Tuesday 10 January 2012

What's wrong with time-limiting Contributory ESA?

Another summarising primer on these issues for people who aren't necessarily aware of what's going on with UK disability benefits. If you know all about this already, click here for what we need to do about it today.

There are a few reasons why ESA has not become a national scandal, and one of those is that it sounds complicated. But it is vitally important, if you live in the UK it effects you and I am to try to keep this simple, so please bear with me.

Employment Support Allowance is replacing all the old incapacity benefits. It is awarded to people who are considered unable to work due to illness, injury or disability. There are various different levels of benefit, depending on one's level of impairment and National Insurance contributions.

The most serious issue about ESA in the Welfare Reform bill is that for most people on the benefit, there will be a time-limit of one year. These are people who
  • (a) are considered unable to work but not considered incapable of work-related activity (people in the "Work Group"). Most people on ESA fall into this category, and it includes people with all manner of severe, chronic and even life-threatening conditions.
  • (b) have paid enough National Insurance to be put on the "Contributory" rate. So all of these people have either worked and paid taxes for many years or else became disabled at a very young age. Most people who become incapacitated for work do so in middle-age, so most people on ESA, as with the old Incapacity Benefit, had worked for most of their lives up until that point. 
After a year, all a person's benefit will be means-tested. This means, if they have a working partner or any savings, then they will not have any income of their own. Those disabled people affected by this change were informed last April, before any parliamentary votes on the matter, that they would lose their benefit after one year. This is going to start effecting people's lives in three months time.

There are four very serious problems with this proposal

1. Hardship

Wealthier people, whose partners have well-paid jobs are unlikely to experience real hardship. Single people without savings will not become much poorer. However, the Disability Alliance calculates that on average, a person on this benefit will lose £50 per week. Many people will lose closer to £100.

A partner's income begins to effect benefits at £7500 a year - that's about a twenty-four hour working week at minimum wage. That's still a rather poor household, who cannot afford to lose a penny.

Benefits for people out of work due to ill health have always been higher than unemployment benefit because
  • (a) Disabled people have very limited opportunities to improve their situation, which is likely to be longer-term or lifelong - the government's own statistic is that 94% of the ESA "Work" group will not be in work by the end of their first year.
  • (b) Disabled life is more expensive. We have fewer opportunities to live frugally, such as turning down the thermostat, washing ourselves, our clothes and bed linen less often, cooking from scratch, selling the car etc.. Meanwhile, partner's of disabled people often can't afford to take on extra hours or a second job, even if they are not an official "carer". 
Often, people dismiss arguments about hardship on the grounds that poor people get “their rent paid” and all sorts of other goodies. First off, if you don't qualify for a means-tested benefit, you don't automatically qualify for Local Housing Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Free Prescriptions and so on. Not all poor people rent - they may have a nearly-paid mortgage at the point the main breadwinner gets sick. And these days, social housing is extremely hard come by and Local Housing Allowance isn't stretching to cover many private rents, especially not accessible accommodation. When the cuts kick in, there will be a shortfall of £150 a month between the cheapest place I could physically live in my area and the amount of Local Housing Allowance I would be eligible for.

2. Hopelessness

Becoming incapacitated for work involves many losses and a loss of income, together with a more frugal lifestyle is inevitable. Nobody asks that those unable to work should be paid anything like what a person could earn in work.

However, some disabled people have savings or money they've inherited.  People affected by the time-limit will face the prospect of having to live off this money, which either they or someone else had worked hard for, resisting all the temptations they might have spent it on.

There has always been some irony in the disincentives to save money for people who might end up on means-tested benefits, but for disabled people, who crucially, have no other means of improving their situation, this seems particularly unfair. Especially, when the three most common scenarios for a disabled person with savings would be either
  • (a) They worked very hard for many years and lived very frugally until they became disabled or
  • (b) Because of their care needs, they were unable to move out their parents' home, so had low living expenses and chose not to squander their low incomes or
  • (c) Someone else, feeling that the disabled person's future looked bleak, gave or left them a lump sum towards their future security and independence.

