A blog about welfare reform from a social care worker's perspective, and the creation of the "welfare addict" as a recession-era scapegoat. Inspired largely by today's Novara show, and the people I work with.
I've got a personal grudge against a colleague of mine. I know this is bad for workplace solidarity. A month ago I sat in the office filling out a service user's DLA1 application based on the notes I'd taken in my last hour-long session with him. My service user (let's call him Jamie) has learning difficulties, cannot read or write, is recovering from a heroin addiction that started in childhood, has chronic physical health problems as well as mental health problems. He's one of the most resilient people I've ever met. As I filled in the last few boxes on the form, writing the names of the various professionals involved in Jamie's care, I mentioned to our prescribing GP that I was putting her name down on the form.
“Oh I don't think you are, I want to see what I'm putting my name to, I stay out of all this benefits stuff”
I assured her she wasn't putting her name to anything, that I wasn't asking her for a statement, that it was me who was responsible for the form and not her.
“Well I don't know about that. I've got mixed feelings on all this kind of thing”
Oh really? Do go on...
“Well, once people get these benefits they become dependent on them, he'll never go to work”
But this is for DLA, and you can get that if you're in work or not.
“Even so. He'll become dependent on it.”
I filled in the form, silently raging about this woman, who earns at least six times what I do, and almost thirty times what Jamie was living on at that point. I imagine if she had to live at home with only £71 a week for the foreseeable future, she'd become a little “dependent” on that money too.
The DLA form submitted, next comes a date for Jamie's ESA2 appeal. Jamie appealed against the decision reached after his Work Capability Assessment which found him fit for work. But the appeal failed and he had to go to a tribunal, on the other side of town. There wasn't enough time to arrange for a representative to accompany Jamie, and he can't read directions or maps or road signs – he would never have made the tribunal alone. He phoned and asked them for a taxi, they refused. The tribunal was held in his absence, he was declared fit for work, his ESA was stopped, he was given no advice as to what to do next.
Now, I'm not new to navigating the infuriating contradictions and inadequacies of the Department for Work and Pensions, as either a claimant, a carer, or a support worker for people with complex needs. Even so, I can barely believe the words I'm saying when I explain to people that it is perfectly possible to be declared “fit for work” by one arm of the DWP, whilst simultaneously deemed “unfit for work” by another, and thus shut out of any possible source of benefits.
Jamie's 6-month sick note from his GP counts for nothing up against the health professionals3 who met Jamie for less than 10 minutes and declared him fit for work. If you don't qualify for ESA, your other option is JSA4, but you must be actively seeking and available for work to qualify. Whilst the ESA decision makers disregarded Jamie's sick note5, the note is still on Jamie's file6, making Jamie “unfit for work” for the next 6 months, and ineligible for JSA. With his DLA claim still being processed and no guarantee of future payments, Jamie now has no money coming in.
Jamie is vulnerable. He is precariously housed, he is a recovering heroin user, he is abstinent for the first time in 16 years, he lives next door to someone who sells valium for 50p a pill. His risk of relapse is pretty fucking high, and anybody who's ever experienced the cold bureaucratic violence of benefits being sanctioned or withdrawn completely can probably relate to the feeling of sheer panic and desperation that follows. Sitting listening to the holding music on the DWP phone line7 in one ear, trying to reassure Jamie while knowing there's little we can do, my call is answered, and I'm told to phone the tribunals service, after explaining the predicament. The tribunals service listen patiently before saying there is nothing they can do, and telling me to call the DWP, who tell me to call tribunals. I argue, I explain, I ask to speak to a manager. After an hour of this, we're told that Jamie needs to re-apply for ESA if he wants any money. Start from scratch, except because he's within 6 months of failing a work capability assessment (or maybe he passed, depends which side of the fence you're on I suppose), he needs to present new evidence of his inability to work – a joyless task if ever there was.
