money, and is routinely sanctioned.

This is an assessment that is now quantitatively proven to inflict damage to disabled people’s bodies and minds. Over 60 per cent of disabled people going through the work capability assessment report being in pain afterwards. Others say their condition was made worse or their recovery delayed. One claimant surveyed by Leonard Cheshire Disability, who has progressive rheumatoid arthritis, said she left her appointment “feeling absolutely awful and suffered a lot of pain in the following days”. She went on to have a stroke a few weeks later.

Keep this in mind when noting that the change the government decided to make to ESA was to reduce the support many going through the process could receive. By mid-way through the coalition’s time in government, the DWP had added “time limits” to how long some chronically ill or disabled claimants could claim benefits. This was part of a wider attempt to enact conditionality to the benefit system (see number eight). As I reported in 2013, 700,000 people with long-term sickness or disability had their ESA taken as a result. The means test brought in was only £7,500 for this change, leaving someone earning barely eight grand a year having to support themselves and their ill partner.

Asked on the election trail where the Conservatives would get their £12bn “welfare savings” from, David Cameron has pointed to “getting people off” ESA. “Part of this is continuing with a programme that we’ve had…,” he told the BBC. “We’re going to continue with that, successfully reducing welfare…” Pain, scandal, and poverty is apparently “success”.  

2. Personal Independence Payments (PIP)  

At the same time as the crisis with ESA, the government decided to scrap a second key disability benefit: Disability Living Allowance (DLA), replacing it with the “tougher” Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

As of 2012, 3.2 million disabled people were receiving DLA to help pay for their additional care or mobility needs. It does not take a genius to predict that re-testing millions of disabled people is an enormous undertaking – and one that, by nature of being a benefit that people use to feed themselves or leave the house, would need to be done carefully and competently.  

A year into the reform, parliament’s public spending watchdog was calling the government’s handling of PIP “nothing short of a fiasco” – with widespread delays and reports of claimants being hospitalised due to the stress of the process.  

The DWP have been forced to delay the national rollout (many areas of the country are still on DLA), as well increase predictions for how long people would have to wait for support or even to get an assessment. Currently, almost 200,000 disabled and chronically ill people in “reform areas” are stuck in a backlog waiting to be assessed. Guess who the government outsourced the job to for £400m? Atos (and second private firm, Capita).  

What is particularly troubling with PIP is that – due to the flaws in the assessment itself – these backlogs are essentially a long wait to nowhere. Unlike DLA, Personal Independence Payment is a points-based assessment, awarded on “descriptors” on a range of activities (such as washing and bathing, or communicating verbally) and only has two rates (DLA had three). Campaigners warned from the offset that, just like with ESA and the Work Capability Assessment, this would mean a crude, inaccurate assessment. Disabled people are now finding themselves waiting a year for help, only to be told they are not eligible for the new benefit, despite having severe – and blindingly obvious – needs.

Paula Ranking*, 61, from Runcorn, Cheshire, applied for PIP back in October 2013. She has fibromyalgia and depression, leaving her with chronic fatigue, poor memory, and severe muscle pain. It took her until June 2014 to be given an assessment and two months later, she was told she had been rejected for the benefit entirely.

After requesting a copy of her assessment report four times in order to appeal the decision, she tells me she saw it was “full of lies and omissions”.  

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading… The assessor made out I was fit and athletic,” Paula says. “She said she watched me walk 60 meters to the office with no problem but I was in absolute agony. It was early morning and my painkillers hadn’t kicked in.”

“She pointed out in her report that I crossed my leg at one point. I did because my calf muscle felt like it was having a knife twisted in it. I let out a yelp when I grabbed my leg but she didn’t mention that. I could go on and on.”

