Thursday 10 May 2012

Like a puppet on a string

Got a letter from the council this morning telling me they've sent the DWP an order to stop my income support and pay it to them instead because of outstanding council tax benefit (that I'm not actually liable for).

It's nice to serve some useful purpose. If my despair wasn't keeping someone at the council with a love of schadenfreude entertained I would merely be just a useless scrounger off the state who added nothing whatsoever to society.

Apparently someone who should know better has fallen for the tabloid insinuation that all benefit claimants get £500 a week.

Like my life wasn't fucking miserable enough.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Crowd Mapping the affects of Housing Benefit Reform

I doubt there is anyone reading this who isn't aware that the reforms to Housing Benefit will have a huge impact on the lives of claimants. With more being deducted for non dependants living with claimants and a limit on size of property that can be claimed for amongst others big changes are underway.

Citizens Advice is working hard to protect people's rights and support those who are in difficulty. Benefit reforms are something they are watching closely, both the national organisation and the individual bureaux on a local level. A big part of their social policy work is gathering evidence as to impacts. It's really useful for raising awareness.

Hackney CAB have been using crowd mapping to record the impact housing benefit cuts are having in their area.

The map shows the area (ward not exact address due to confidentiality) where a problem has been reported. These are colour coded by type such as shortfall, overcrowding or arrears. You can the click on an entry for more details.

Looking at the map highlight the scope of the problems in Hackney. I knew there was a huge issue but seeing it like that is quite eye opening. There will however be many others in that area struggling who haven't sort advice. And thousands of others all over the country in exactly the same position.

On that website there is also a page with some stats about predicted the impact of the housing benefit cuts. It includes a stat the coalition are probably hoping no one realises.

93% of new housing benefit claims since the election are from people who work and have a low income. Working isn't going to help those people deal with the cuts.

Disabled people aren't mentioned in any of those stats. But the impact on us is likely to be bigger than on any other groups. Not are we facing ESA migration and cuts, the implementation of PIP and drastic changes to many other services a lot of us will also be hit by benefit changes which also affect non disabled people.

Hackney CAB crowd map can be viewed here

I'd really recommend contacting CAB if you need help or advice with benefits or any other issue. Advice Guide is the best place to start and as well as factsheets has a find your nearest bureau function.

Sunday 6 May 2012

A hidden benefit cut #counciltaxbenefit #welfarereform #wrb

On Wednesday I attended a forum of people who are for the most part volunteers and campaigners. The main purpose of the event was to discuss the planned changes to housing benefit or local housing allowance.

Another benefit change was also briefly discussed. One I hadn't been aware was happening.

As of April 2013 Council Tax Benefit will no longer exist in its present from. It was suggested by the facilitator at the forum that the news of this change has been lost in all the information and outcry about the planned housing benefit changes. I leave you to make your own mind up about whether this was done deliberately by the government. I did wonder just how it was I hadn't heard of this.

Council Tax Benefit is centrally controlled at the moment. You apply to your local council but the rules and money come from a central pot. It's not strictly speaking a disability benefit. A lot of disabled people do receive it but it's available to anyone who is on a low enough income. A high proportion if the people who receive it are in work and for some it is what allows them to remain in work or to take work in the first place. Currently it's possible to receive all or part of your council tax paid via benefit (claimants don't receive this money it goes straight to the council) and also in some circumstances to receive a separate discount for which you don't need to be on benefit.

So in my own case
My council tax bill is discounted by 25% because I live alone (this is called the single adult reduction and any household where only one person over 18 lives is entitled to it. Claimed via contacting the council)

My flat is a band b property however because I'm a wheelchair user the council tax due is reduced by 1 band meaning I'm liable for band a prices. For people who live in band a it's reduced by a set percentage. (this is available to anyone who needs extra space for wheelchair use or an additional room due to medical needs. Again claimed from the council)

And as I am deemed to have a low income I receive Council Tax Benefit which in my case pays the remainder in full.

If I was working I may have received some benefit and had to pay the rest. It really is on a case by case basis. I know of people who receive perhaps only £15 a month council tax benefit and pay the rest and people who receive all but £5 a month of their council tax in benefit and pay that £5

From April 2013 however there will be no set rules for the provision of council tax support. Instead it will be provided locally with each area deciding how best to use it. The pot of money to be available for this is to be 10% less than the current bill for council tax benefit and this money will not be ring fenced.

