Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Experian and the Exchequer

This article was originally posted on Flash Says... on 17 August.

It emerged recently that the credit reference agency Experian is in talks to do a deal with the Government to try and unearth benefit cheats. It would earn a “bounty” for each person it exposes. To my mind, this is a pointless exercise and full of flaws.

Experian already have a contract with the government to check housing benefit claimants, and say they have saved £17m. Now, they are being more ambitious and claim they could save £1.5bn every year by checking up on those who receive other benefits.

Credit reference agencies keep a record of how much was spent on credit cards each month, and whether it was repaid on time. Presumably then, they intend to identify those on income-related benefits, and see whether their spending patterns exceed their benefit payments – then shop them to the Government.

There are so many reasons why this would not work. For a start, although the Daily Mail would have you believe otherwise, there are not many benefit fraudsters and so Experian would be looking for a needle in a haystack. The amount of work involved may be uneconomical, compared with the payment for identifying a cheat.

Credit card payments could genuinely exceed income, while still being paid off on time. For example, how many times have you slapped down your card at a group meal, then scooped up everyone else’s cash? Or filled your car up with petrol for a big trip, while collecting money from your mates for sharing the journey with them? Even grocery shopping can be organised in this way, perhaps shopping with your mum, putting it all on your own card, then sorting it out at home. I often add items to my weekly supermarket shop for an elderly neighbour, who then repays me in cash. These are common situations, but all that Experian will see is the amount that hits your credit card every month, no matter whether you received money back.

Even at work, this situation occurs. For example, I regularly buy website hosting and domains for customers at around £70 each. This is at cost price which the customer repays in full, and it's matched up in my accounts. But say I bought 5 of these packages for new customers each month – effectively just ordering the hosting packages with the customers’ own money, to make their lives easier – to Experian it would look like I was spending £350 more than the income I’ve declared receiving, because they only see one side of the story.

So what will Experian really be able to tell the benefits agencies, other than adding a level of confusion?

It is a serious concern that Experian would be paid a bounty for each case. This makes me worry that their staff will become overly suspicious – perhaps putting forward marginal cases – in the hope that they will strike gold. As Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, says, "What we must not do is create a benefit equivalent of parking attendants who are wanting to find people guilty ... because that is the way they get paid." The parking attendant analogy is a good one; in the past I have received tickets when I was doing nothing wrong. The attendant must have known I’d get off on appeal (which I did) but hoped that I would accept the fine and assume that I must have done something wrong, simply because an authority said so – thus lining his pocket in the process. Experian’s involvement is bound to promote an increase in fraud investigations, but it is critical that any approach to a benefit claimant should be gentle and presume innocence – at the moment very frightening letters are sent out to vulnerable people – in one case I discovered recently, the recipient was scared into giving up disability benefits to which they were genuinely entitled, just to be certain that they would never receive such a letter again.

At the moment, many people who legitimately claim benefits are worried about fraud allegations – you just have to read disability-related messageboards to see this concern. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail are quick to pounce on any genuine or high-profile cases that they can find, giving the false impression that there are many cheats and misleading people into being overly suspicious. I remember being worried when a neighbour, who I had spoken to a few times over my front gate, said “Flash, you’re not disabled are you?” – after all if he thought this, what might any investigator or passer by think, when seeing me walk unaided the few metres to my blue-badged car? Yet if they assumed I can walk far, or walk without pain, they would be wrong.

We are in danger of becoming a suspicious society, ready to shop our neighbours when the reality is that we know nothing about their situation. From what I can see, Experian’s involvement in detecting benefit fraud would reinforce that, without adding any value or detecting the genuine – but very few – cheats in the system.

Friday, 27 August 2010

CAB Report on the Coalition Budget 2010

The Citizens Advice Bureau has written a report on Key welfare changes and their impact on low income households.

It makes for very depressing reading, and while it does not look specifically at disability benefits, it reports on the reductions and changes in Housing Benefit, JSA and tax credits, all of which are claimed by many disabled people. For instance,
From 2013/14 any claimant on JSA for more than 12 months will have their HB entitlement cut by 10 per cent. This will continue until they have “left the benefit system and been in work for a while”.
This seems a crude measure as it appears that it will apply even where the tenant is fully complying with their JSA requirements to actively seek work. The cut will fall hardest on those who face disadvantage in the labour market, such as people in poor health or with a disability who have failed the harsher medical tests for incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, and have therefore been moved onto JSA.
It also explains why changing benefit levels from rising in line with the Retail Prices Index, to the Consumer Prices Index, will result in a reduction in the value of benefits and tax credits.