Rather than being a necessary reform, the scrapping of DLA – and introduction of PIP – was brought in on the (false) premise that vast numbers of disabled people were making unnecessary and “fraudulent claims”. Before anyone had actually been assessed, Iain Duncan Smith was announcing an estimated half a million people would lose their entitlement under PIP – making a “saving” of around 20 per cent, or £2bn, of the current scheme. Instead of an anomaly or a horrible accident, there is a lurking feeling that benefit rejections like Paula’s are exactly what was intended.

I think of this as Paula tells me she is “terrified” that she has no one to go with her to her appeal – and again, a few weeks later, when she emails me, upset to say she arrived at her appeal only to be told it was the day before. Due to the memory loss and fatigue that are symptoms of her illness, she had got the dates mixed up. There was no support in place to her help, despite the fact her illness leaves her cognitively unable to deal with the process and physically needing up to eighteen hours sleep a day.

A month later, Paula emails to tell me she’s finally been awarded the benefit – at the standard rate.

I missed out on the rest due to the poor help I received filling the form in,” she tells me. “The judge did say he had gone on my doctor’s reports and disregarded the Atos report.” 

It’s hard to imagine this is much of a reprieve. Paula’s been £190 short on her mortgage each month for the last year. 

“Don’t believe all you hear about everything getting paid for on benefits,” she says. “I could lose my home.”   

3. Bedroom tax

Even in the anti-benefits climate that has developed, the image of a disabled person being evicted does not sit well with the public. The bedroom tax – which cut the housing benefit of social tenants deemed to be “under-occupying” their home – saw what was a flagship coalition policy of “fairness” and “cost-cutting” turn into arguably the most unpopular measure of the parliament.    

Almost two thirds of the tenants hit by the policy are from households that contain someone who has a disability – that’s over 400,000. It didn’t take much to realize that a policy penalising people for needing extra space would end up hurting the disabled and chronically ill. The government’s own impact assessment told them.

Back at the start of 2013, before the policy came into force, I reported the reality of cutting benefits for having a so-called “spare room”: parents of grown disabled children losing money for storing oxygen cylinders and adult sized nappies, to wheelchair users told to leave a home with twenty years’ worth of adaptations.

What has followed in the two years since has been a lesson in how not to conduct social security. Only 6 per cent of people affected by the bedroom tax have “downsized”, largely down to the fact there was never enough smaller properties for them to move to. Local authority Discretionary Housing Payments – held up as the safety net to protect disabled tenants – have actually ended up more likely to be given to non-disabled tenants.  Savings have been nominal – and have only come off the back of pushing some of the most disadvantaged people in society into debt, rent arrears, and worsening health.

The bedroom tax has produced a sense of “hopelessness verging on desperation”, research in the Journal of Public Health found last month – that sort of widespread, every day pain that has the deepest effect.

If the policy’s architects needed something more graphic, they could perhaps look to the case in the Liverpool Echo this week: a 32 year old who had all his toes amputated after being forced to spend last winter sleeping in a tent. Mitchell Keenan, from Skelmersdale, in West Lancashire, was evicted from his four-bed house because the bedroom tax meant his family could no longer pay the rent. He was diagnosed with frostbite six weeks ago when his family noticed his toes had turned black. His 62-year-old father, Keith, also evicted, has malnourishment, scabies and dementia.

4. Council tax

The bedroom tax may have grabbed the headlines but it came at the same time as another, equally appalling hit on the ability of the so-called “vulnerable” to pay the rent. From April 2013, the government slashed funding for council tax benefit by £500m, leaving cash-strapped local authorities to decide how the remainder should be distributed. The result? 2.3m families previously exempt now have to pay at least a portion of their council tax – that’s the poorest, the disabled, and carers. 

Almost 300,000 of these people have also been affected by the bedroom tax. That’s the added kick of the coalition’s cuts: they have been arranged in a way that means disabled people have lost multiple strands of support at once.

The consequences of a policy decision like cutting council tax support are devastating and they are fast. Council tax is one of the few debts that carry a threat of prison. Miss a payment and the arrears mount quickly. Before you know it, a court summons has arrived at your home and there is talk of eviction and re-possession.

