Wednesday 13 October 2021

Hopes and Dreams

(Content warning: Mentions of domestic abuse and suicide)

During his Tory party conference speech last week, Rishi Sunak, while justifying slashing Universal Credit, asked his audience “is the answer to their hopes and dreams just to increase their benefits?”

The thing is, for many people; the answer is a simple “yes;” an increase in benefits could be an answer to their hopes and dreams.

* If a parent’s dream is for their kids to have a better life than them, and increased benefits mean they’ll be able to work only one job rather than the three they have now, giving them time to help their children with homework, which will enable their children to achieve more later in life: Yes, increased benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

* If a terminally ill person’s dream is to go on an exciting adventure before they die: Yes, increasing their benefits can be the answer to their hopes and dreams.

* If a person with a mobility impairment dreams of a really good wheelchair that’ll change their life, but the NHS won’t prescribe what they need and they’re not popular enough to crowdfund it: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

* If a disabled person wants to move into a more accessible property, which will dramatically improve their health, but they can’t find one within the local housing allowance budget: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

* If a disabled person was saving up for something special, but they blew their savings on the extra costs of being disabled/shielding in a pandemic: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

PIP is supposed to cover the extra costs of being disabled, but despite the fact that so many of us saw our extra costs soar during the pandemic - from having to have everything delivered costing more than being able to go to the shops while shielding, to having to turn to more expensive things like robot vacuums and having to get takeaway every day when social care was withdrawn - we got no extra PIP payments to cover those extra costs. I calculated that my extra costs related to shielding from March 2020 to March 2021 came to £5,000. I won’t say I could “afford” that, because it’s not true; but I did have access to that amount thanks to family, while not all disabled people did. At least one disabled person starved to death during the first lockdown because he couldn’t access food while many other disabled people will have gone cold, hungry, or without connectivity due to not being able to afford phone credit because their extra costs were not met. There were no campaigns to get a one-off payment to PIP claimants to cover our pandemic extra costs, because no political party actually cares enough to fight for us; and the major disability charities aren’t any better, because they didn’t demand that PIP meet our pandemic-related extra costs either.

And if you have more than £16k in the bank, you’re not eligible for any income based benefits, you can only claim £74.70/£114.10 weekly contributions based ESA (as long as you’ve been paying your National Insurance contributions in the last couple of years), plus PIP. I’ve a good friend who got an inheritance a month before the pandemic. Not huge, but enough to buy a crap house in some of the most deprived areas of the north. But her income based benefits were cut because she did the right thing and told the DWP she’d gotten the inheritance, so during the pandemic she’s had to live off that inheritance because she was paying £107 rent a week out of £114 ESA; leaving her with £7 a week to live off, plus PIP to cover some of her extra costs of being disabled. Obviously £7 a week for all bills is not survivable, so she’s had to dip into the inheritance; and now it looks like she’ll be renting for the rest of her life between the inheritance she blew on surviving while shielding, and the soar in house prices caused by the stamp duty cut. Her only hope to buy a crap house in a deprived area in the north now is if there’s a housing crash this winter.

Most political parties at various points in time bang on and on about how the system should look after those who’ve ‘done the right thing’ and worked hard and paid their National Insurance. But they don’t at all. Having £7 a week to live on after you’ve paid your rent is not “looked after”. Those who’ve paid their NI but aren’t eligible for income based benefits because they’ve got a partner in work, or got more than £16k from an inheritance or old savings from when they were fit for work, are treated like shit. And because of that, the benefits system will pay more in the end. My friend won’t be able to buy a house now, so she’ll deplete the small inheritance, and then will soon be back on income based benefits again and the state will need to pay her rent again. If contributions based benefits were fair, she wouldn’t have blown out her inheritance while shielding, she’d be able to buy a cheap house once she’s had her third jab and finished shielding, and the state would never need to help her with rent ever again.

She - like claimants of all legacy benefits like JobSeekers Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, and all types of ESA (both contributions and income based) - didn’t even get the extra £20 a week that UC claimants got. When you’re left with £7 a week after paying rent, that extra £20 would triple the amount available to spend before having to buy food out of the money she was hoping to buy a future with. The #20MoreForAll campaign was pretty pitiful to be honest because it had no mainstream support; the main political parties barely made a peep - Labour just had the very occasional tweet from the Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary - and the charities that are supposed to represent us barely made a fuss either. I suppose at least they did more for that than they did for trying to get a one-off PIP payment to cover our pandemic extra costs; with the amount of effort there being absolute zero, they’ve never mentioned it at all.