This will almost definitely create a postcode lottery in what support is available. My suspicion is that areas which are already poor at providing services such as social care are likely to also use little of the available money for council tax support. Yet another hit for disabled people and for many others who may well not carry the scrounger stereotype we crips must fight.

The government would probably argue that if people have enough income to be only receiving a small sum of council tax benefit each month - say the £15 I used above - they can afford to pay that too.

It's easy to say that when you have a high paying job, secure accommodation, good health and family who support you like most of the government do. £15 is maybe a starter in a restaurant. They miss it but it wouldn't be a big deal and come next week they probably wouldn't remember it.

It's not so easy when you're on a low income. The £15 you've just lost could mean you can't pay for your prescriptions or you can't eat for a few days or the carer who comes once a week to change your bed must be stopped. Not easy to manage without and not something you can say "oh well" and forget about.

Edited (by Lisa) to add: We've had quite a lot of Tweets related to this post. As not everyone follows us on Twitter so will have seen them RTed; I thought I should post some of the more crucial ones here to add them to the debate. The limits on what html can be used in comments means you can't embed tweets below the line.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

The Price of Hate #BADD2012

It’s Blogging Against Disablism Day, and that’s taken me by surprise. That wouldn’t normally be a problem, last year I knew about it well in advance, but this year I’m struggling more, and – Ironically? Poetically? Absurdly? – I think the reason is the disablism I’ve faced over the last couple of years

The problems started with my application for Employment and Support Allowance, for which we have to go back to February 2010, and the day that Jobcentre Plus admitted (under ministerial prodding, having previously told me to shut up and do as I was told) that I was too disabled to claim JSA, too disabled for any of their training schemes, and needed to claim ESA instead. ESA comes complete with a massive form, in which you are expected to summarize every aspect of decades of disability in the tiny spaces provided (there was no electronic version of the form available at that point, despite it having been in use for several years – DWP’s contempt for our needs was all too apparent). So I improvised and created my own electronic version, because I can’t write legibly for more than a sentence and some of the information on my disability is so personal I hesitate even to tell my consultant, so there was no way I could ask someone else to do it for me.

To say things then descended into low farce would be giving ATOS,  DWP’s French contractor (who are IT rather than disability specialists – and it shows), an unwarranted reputation for competence as I now had to face their infamous Work Capability Assessment. At my first assessment appointment, the adjustable seating I had told them I needed hadn’t been provided. The doctor I spoke to confided that they had requested better seats, but been told to make do with the cheap, unsuitable seating they had by their area management (so, contempt yes, competence no). That visit triggered a massive flare-up in my disability, I quite literally spent a week on the bathroom floor, in so much pain I didn’t know what day it was, and the next three months doped to the eyeballs on opiate painkillers. Needless to say I didn’t get very far with my ESA claim. When I finally got back on top of things, I found ATOS had told DWP I didn’t attend the appointment. In a rare demonstration of competence DWP agreed to reinstate my claim (the ‘Oh, not again’ when being told what ATOS had done might have had something to do with it) and arranged another assessment.

By now we were into October 2010. ATOS did manage to have an adjustable chair for me this time (it didn’t help), but every other aspect of the assessment met the worst stereotypes about the way ATOS behaves. The hour wait past my appointment time - ATOS routinely overbook by 25%, having nothing but contempt for the fact their patients may find extended sitting acutely painful – left me in pain and shaking before I even got through the door of the assessment room. The ATOS doctor was abrupt, overbearing, wouldn’t meet my eyes, had clearly made up his mind I was faking before I ever entered the room and generally tried to browbeat me into saying what he wanted, and not what would get me the benefit I was entitled to. He clearly wasn’t used to someone who was able to meet him head on and argue their case intelligently and knowledgeably (though he did criticise me for having that knowledge). And then came the moment when I had to tell him ‘I need to stand up, or else I’m going to throw up’, and a look of utter panic passed across his face as he realised that my claim was utterly genuine, and that he had just spent most of the last hour abusing a patient in violation of his oath. The change in his manner couldn’t have been more marked, though he still managed to criticise me for being unable to bend my knee because of the degree of pain I was in. I walked into the room on crutches and both feet, I came out in so much pain I couldn’t weight bear on my left leg (ironically this was one of the symptoms I had been criticised for describing earlier). Fortunately this time the flare-up only put me in bed for the rest of the day, not weeks or months.