None of this should have happened. Jamie was in the support group for ESA8 until he was remanded for an offence committed by somebody else, after which he was released and had to start over with a fresh claim. The tribunals service could have chosen to postpone the first tribunal, on the grounds that there was no representative available. They could have postponed it on the grounds that the claimant was not present. When I wrote to them requesting they set aside the tribunal's decision on grounds their own policy presents as valid reasons to set aside and postpone tribunals, they could have agreed and given us a new date. Instead, they wrote back saying it was “not in the interests of justice”9 to set aside the decision, citing Jamie's attendance at his WCA last year (held just up the road from where he lives) as evidence he was perfectly capable of travelling an hour or more across town to an unfamiliar area by himself. Now we are waiting for a “statement of reason” from the Judge, after which we must apply for permission to appeal to the upper tribunal, which we may or may not be granted.
This will continue for months. This isn't my job, my job is to work on relapse prevention strategies with Jamie, but all we've been able to do for weeks is deal with his benefits – there is no one else who can do this, and as far as I'm concerned, income maximisation is a pretty good short term relapse prevention technique.
Drafting a new appeal letter to the DWP10
Let's get one thing straight. If I don't make any money today, it's my fault, not yours.
Meanwhile, my GP colleague is still concerned about the risk of Jamie and others like him becoming “dependent” on welfare. She claims to be genuinely concerned that the promise of £71 a week is the only thing standing in between her patients and a lifetime of dignified, gainful, liberating employment. As if, in its absence, her patients will finally pull themselves up by their bootstraps, get on their bikes and find one of those many, many jobs that are eager to hire adults with criminal records as long as your arm, physical and learning disabilities, childcare commitments, no qualifications, and little to no work experience. If only that “safety net” wasn't there to catch them, these most vulnerable of adults would finally be able to become economically independent, if only we let them. Fuck off with that.
But my colleague isn't alone. Liam Fox just a few weeks ago denounced Britain as “welfare dependent”, Iain Duncan Smith declared in 2011 that “it's time to end this addiction to benefits”, conflating the sneering, ill-informed judgement of those who misuse substances with the frothing demonisation of benefit claimants to form some kind of recession-era folk devil par excellence – the welfare addict that you - yes you, honest taxpayer! - are enabling. Weaved into all this hideous rhetoric that casts those on low incomes as wanting “something for nothing” or as products of “entitlement culture”, that casts “generations of worklessness” as something which actually exists11 whilst imagining away the many complex material realities which leave people with little choice but to claim benefits, there's a particular disdain for the “addict”12.
The present waking nightmare of welfare reform divides the “deserving poor”, or “people incapacitated through no fault of their own”, from the “undeserving”, with a particular emphasis on the drug and alcohol dependent. Plans to sanction claimants who do not engage with treatment for drug and alcohol problems are included in Universal Credit13; local authorities are turning to food stamp systems in the absence of the DWP's social fund, and making sure these can't be used for alcohol or cigarettes. Not only does the amount of money in claimants' pockets matter, what that “money”14 can be spent on is also now everyone else's business.
All those negative beliefs churned out again and again about “addicts” - they lie, they steal, they care only for themselves, they are bereft of any moral responsibility whatsoever, they are slamming your taxes into their femoral veins £100 at a time – this is the language being extended to anyone claiming benefits. And the cure for all these ills? Some good old fashioned work ethic, “taking responsibility”, working not begging, of course. Big Issue founder and arch neoliberal Tory-flatterer John Bird's latest publicity stunt with Saatchi includes the declaration “Let's get one thing straight. If I don't make any money today, it's my fault, not yours.”. The rhetoric of irresponsibility and dependence shifts the blame for poverty right back onto the poor, who just need to work harder. As if work was in itself a route out of poverty. As if work was in itself a solution.
“The revolution starts in the ATOS smoking area”
The extent of the impact of welfare reform scares the shit out of me. That so many people are being attacked on so many fronts, that legal aid is gone, that the help and support once available to claimants, inadequate to begin with, is being cut to shreds, that most claimants don't have a support worker or anyone else to help them navigate a system so confusing even the DWP's staff seem to be on the back foot, makes me despair beyond fucking words. It's hard to feel hopeful or optimistic when thinking of ways to fight back.