(Friend consented to being written about anonymously)

* If a parent is worried about their children being at risk of getting involved in a gang, and dreams of moving to a new city to give their kids a fresh start, but they can’t afford a moving van, a deposit on a new private rented flat, or even to pass the financial check landlords carry out: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

* If a person with limited mobility simply dreams of surviving this winter without dying of hypothermia, and wishes they could afford to put the heating on: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

Disabled people born after 26th September 1955 aren’t eligible for the non-means tested Winter Fuel Payments and despite the fact that fuel bills are higher than ever, disabled people are having to spend more time at home than ever before because many of us are still at least semi-shielding, and most importantly; many of us can’t move around to keep warm like non-disabled people who can do star jumps to warm up: There’s no campaign to introduce WFPs for disabled people in this most expensive winter ever. Again, neither politicians, nor charities that supposedly represent us, care about us going cold this winter. The WFP ranges from £100-£300 depending on age and circumstances. I’d say that £150 for those getting the low rate mobility component of DLA/PIP (who have some limitations with their ability to move around), and £300 for those getting the high rate mobility component of DLA/PIP (who have severe limitations with their ability to move around), would be suitable rates. But no-one cares if we fucking freeze, especially not those supposed to be representing us.

* If a person who recently became disabled can no longer do their old job, and they need money to pay the course fees to retrain do something different: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

While you can get some qualifications funded by the JobCentre if you meet certain conditions; there will always be people who want/need to train on a course that isn’t funded, or they don’t meet the criteria for funding.

* If a homeowner is off work sick long term with Long Covid, and they dream of keeping the family home, perhaps the home where their children grew up, maybe the house where their spouse died, but they can’t afford the mortgage on ESA or Universal Credit: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

* If someone permanently too ill to work dreams of being a homeowner: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

You can claim housing benefits to pay your landlord’s mortgage, but not your own. The only help for homeowners with housing costs is Support for Mortgage Interest; and even that’s a loan nowadays. So you’d have to find the money for your mortgage, and all the other expenses in life, out of your £74.70/£114.10 weekly contributions based ESA, or £324.84-£668.47 monthly Universal Credit. (Some people are still getting income based ESA, although you haven't been able to put in a new claim for ibESA since long before SARS-CoV2 made the jump to humans, so that won't apply to anyone newly claiming benefits due to long covid.)

* If a disabled person on income based benefits dreams of living with their partner, but can’t afford it because their benefits will be stopped completely leaving them wholly dependent on their other half: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

* If a disabled person dreams of leaving their abusive partner, then an increase to benefits that are paid directly to them - specifically PIP or contributions-based ESA, as distinct from Universal Credit which will be paid to the head of the household - could enable them to afford transport and a temporary place to stay in order to be able to leave; answering their hopes and dreams.

Disabled people are nearly three times as likely to experience domestic abuse as non-disabled people so needing to save up money that comes to you personally in order to leave is not a hypothetical risk for thousands. It's also why many disabled people daren't move in with a partner they'd be wholly dependent on because it would put them at such high risk of financial abuse, and potentially other kinds too. You never know what the wonderful, kind, gentle person you love right now will turn into when you're completely dependent on them just to buy tampons.

* If a disabled person simply dreams of not having to count every penny, of being able to spontaneously buy a new dress, of being able to get takeaway now and then, of being able to put the heating on more than 3 hours a day: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their dreams.

* If a new computer could make someone employable, if they’re only well enough to work from home and a new PC could completely change their life, but they just can’t afford one: Yes, increasing their benefits can answer their hopes and dreams.

I don’t know if you noticed, but in several of these examples - the person who needs a new wheelchair, the person who needs a more accessible home, the person who needs to retrain, and the person who needs a new computer - an increase in benefits would ultimately make them more employable. The government thinks slashing benefits is the answer to getting disabled people back to work; but in reality the opposite is true. If you need a wheelchair to physically get yourself to work, but you can’t afford one, the NHS won’t issue a suitable one, you’re not eligible for Motability because you got turned down for high rate mobility PIP, and you’re not popular enough to crowdfund one: You literally cannot physically go into a job interview to try and get hired.