Amazingly I passed the assessment, though whether I would have without the visible flare-up is the elephant in the room. Nevertheless, the Select Committee on Work and Pensions were interested enough in what goes on in ATOS assessments, even those where people pass first time, to put my account into their report documenting the failures of the ATOS run WCA. On the other hand, I still couldn’t bring myself to apply for Disability Living Allowance. My walking difficulties mean I probably qualify for Higher Rate Mobility, but it’s marginal, and applying would mean another assessment, and likely an appeal, and that was just more than I could face.

With ESA sorted, things seemed better at the end of 2010, but 2011 brought disablism crashing back into my life. DWP contacted me to tell me that they had received an anonymous tip on the National Benefit Fraud Hotline, alleging I was working full time. The DWP are proud of their hotline and emphasise it to the public at every opportunity, yet 94% of claims it receives are either malicious, or have no basis in fact and I’m willing to bet most of that lack of basis in reality itself originates in xenophobic attitudes, whether they be related to race, disability or whatever. DWP seem to be very careful not to release any figures to show how many of those 94% of claims are directed at minority members.

I am lucky if I get out of the house for 4 hours in the week, and my car sits in open view for all of that time I am at home, so I was really interested to hear what evidence had been provided to DWP in support of this claim that I was working 9 til 5. The answer turned out to be none, DWP investigate all claims, no matter how much evidence is provided, no matter the consequences to the person being investigated.

So the DWP investigation crashed and burned the moment their investigator met me, but the stress was still enough to trigger another massive flare-up, one that lasted for 4 months, at its worst I spent an entire month without being able to sleep for more than an hour at a time, and that only while propped into a sitting postion. The overwhelming likelihood is that the claim was disability related harassment, in breach of the Equality Act 2010, but DWP refuse to release any information on allegations made by the Hotline, no matter how egregiously obvious the discrimination driving the claims is. Or to put it bluntly, DWP are allowing themselves to be used as the tool of racists and disablists in criminal harassment, and such is their contempt for us they are happy to go along with it no matter how overwhelming the evidence of this is.

And so 2011 went on, a year of fighting the government’s increasingly open disablist attitudes, fighting against the horrific Welfare Reform Bill, occasionally talking to the media about my experience of disability hate crimes, the benefit fraud allegation being a popular topic there. Yet no matter how hard we fought, attitudes to disability seemed to go from bad to worse, with even BBC getting in on the act, whether it be Dom Littlewood chasing down another supposed scrounger on Saints and Scroungers, John Humphrys claiming we are a generation without the will to work, or Panorama telling everyone that any disabled person who dares to sail or drive a good car is clearly a fraudster (I had just got back from a holiday sailing with friends, that was the first time a TV programme had ever left me too intimidated to leave the house). When I talked about disablism on the BBC local TV news, they even brought in the local Tory MP to counter me and claim that people were perfectly entitled to be angry with us. 

I even managed to get the campaigning group 37 Degrees to recognise that disabled people couldn’t hope to win their popularity contest method of choosing campaigns, but where they spent well over a year campaigning against the NHS Bill, their sole intervention on the Welfare Reform Bill came not at the eleventh hour, but at 11:59:59. Needless to say it didn’t help, but it did show that when it comes to appealing to humanity’s common goodness, crips will lose to badgers, or trees, every time.

And then, just at the end of the year, it happened, a brown letter lying on the floor in front of the letterbox. ATOS wanted me to attend another WCA.

I tried to fill the form in, I really did. I even tracked down the electronic version, but every time I tried to fill it in I felt physically sick and my pain levels soared. I lost nights of sleep, spent days curled up in pain, and ultimately I realised I couldn’t do it. I honestly don’t know what the state of my claim is, it’s fairly obvious DWP have suspended or dropped it (no money going into my account), but I simply can’t bring myself to open the letters from them, or anything that even looks like it might be from them.

I have finally had to realise that those farcical ATOS WCAs, amplified by the disablism that runs rife in the media and taints attitudes on the street, have actually done me some very real damage, and that, like any other traumatized abuse victim, I hesitate to put myself back into the environment where I was abused and where the likelihood is that I will face more abuse. I don’t know where I go from here, even if I submitted a WCA claim today, I would get no money from it, because Time-Limiting of ESA kicked in yesterday, and anyone who claims Contributions Related ESA will lose their benefit after a year, which I have already had. The government accepts that tens of thousands of ESA claimants are genuinely unfit for work, but says it is unreasonable of us not to have adapted to our disabilities after a year and not to have found another job, no matter the rampant disablism of the jobs market, no matter the millions of non-disabled people out of work, no matter the reality that disability is generally for life, and if that attitude isn’t disablist, then what is?