At the end of the study the report highlights scenarios illustrating the impact of the cuts on specific households, and several of the case studies include the issues of people who are ill or disabled. For instance,
A 50 year old man with mild learning disabilities and literacy issues has done manual work all his life until arthritis in his knees, hips and shoulder forced him to stop work. He has worked and paid contributions all his life until that point. He pays rent of £110/week and council tax of £18/week.
He claimed ESA but was found fit for work, so is now claiming JSA. The number of jobs he will be able to do is severely limited. He also has no access to his own transport and finds public transport very difficult because of the arthritis. His Jobcentre Plus personal adviser finds it difficult to suggest jobs for him. He has been out of work since his arthritis made it impossible to continue in his job two years ago and he has been claiming JSA for a year.
After housing costs he has a disposable income of £65.45 a week (his JSA). After a year as a result of changes in up-rating of JSA and also the LHA rates, his disposable income is likely to drop in real terms to about £64. However he may well also lose a further £8 off his HB as the 30th percentile rate is used to calculate the LHA rate. If he is unable to find a job after a year he will lose a further £10 a week of his HB. If he can not find somewhere cheaper to live he will have a disposable income after housing costs of about £46, a 30% reduction. Even if he can find somewhere cheaper to live, his disposable income will drop to £54, a 17.5% reduction.
If he had been allocated to the work-related activity group for ESA, his income would be £91.30 a week.

(cross-posted at incurable hippie blog)

Guest Post: This year’s budget – progressive or destructive?

This is a guest post by Flash Bristow.

This week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published a report assessing the impact of June’s budget1. It was no surprise to find that the poorest and disabled people have been hardest hit by benefit cuts in a budget that is far from “progressive”.

We know that disabled people often have a low income – the Joseph Rowntree foundation found that three out of ten disabled people of working age are living in poverty2. With this background, the IFS report makes for grim reading.

Their projection illustrates that as a result of benefit changes, the poorest 30% of people will lose 2% of their income. For those who already live hand to mouth, this could be hard to bear.

There are three ways in which we will be hit hard: these concern changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Housing Benefit and the way that benefit increases are calculated.

Firstly, from 2013 there will be reforms to the way DLA is assessed. We do not know much about how this will operate or whether it will affect those who already have indefinite awards, but the Government’s Budget policy costings document says that the result will be to remove DLA from around 20% of claimants. As only 1% of claims are estimated to be fraudulent, surely the other 19% will be people who need help but are turned away. As it is estimated that only 40-60% of those eligible for DLA actually claim it 3 this is a very harsh cut.

There will be various changes to Housing Benefit, but the killer clause for disabled people is “Reductions in housing benefit for those of working age living in social housing that is under-occupied” – the government trumpets that this change is predicted to make a saving of £490 million in 2014-15.

This rule makes no consideration of disabled people’s needs – for example the requirement for an extra bedroom for carers to sleep in, or if a couple (or children) are unable to share a bedroom because one of them is disabled. My own parents are in this situation – my father has a special bed on the ground floor, while my mother sleeps in the marital bed upstairs. But it’s just a numbers game to the government – count the heads, assign the bedrooms. Simple, right?

A parliamentary briefing paper on Housing Benefit4 says “The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have stated that they expect the additional needs of disabled people to be paid for by local authorities from Discretionary Housing Payments but this is not working in practice.” This is a disgrace – discretionary payments can never be relied upon (particularly as they are meant to be temporary, and come from a limited pot of money) so it is worrying to consider how many disabled people will be penalised for “under-occupying” a property, when in fact they need all of the rooms in their house.

In addition, the IFS report goes on to say that “Local Housing Allowance rates will be set at the 30th percentile of local rents rather than the 50th percentile. This effectively means that LHA claimants will only be able to choose from the cheapest 30% of properties in their local area of the appropriate size for their family rather than the cheapest 50%.” This could be a problem for any disabled people who need a ground floor flat – as I discovered when I was house-hunting, they often carry a premium for being a “garden flat”. Housing benefit won’t stretch that far. And what about my friend Sam, who needs a town centre flat because she can’t access public transport to cheaper houses in the suburbs? Yet again disabled people are being penalised by circumstance.