3. Pressure on Sick People.

There's no condition in the world, physical, sensory, mental or intellectual, which might benefit from a ticking clock. In fact, I believe the presence of a time limit could be deadly dangerous in two ways:
  • (a) An increased risk of suicide. When my physical health has been so bad that I have felt like giving up, I have often found deadlines useful. I have thought, “If it is still like this next month, I will kill myself and it'll all be over and done with.” I have experienced depression at times, but usually such deals have been made on the grounds of being thoroughly fed up. Friends with chronic mental illness have talked about doing the same thing in order to put off that terminal decision, whilst leaving the option open for later. However, I also know people who set a date and then proceeded to make a serious attempt on their lives. And this is when the deadline merely signified, “It's gone on too long now.” rather than, “It's gone on too long and I am about to lose all my income."
Last January, Aliquant wrote this post about how, feeling cornered by the benefits system, suicide seemed quite rational. It's a powerful post because Ali was so articulate; she simply couldn't cope with the risk of more homelessness, further hardship or having to jump through any more hoops. Soon after, 5 Quid for Life was set up, a charity to help people like Ali survive when things go wrong. Since then, the benefits situation has been implicated in at least ten suicides.
  • (b) A disincentive to self-management. Looking after your health, when your health is poor, is jolly hard work. Taking unpleasant medication, getting the right amount of exercise, preparing and eating the right food, resting and sleeping when you need to, visiting the appropriate healthcare workers, getting new complications and injuries treated and resisting naughty behaviours that will set you back, can feel like a full-time occupation. If you know that after a year, you're going to lose all income, unless your health significantly deteriorates, then you've got another major disincentive to look after yourself. I don't believe for a minute that anyone would choose to make themselves more ill, to suffer more and to deal with more health-related rigarmorale, even to shorten one's life expectancy. But a system is being created where being a good patient, hard as that is, could actually cost you money. 
I actually find it very distressing when people with far more energy than me fail to look after their health, although looking after is subjective and it is absolutely none of my business anyway. It's probably natural to worry about things that have happened to me happening to other people. However, as some disabled people involved in anti-cuts activism work themselves into the ground and expend twice as much energy in a week than I have in any given year, I am able to reassure myself that, as long as they stay alive, they'll probably wind up too sick to be effected by the time-limit. This situation is all kinds of wrong. There shouldn't be any advantage to getting sicker.

4. Damage Caused to Relationships

Money can't buy you love and poverty doesn't destroy it, but relationships can become a lot tougher when when one partner has literally no income and crucially, no means of bringing in money if they want to. I see three effects of this:
  • (a) The time-limit interferes with the future relationships of single disabled people. Lisa has written about how the combination of poverty and disability dramatically reduces one's romantic chances, and the prospect of complete financial dependence will make this worse. Means-tested benefits force claimants to either restrict themselves to very casual and discreet relationships or else to place themselves in complete financial dependence on a partner the moment they begin living together – a moment which is rarely well-defined. 
  • (b) The time-limit threatens to undermine existing relationships. Sue has described her fears of becoming a burden on her husband. As Shana Pezaro described, desertion is not an uncommon experience in the face of chronic illness, especially among heterosexual women, and the prospect of total financial dependence will only add to this problem. Some families, especially those with children, may even find that they would be financially better off if they occupied two different households. 
  • (c) The time-limit makes disabled men and women, who are already more likely to experience domestic abuse, even more vulnerable. Disabled people are already twice as likely to experience domestic violence. If you have no income at all, then it becomes easy for an abusive partner to completely deny you access to money, to complain about or restrict your expenditure, whether on food or phone calls, bus fare or medicines. It becomes easy for an abuser to tell you what a burden you are, and how you owe them or deserve to be mistreated, when you are both financially and practically dependent on them.   
Unemployed single parents of small children have long had this problematic status, where benefit rules prevent them from having romantic relationships which progress out in the open and at their own natural pace and where the prospect of complete financial dependence can make a person feel as if they are less valuable. This is one of the major reasons that make such families particularly vulnerable to dysfunctional and abusive relationships.

The government's motives for this are deeply cynical.

Years back, when ESA was first discussed by the then Labour Government, the disability blogosphere and messageboards were awash with anxiety about sick people being pressured into work that they just couldn't get. I wrote a post on BBC Ouch! explaining that logically, we had nothing to fear. If Employment Support Allowance was to have a "Work Group", the government simply had to get these people into work. If vast numbers of us were placed in this Work Group, who didn't have a hope of getting a job, we would become bad statistics.

The Conservative Government came up with a way round this, which is to make these people disappear. Anyone on this band of ESA with savings or a working partner will simply disappear after twelve months.  They will not add to the unemployment statistics because they have been declared unfit for work. They will not be claiming any benefit at all.

Here is the link I gave you at the top: This is what we need to do now.


  1. I have emailed all the lords possible and received a really long winded reply from Lord Rennard who sympathised with me but was following Lord Germans advice to send out what amounts to be a range of financial "reasons" (excuses) for them to pass the bill so long as there are significant cuts to the DWP budget.

    Personally I'm terrified of April 2012, I turn 50 and lose financial independence for the first time in my life; all because I have a set of chronic disorders and have been sick for just 2 years.

    Why did I work for 30 years+?

  2. It's the effect on relationships that frightens me most. We are supposed to have a right to a private/personal life as a basic human right. This isn't equality. And of course it's already the case for people who became disabled before they were able to make enough NI contributions - so many dreams gone before you even get a shot at them, and there's another, if not taken away at least made vastly more difficult, for no good reason.

    Your last point is very disturbing, having never had that realisation before, and all the more important for that.

  3. @Rose: It's not until 3pm.