I could still apply for DLA, but HRM isn’t remotely enough to live on, and I would face precisely the same attitudes in its assessment. Worse, it is being replaced by Personal Independent Payments, and the companies shortlisted to run PIP's assessments are a rogues gallery of those with the most dreadful reputations for dealing with people. What exactly is it about a company that spends its time playing prison guard by shoving immigration detainees around the system that qualifies it to assess how disabled I am?

I have been trying to write this article since the New Year, but the fear spilling over from the WCA thing has left me struggling to manage at all. I seem to be climbing out of it, slowly, but it needed the impetus of Blogging Against Disablism Day to let me, force me, to do this, and I still have to find a way to face my WCA demons. No matter our efforts, Disablism is not just alive and well, but thriving.

Postscript 1: Leveson

In grim irony, Blogging Against Disablism Day has seen Katharine Quarmby, author of the stunning and sickening expose of disability hate crime ‘Scapegoat, Why We Are Failing Disabled People', writing in the Huffington Post to say that the Leveson Inquiry into Standards in the Media has refused to call either her or any of the disability organisations who have submitted written evidence. Apparently the systematic demonization of disabled people by the British media is not considered important enough to justify Lord Leveson taking an interest.

Postscript 2: The Grim Truth

Also released today was a survey commissioned by the MS Society. Its conclusions were:
1 Briton in 4 thinks disabled people should expect to be discriminated against
1 Briton in 4 thinks we exaggerate our disabilities
1 Briton in 4 thinks we are being unreasonable if we expect to go to a bar or a club in a wheelchair

So that’s one Briton in four is openly disablist and proud of it.

Guest post: Disability benefits and the self-made mouth #badd2012

This is a guest post from @indigojo_uk that originally appeared here. It is reproduced here as part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 as it's a write up about a disablist appearing on the radio decrying benefit claimants.

Last Saturday night, there was a debate on the Stephen Nolan show, a late-night phone-in on the BBC station Radio 5 Live, in which the former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins, who styles herself “the only candidate to say ‘no’ to Sir Alan” [Alan Sugar of Amstrad, who runs the TV series, The Apprentice], defended the government’s cuts to disability and housing benefits and Lisa “Lisybabe” Egan and one of the other callers tried to oppose her. Hopkins is clearly of the opinion that disability benefits are given out to an awful lot of people who aren’t really disabled or don’t deserve them, as shown by this tweet:

Her stance was that people need to rely on their own resources rather than the state as we live in “austere” times, a line that she trotted out again when Lisa reminded her that people had paid National Insurance and that the whole idea of an insurance scheme is that it pays out when things go wrong. As for housing benefit, she said she did not see why the state should pay for people to live in the south-east, without apparently realising that the majority of housing benefit recipients are actually in work. She also posted this rant about child benefits on her blog, claiming (without the slightest evidence, of course) that “for so many of our poorer families in this country the child does not benefit at all – but rather the overweight mother guzzling McDonalds with her large brown Primark bag bulging at her feet”. You can listen to the show here for the next week. (For non-British readers: a Primark bag does not signify affluence.)

The issue of housing benefit is not the main concern here, except to state that the majority of recipients are in fact in work, and much of it pays for the shortage of affordable housing stock, the political decision to sell off council houses, and the runaway house price inflation caused by the credit boom which ended in 2008. Disability benefits are a burden society has always had in one form or another, because there have always been people whose physical or mental condition, whether temporary or permanent, either does not allow them to work, or makes them a less attractive proposition to employers for one reason or another. There are two separate categories of disability benefit: the Disability Living Allowance, which covers the cost of being disabled (such as for care and mobility aids) and is paid regardless of whether the recipient is working — indeed, it may help them remain in work — and the former Incapacity Benefit, which supported people who were unable to work, whether due to illness or a complication of their disability. Many of those who currently receive DLA would previously have been institutionalised, a practice which ended because the public realised that there were rampant abuses, the care was often impersonal, taking no account of people’s needs and abilities, and there was little dignity or privacy in many of them, besides the fact that the vast majority of people do not need to be housed apart from their families and the community. They were paid for out of state expense as well, and the land they stood on is now in many cases prime real estate and the grand buildings have been demolished or converted into luxury flats, so a return to that is going to be extremely expensive as well as unsatisfactory for all concerned.