Susan Smith, 50, has council tax arrears of over £1,300. She’s lived in her flat in London for fourteen years and tells me she had never had to pay council tax before the cuts to support came in last year. Susan is an example of the sort of person the state used to protect: she has mental health problems – what she describes to me as “chronic mental and emotional fatigue” – severe enough to result in repeated hospitalisation. She was already struggling to keep a roof over her head before the month dubbed “Black April” kicked in, with rent arrears of almost £5,000 and an ongoing eviction threat. The council tax changes have piled on more debt and more psychological pressure.

“I know at times like this I’m vulnerable to episodes,” she tells me. [I’ve been] detached, incapable of going to the shop, and neglected eating properly for days, feeling the need to stay in bed and rest my brain.”  

Her council, Haringey, employed an “enforcement agency” to “remove and sell off” her goods unless she pays them £10 a week from her Disability Living Allowance – the benefit awarded to help her with the additional needs that come with her illness.  

“I’ve experienced relapses through [the] stress and anxiety [of it], where I’ve not been able to function properly,” she tells me. “[So I haven’t been able to] respond effectively to threatening letters and gather the information they require.”

Despite Susan agreeing to pay them £40 of her disability benefit a month, the council is continuing to threaten her with legal action. Susan shows me the letter she received on Monday – asking her with almost quaint politeness to “please pay £115.58 within seven days” or “legal action will be taken after a further seven days for the full amount of £1,150.38.” 

It is unclear where someone dealing with mental illness with set, low income is expected to get over a thousand pounds from in less than two weeks.

5. Independent Living Fund (ILF)  

Crucially, the coalition’s cuts have been a two-tier threat to disabled people keeping their home: not only through the ability to pay the rent but to live independently at all.

For its users, the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – the standalone fund that helps 18,000 of some of the most severely disabled people to live in their own homes – is the difference between living independently as an adult or a toss up between clock-timed care slots and going into residential care.

The government’s much-fought decision to, from June 2015, close the ILF has come to symbolise perhaps the most devastating message of austerity: disabled people’s dignity is now too costly. 

Helen Johnson, 43, has cerebral palsy – meaning she uses a wheelchair and has minimal movement – and has used ILF since she was 18.  Talking from her bungalow just outside Doncaster, she tells me that, added to her own financial contributions, the ILF has allowed her to stay in the home she grew up in. Three rotating personal assistants help her with basic care needs: going to the toilet when she wants, washing, and putting medicated cream on her fragile skin. But, like every ILF user I’ve spoken to, what’s striking is how the fund also means Helen’s been able to have what most of us would say constitutes living rather than existing: to study, work part-time when her health allowed, enjoy music festivals and go to comedy shows with friends.

Listen to a politician talk about the decision to close the ILF and they will tell you that any disabled person currently being supported by the fund will simply be transferred to local authority care provision. What they don’t tend to say is that the money won’t be ring-fenced, meaning local councils – already shredding social care (see number six) – will have no obligation to spend it on current recipients. 

It gives some insight into what is to come for Helen that she tells me that, before the decision to close the ILF was announced, she asked her local authority to “top up” her care hours (her elderly mum helps her with her nighttime care) – and was told to go back to apply to the ILF as the process “would be easier and a lot less complicated”.

Perhaps the darkest part is that none of this could be called news to the government. The DWP's own research says it's "almost certain that closure of the ILF will mean that the majority of users will face changes to the way their support is delivered, including the real possibility of a reduction to the funding they currently receive". This could mean "the loss of a carer or personal assistant".

According to a series of freedom of information requests by Disabled People Against Cuts, over half the local authorities that responded to the government's ILF consultation said the move would either result in significantly reduced care packages that would affect people's ability to enjoy any quality of life, or in more admissions to residential care homes.  

It might be worth taking a moment to imagine the reality of that.