The final way in which the budget is unfair to disabled people is in the way that year-on-year benefit increases will be made. There are three indexes on which inflation can be calculated, and the government is changing the index used for calculating benefit to the meanest one – meaning that we can look forward to an even more meagre increase to our benefits each April. I’m surprised that the government hasn’t axed our traditional £10 Christmas bonus!

This budget is all but “progressive” – as the IFS has concluded. It’s frightening to consider how many disabled people will be pushed closer to the breadline, if they aren’t there already. Of course, we knew this already when cuts were publicised, but it’s good to have it confirmed by an independent research institute. Perhaps now the government will have to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged by this budget. If not, how long before they have blood on their hands?

1. The distributional effect of tax and benefit reforms to be introduced between June 2010 and April 2014: a revised assessment
2. UK poverty falls overall, but rates increase among disabled people
3. A brief guide to the world of tax for disabled people
4. Housing Benefit: Size Criteria and Discretionary Housing Payments

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

This, of course is a bit of pre publicity for the proposed mass protest at
the Tory annual conference in Birmingham on 3rd October 2010.
Crippen gives his permission for any group or individual organising
against the cuts to freely use this cartoon

BBC Documentary Seeking Families with Disabled Children on Benefits

Disability Now posted on twitter that the BBC is looking for families with disabled children to feature in a new documentary focusing on the effects of benefit cuts.

They have sent me further information so that I could post the request here, in case any readers are interested in taking part.

[Image text reads: MY LIFE DOCUMENTARY. BBC One is making a film about children growing up in low income families. We are looking for chatty children, happy to talk about family life, having fun, where they live, school, hopes and dreams...

If you are, or if you know a child aged 7-12 years who you think might like to take part, then please call / text Tim on 07968 721299 and I'll call you right back!

Check out www.truevisiontv.com/mylife for more details.]
BBC ONE: My Life (1hr)

True Vision is a BAFTA award-winning production company renowned for making documentaries about important and often sensitive social issues. Our films have led to concrete political and social change regarding homelessness, unemployment, addiction and domestic violence - please visit www.truevisiontv.com for more details.

Eleven years ago our BBC documentary 'Eyes of a Child' compassionately told the story of children growing up on the edges of society. It caused a sensation and in the following weeks Tony Blair announced a raft of measures designed to eradicate poverty in the UK by 2020 - with an interim target of halving the number by 2010.

While some excellent work has been achieved with those closest to the poverty line, it is still estimated that 4 million children still live in poverty today. 'My Life' will provide 4-5 children living in households where the family struggle to make ends meet, (throughout the UK) the opportunity to present their world through their eyes, highlighting the things that affect them including housing, their local area, unemployment and access to education as well as their hopes and dreams despite living in tough circumstances.

It will be a powerful and important film which will give a voice to the children who are facing the toughest start in life compared to most. It will also help to ensure that child poverty remains at heart of future social policy in this historical year.

We are looking for children aged 8-12 (perhaps up to 14) throughout the UK who have plenty to say about their lives, their homes and their family. The filming would follow them over a couple of months (in short sensible bursts of filming that best tell their story) so that we can present a narrative for each which the audience can really engage with. Parents and siblings may well be involved but the vast majority of filming would focus on one or two of the children.

Given the nature of this documentary, we have a child protection policy which has been approved by the BBC for this project. All staff involved have been CRB-checked, have signed up to a strict protocol and solid experience working with children and families. At all times, whether gathering research in an informal capacity through to filming with a child, their safety and wellbeing is paramount

Firstly I'd like to say that we are acutely aware of how difficult is to find contributors willing to discuss some very personal difficulties, furthermore ones that they may not be proud of - but I can honestly say that our previous contributors have all been happy with the final films, because they take a long time to make allowing a strong level of trust to develop. I also accept that not everything needs to be out in the public domain, so certain details can be withheld and we also show the film to contributors for fairness and accuracy prior to broadcast.