At work, I'll keep doing my thing and trying to support my service users to fight their battles against the DWP, but this is no kind of solution. It's not even the tip of the iceberg, it's a tiny snowflake somewhere near the iceberg. More encouraging was the assertion of a friend of mine, after accompanying one of her service users to a work capability assessment with the dreaded ATOS, that "the revolution will begin in the ATOS smoking area". The WCA was of course horrific, with a doctor interrogating a woman on the extent of her suicidal ideation, laughing at her when she said she found his questions difficult to answer. But the tiny bit of hope came with “the feeling of solidarity in that waiting room”, with claimants swapping tips and sharing cigarettes and talking each other through the process, total strangers realising that they're not alone in this bullshit. Of course, this isn't enough. Whilst I nearly lept for joy when another service user rang to cancel his session with me so he could accompany a neighbour to an ESA tribunal, this isn't enough. As disabled people are chucked off DLA and denied it's replacement, PIP15, as rent arrears accrue and housing associations start to evict due to the bedroom tax, as more and more people are stuck in the no-man's land between ESA and JSA like Jamie, we need to do more than bitch about the present conditions in the smoking area. The Boycott Workfare campaign is claiming small victories as companies pull out, select local authorities are pledging not to evict due to rent arrears built up through the bedroom tax, but the violence of welfare reform cuts deeper than that. I'm inspired by groups like Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, who provide support and information for claimants in a non-hierarchical, claimant led environment, but I'm not aware of many other groups who do this kind of work. In terms of tactics to resist this, I'm drawing a bit of a blank.
- 1. Disability Living Allowance – a non-means-tested benefit intended to cover the additional costs of having long term care or mobility needs. If you qualify for DLA, you keep it whether you're in work or not
- 2. Employment and Support Allowance – designed to replace Incapacity Benefit and Income Support for those too ill to work.
- 3. not necessarily doctors – ATOS employs a wide range of health professionals to carry out WCAs
- 4. Jobseeker's Allowance – don't get too comfy with ESA and JSA however, these “legacy” benefits will be phased out from October 2013 and replaced with Universal Credit
- 5. technically these are now called “fit notes” but just fuck off with that disgusting ideological semantics
- 6. or database or magical dressing up box or whatever fucking ridiculous system they have to keep track of all this
- 7. they're overhauling the entire welfare system, just not that fucking holding music, which remains the same for decades despite the grand march of economic progress
- 8. the holy grail of ESA decisions, where you're told you are not expected to go to work and don't have to take part in “work related activity” - hardly anyone gets into this group
- 9. a fantastically slippery and subjective statement
- 10. painting by Royal Art Lodge
- 11. it doesn't: http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/cultures-of-worklessness
- 12. Of course, the welfare addict is not a new creation, and he's invoked every time you hear someone not giving money to beggars lest they spend it on booze and drugs.
- 13. From my own experience at work it seems nearly impossible to secure ESA for people with drug or alcohol dependencies, but under Universal Credit it will become possible to sanction claimants with drug and alcohol problems who do not undergo treatment. This is fucking terrifying. We've already been approached by the DWP at work to see if we will accept referrals from Jobcentres and report back on people's attendance, we've told them “no”, and I hope that sticks. There are many serious flaws to linking treatment for addictions with benefits payments and I'll keep that for another blog some time, but of particular concern is Iain Duncan Smith's praise for the AA/NA model, often the only game in town unless you live in a city, AA/NA offers a “treatment” model with absolutely zero cost to the tax payer whatsoever. They wouldn't accept government funding if it was offered, whilst the combination of substitute prescribing (methadone, suboxone etc), 1:1 psychosocial support and possibly residential rehab offered through statutory and voluntary service partnerships is astronomically expensive. AA and NA will also happily report back to courts and presumably Job Centres on people's attendance.
- 14. food stamps aren't money after all
- 15. Personal Independence Payment – more semantic fuckwittery to window dress a target of reducing disability payments by at least 20%