Helen is a “group 1 ILF recipient” which means, as an original user of the fund, she has never had any involvement with social services before. She tells me that her local authority – nor anyone else – even contacted her when they started talking about closing the ILF and that communication throughout has “so far been non existent.”

“I contacted social services myself in early January, because they hadn't been in touch,” she says. “A social worker visited me but admitted that although they knew changes would happen, she did a basic assessment but then said she was due to go on a training course as the paper work was due to change… I’ve not heard anything else as yet.”

The feeling of a lack of control over her own life is evident.

“I do feel very ignored and totally in the dark regarding the future,” she adds.  

6. Social care  

It may give a hint to the government’s approach to protecting disabled citizens that the ministers pointing to social care as the solution to ILF closure are the same ones who have cut the system to the bone.

Social care has had over £3.5bn taken from its funding by the coalition over the past four years, according to Adass, directors of adult social services. The result has been councils forced to reduce the number of disabled people dubbed as eligible for it – essentially abandoning adults with severe disabilities to live without even basic help. It has made few headlines but two out of five disabled people in this country are now unable to eat, wash, dress or get out of the house due to underfunded services in their area.

Kenneth Fletcher, 23, has cerebral palsy and is partially sighted. In 2011, he moved out of his family home and into a shared bungalow with three other disabled people and what was said to be 24-hour on-site support. At the age of 19, what he says he was looking forward to are the basics of independence any of us want as we form a life: socialising with friends, maybe going on holiday with his new housemates. He says that after a few weeks in his new home, he realized “something didn’t feel right”.

“Everyone was in bed by 8.30pm. Why would you go to bed so early every night?” Kenneth explains. “It turned out my new housemates had no choice – they were being ‘put’ to bed early, even if they didn’t want to go.”

Kenneth says he remembers coming home to find one of his housemates, who he describes as a girl who uses a wheelchair, sitting at the kitchen table with nothing to do.

“She’d just been left there on her own,” he says. “Another time I came home to find two of my housemates with their wheelchairs facing the wall. I don’t know how long they had been like that – hours maybe.”   

Despite intervention by Kenneth’s mum and social worker, he tells me nothing changed. After a year, he was able to move into another supported-living bungalow that he describes as “not perfect” but better.

It says something about the standard of independent living for disabled adults in this country that, when discussing his expectations with disability charity Scope, Kenneth says he hopes for the ability to “choose what time to get up in the morning” and “what to have for lunch.”

Treating disabled people like cattle is the cheaper option. By the end of the decade, the Local Government Association and Adass estimate there will be a £4.3bn funding “black hole” in adult social care. Scope’s report, “The Other Care Crisis”, puts it clearly: “Austerity has pushed the system to crisis point...turning back the clock on disabled people’s independence.”

7. Access to Work

For a government obsessed with “hardworking families” and “making work pay”, changes like PIP or social care have not only been immoral but counterproductive. Cutting the support disabled people need to get dressed and leave the house tends to make it difficult for them to be able to turn up to work.

Cuts to Access to Work – the fund delivered through Jobcentre Plus that pays for practical support for disabled people at work – is the most blatant example of this. Or it would be, if the government were not trying very hard to bury them. (The Department for Work and Pensions only agreed to publish the guidance that shows who is even eligible for support after campaigners threatened legal action.) Go a bit deeper and we know that limits have been placed on the amount of help available – resulting in a “climate of suspicion” around claims, payment delays, cuts in support hours, and risk of disabled people losing their jobs. 

Bernie Vincent, who uses a wheelchair and has cognitive impairments, works as a training manager at an independent living centre. Her disability means she needs help to process and interpret information and for the last twenty years she’s relied on the Access to Work scheme to help fund a support worker. From May 2014, she had her funding cut by 60 per cent. There had been no change in her disability and she had been given no new assessment – only filling in what she describes as a review form.   

“I’ve always had support from Access to Work. Without funding, [working for the past twenty years] wouldn’t have been possible,” she tells me. “Now it’s all under threat.”