Hopkins introduced herself by saying that “as a taxpayer” it had become obvious to her that people could live where they choose, have as many children as they choose, and smoke if they choose and have the state pay for the consequences of that, and that benefits should be a privilege and that people should “look to themselves” rather than the state to provide for them. She also invited the others to come with her on “claimants’ day” to the benefit office to see people collecting their benefits in their pyjamas. (I was on Job Seekers’ Allowance for two years and I almost never saw people in the Job Centre in their pyjamas.) Lisa asked her if, in the event of her getting cancer or having an accident, she would try to use the national insurance contributions she had paid, and Hopkins replied no, that she had savings that would provide for her family in such circumstances, money she had made by “grafting” and getting up at 5:30am every morning to provide for her family. Further enquiries reveal that Hopkins has epilepsy, and if she expects everyone to rely on themselves rather than the state, she should explain whether she has used the NHS to provide either the medication or the care she needs such as consultations to decide which medications to take and so on, and hospitalisation in the event of a severe seizure. In any case, she is not the only one who gets up at that time or earlier, and the majority of us do not make a lot of money because our jobs do not pay us that much. Hopkins got lucky; she does not mention on her website that she invented anything or has actually run a business doing anything other than selling advice to other businesspeople and public speaking. She is, in other words, a professional mouth, someone with opinions who gets paid for them.

When Egan asked her if she really was so cruel as to insist that people with cancer not receive help from the state, she fell back on her claim that the benefit system was too generous. She claimed that the people she “accosts” in their pyjamas get “home allowance” of up to £400, job seekers’ allowance, disability allowance “although they’ve managed to walk very well to the job centre”, and that it makes it not worth your while to work part-time. In fact, having been on JSA, the last time I received it, it was about £65 per week, which is about a day and a half’s average pay and just enough to buy the bare essentials for a week with. The reason it is “not worth your while to work” is because the money is deducted from your allowance and the allowance is stopped if you have two days’ work that week, even if it is a one-off booking through an agency during a slump, so unless you get a permanent job or a prospect of a lot of casual work, accepting a work booking could well leave you worse off. This is simply a consequence of the version of means testing that is used for JSA, and it is one of a number of circumstances in which means testing is a proven disincentive to work.

Nobody really confronted Hopkins with why some benefits need to be paid, and disability benefits in particular. We either pay for people with disabilities to live at home, and for the necessary adaptations and home care arrangements, or we pay for them to live in a care facility, when the land is bought, and they’re built, and all the cooks, cleaners, nurses, managers and others are hired, at huge expense — there is no third option, unless you count leaving them to die or leaving them to beg on the streets. Some people with disabilities can work, and others can if they are provided with some assistance, or if people help them to find a niche they can cope with working in, or helps them through (or past) the interview process, and the benefits made to these people may be more than recouped in the taxes they pay because they are then able to work. Others cannot, either because they do not have the intellectual capacity, or because their physical limitations make it impractical, or because their health complications or mental health problems mean they will not be able to work reliably, or because prejudice or inconvenience means people will not hire them. Of course, some people with disabilities are very wealthy and can afford to pay for care themselves, and some can run their own business, but this is not the majority and the costs of being disabled or of having a long-term medical condition add considerably to the cost of living, which is why we have a health service and a welfare system.

Hopkins clearly does not know much about what she is talking about here, only that she doesn’t want to pay to finance anyone else’s lifestyle. She promotes herself as some sort of “self-made”, self-employed person who “tells it like it is” as a social commentator and public speaker (reinforcing her “tough” image by boasting that she went to the Sandhurst military officers’ academy), but on this evidence that seems to consist of making bigoted and ill-informed comments that might go down well with all the well-paid drunks at a corporate party but do not add much to this discussion. There is a lot of talk about scroungers in pyjamas claiming benefits that were enough to live on comfortably without working, yet no solution has been given as to how to get the idlers off benefits without impoverishing people who are in real need and are unable to work; the government did not come up with one and neither has she. Yet again, British talk radio allows a serious and important debate to descend into a slanging match by giving undue prominence to an opinionated but uninformed guest — at the expense of the licence fee payer!

Image source: The Sun.