First Labour, then Tories and Lib Dems, then Tories on their own, then Tories and the DUP, and most recently Tories on their own again, have spent the last 13 years cutting disabled people’s benefits to try to get seriously ill and severely disabled people to get off their "lazy" sick and disabled arses, and into work. Never mind the fact that DLA was not an out of work benefit and plenty of claimants needed it to stay in employment; they still created PIP to try and cut the case load by 20%, spouting utter bollocks about getting disabled people into work.

But when you cut someone’s benefits, you drive them further from the workplace. If someone has a job that can’t be done from home, but their PIP is stopped so the Motability scheme takes back their leased wheelchair: Suddenly they cannot go into work, maybe cannot even get out of bed. They’ll at the very least need to take a sabbatical from work until they get a new wheelchair, they may even lose their job entirely.

You also drive them further from the workplace because poverty damages health, and we’re talking about people who are already sick. If someone has cancer but is hoping that claiming benefits is a short term thing because they’re hoping they’ll recover quickly; until they discover how little they’ll have to live on. You cannot recover from a serious illness like cancer if you’re malnourished from poor quality food, and borderline hypothermic because you can’t move much and you can’t afford to put the heat on, while the stress of poverty can also affect physical healing. A cannabis prescription may help with many facets of cancer with THC being an antiemetic, a painkiller, and an appetite stimulant, but cannabis prescriptions are pretty much only available privately; and you definitely won’t be able to afford private healthcare on £74.70 a week ESA (the amount you’ll get if you’re expected to be able to return to work in the not too distant future). Such claimants would have the chance to recover quicker and get back to work quicker if their benefits were enough that they could eat well, keep warm in winter and cool in summer, avoid having their physical healing slowed by the psychological stress caused by poverty, and afford a bit of private healthcare; whether a physio to help them get movement back after an op, or, yes; a doctor who issues private prescriptions for medical marijuana.

The stress of poverty affects even those who were the most mentally sound previously. So if you’re claiming benefits for a mental health condition, the chances you’ll be able to get off benefits is slim. But if our benefits system lifted ill and impaired people out of poverty, it would give people a real shot at recovering from a mental illness, instead of our social security system making people sicker. Especially if people could afford to pay for mental healthcare in a timely manner rather than waiting at least months, commonly years, often for the wrong therapy on the NHS.

If you just yank the social security rug out from under the feet of people claiming benefits due to severe mental illness, obviously they’re not well enough just get a job, so they end up dying like Errol Graham and Mark Wood who both starved to death because they couldn’t afford food, or they’ll die by suicide like Philippa Day, Paul Reekie, and far too many others to list. Reekie died only a month after Iain Duncan Smith succeeded Yvette Cooper as Work & Pensions secretary, so his death was as a result of the benefit cuts instituted by the last Labour government; before the Tories had the chance to make the system even worse. It's worth noting that in Australia, during the pandemic when social security payments temporarily rose and lifted people briefly out of poverty, suicides went down.

The government created the non-means tested furlough scheme to keep people's finances sound while they weren't in work, because they know full well that plunging people into poverty drives them further away from work by damaging their mental and physical health, and leaves them unable to afford the essentials to get back into work like a computer and smart clothing. But they don't apply the same logic to sick and disabled people. Somehow we're a magic mirror image of the non-disableds, and forcing us deeper into poverty will supernaturally drive us closer to work. Even though the list of DWP-related deaths tells a different story.

Yet despite all these obvious examples of how increased benefits could not only answer our hopes and dreams (and in some cases save our lives), but also achieve the government’s goal of making us more employable; Thérèse Coffey said at the Tory conference that she wants to cut even more people’s benefits “to get us into work” when, of course, all it’ll do is make people iller - therefore further from work, less able to afford to get healthy, and less able to buy the tools they need to find work like wheelchairs and computers - and will ultimately lead to even more preventable deaths at the hands of the DWP.

The main reason for planning more cuts, of course, is just because the Tories love levelling down, despite all the "levelling up" bollocks that riddled Johnson's conference speech. At the exact same time that the Universal Credit cut went into effect, plunging families into poverty, increasing hunger and suffering across the country; Thérèse Coffey was making sure everybody knew that she was loving it; she was having the time of her life.