The first thing Bernie heard about her funding being cut was when her office manager told her they hadn’t been paid. She tells me she then had to start “chasing things up”.

“[When I called them,] the person on the other end of the phone was robotic, as if she was reading from a script,” she says.  “I couldn’t take in what I was being told. I kept asking for an explanation only to be informed that Access to Work only fund 20 per cent of support needs.”

“There I was telling this stranger I’d never spoken to before that I’d likely lose my job, that I wouldn’t be able to pay by mortgage. Nothing made a difference.”  

Bernie tells me she made “numerous” phone calls, sent emails, and made an official complaint but the DWP went ahead with her funding cut.  This is not surprising. The DWP has been warned by the work and pensions select committee that the process by which people could challenge decisions made about their support funding needed to be “clearer and more transparent”.

The cuts in her funding mean Bernie now has to spend two days at work without her support worker. On the days she still has support, she leaves early in order to “make best use” of the funding and ends up making up her contracted hours at home without help.

Left without her support worker, Bernie tells me she becomes “anxious”, her “mind swims with information”, and everything she does “takes longer”.

“I worry can I make my targets, how this will impact on the others in my [office] team,” she says. “If I don’t have adequate support at work, I can’t continue to do my job.” 

“Society sees disabled people like me going about our lives and think we just jump out of bed, get on with our lives, perhaps in the same way as they do,” she adds. “What people don’t see is the stuff that goes on behind closed doors to make this happen…how critical it is we have the funding and services to just get on with an average day.”  

8. Benefit sanctions

This myth that it is shrinking government – loss of support or added conditionality – that helps workers has propped up much of the coalition’s employment thinking. It gave birth to one of the worst developments of the past five years: the benefit sanction system.

There are no legitimate grounds to remove the money people need in order to eat, whether that person begins as the picture of health or is sitting in a wheelchair. But it gives some insight into the mentality of the system that as of last year, the number of benefit sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people had risen by 580 per cent. Like the 23-year-old pregnant woman who the recent MP-led inquiry heard was receiving employment and support allowance for mental health problems following the stillborn birth of her first baby eight months earlier. She had missed one work-focused interview because on that day she had found it too difficult to leave her flat – so they stopped her money, and left her to walk two miles to a food bank after going without a hot meal for a fortnight. Or the young man with learning difficulties who had his benefits stopped for being four minutes late for the JobCentre – despite the fact he couldn’t tell the time. He was later found sitting in his flat in the dark with no electric, gas, or food.

Listen to Esther McVey or IDS and they will tell you these cases are ‘vulnerable’ claimants who have “fallen through the cracks,” as if what has happened to these people happened by magic. It didn’t. The Coalition brought in measures to increase the amount of money they were able to take from sanctioned disabled and chronically ill people. The application for hardship payments – the emergency fund meant to, essentially, keep people alive during their sanction period - have been designed in a way that is too difficult for vulnerable people to understand. A fact that the MP’s inquiry into the sanction system said means: “the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it”. Cameron chose to ignore this point when Andrew Marr questioned him this month on the death of David Clapson – the diabetic who died because a sanction meant he couldn’t afford to keep his insulin in a fridge. Or that JSA claimants aren’t even allowed to use the hardship fund for 15 days after being sanctioned. It is worth noting that this group will include disabled and ill people, falsely judged as “fit to work” (see number one) and put on JSA.  

This is a system that is morally rotten. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction claimants’ benefits – and even have league tables for job centres to compete against each other. Clapson is not the only one to die as a result. The DWP have been forced to admit they’ve investigated 49 deaths since 2012 “associated with a DWP activity”.  

It is telling that the sanction inquiry found there is limited evidence that benefit sanctions actually help people find work. It is a message that could sum up the coalition’s entire catalogue of disability policies: pointlessly cruel.

*Some names have been changed

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.

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).