Recently there have been several documentaries made regarding social imbalances - perhaps most notably 'How the Other Half Live' - although the programme fulfils a purpose, I have to admit some personal dissatisfaction about the format used. We are perhaps slightly old-school and rather than have a life-swap scenario or celeb come in and view life through their experiences, our intention is to give the microphone to the kids and hear their voice, their thoughts and witness their lives - ultimately achieving a more 'real' picture of what life is like.

The film is meant to be a statement on Child Poverty/Social Deprivation - I cannot hide from this, or find contributors who are unaware of this - but I suppose my approach to potential contributors is to target the specifics underneath these banners, ie housing, education, family life, health, aspirations etc. Hopefully it won't be all doom and gloom though, and I'd like it to be a process that the kids enjoy, and can feel a strong sense of achievement & satisfaction from.

Finally I also wish to acknowledge that there is good work being done to alleviate social problems, I would say that there has been a lot of investment to improve certain parts of the country and perhaps the timing of this film will be important as expected cutbacks will hinder ongoing progress.
So if you are interested, check out their website, or call or text Tim on 07968 721299.

Clutching at Straws

This extract of this morning's Today Programme on Radio 4 makes very interesting listening. It becomes clear by the end that the government has not done an Equality Impact Assessment on the Budget and its cuts, as required by equality law. And in a misrepresentation that's easy to miss if you're not already aware of how DLA works, Mark Hogan appears to claim that the Tory government is reforming Disability Living Allowance so that it's no longer means tested. Um. It never has been.

Oh, and apparently it will help people to have their housing benefit cut because now they'll be able to look for cheaper housing and have more income as a result. Whichever civil servant thought up that argument must have been very drunk at the time.

The Tories: clutching at the most ridiculous straws to prove what can't be proven. The Budget, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found, affects the poorest most. It's an unfair Budget, and you can't talk your way out of that.

Thanks to @oxfordbloo for tweeting the link and alerting us to the DLA misrepresentation.

The human cost of benefit cuts

I'd not heard of writer Paul Reekie until last month. But now, for me, he has come to represent the reason why Where's the Benefit? is needed and why these attacks on disabled people must stop.

The first time I'd heard of him was when I read this story in The Scotsman. The article contains this extract of a letter from Reekie's publisher Kevin Williamson to the Chancellor George Osborne:

"I thought I would let you know that Paul took his own life. He didn't leave a note but he laid out two letters on his table. One was notifying him that his housing benefit had been stopped. The other was notifying him that his incapacity benefit had been stopped.

"The reason I'm writing this letter is just so you know the human cost of attacking those on benefits."

"The letter will be binned and forgotten, but there will be loads more folk in Paul's shoes over the coming years trying to cope with unemployment, depression, house repossessions and stress."

Friends of Paul set up the Black Triangle - Anti-Defamation Campaign In Defence of Disabled Claimants on Facebook in memory of him. The 'info' page explains the name:

The Nazis forced people with mental and other disabilities to wear black triangles in the extermination camps during the Holocaust.

The generic classification they used was "Arbeitsscheu" - literally "Workshy".

Any loss of life is tragic. I hope that at least his death can serve as a wake up call to those attacking us that their actions do have very real consequences. Ultimately I would like to see Paul's death prevent any more disabled people being put in the economic position where they feel that death is their only option.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Daily Mail Has No News, Tries Ideological Warfare Instead


There are several problems, from my perspective, with this most recent of 'benefit fraud is killing our once-great country' type story.

1: They've clearly got the figures wrong. Could newspapers please consider getting out a calculator when talking about disability benefits? We'd really appreciate it.

2: This is not news. In any way. These figures were published months ago, and the 'bounty hunter' information isn't new either. Newspapers keep trotting these figures out for a reason. We know what that reason is. Start being honest about it, Daily Mail and co. You're part of a government attack on benefits claimants, and DLA is the biggest current target of that attack.

3: The Mail appears to be reaching new lows in selective quotation and misrepresentation. I'm fairly sure that wasn't the whole of the quotation from Liz Sayce of RADAR. Now we're dragging disability organisations into this mess. I hope RADAR complains if its views have been misrepresented. Still, I'm sure that was exactly what the Taxpayers' Alliance wanted to say.

I'm relieved to see a commenter pointing out how much underpayment exceeds overpayment in disability benefits (go to 'best rated' comments - suprisingly for the Mail, this was the highest rated comment at time of blogging). We're unlikely to see that made clear in a tabloid newspaper right now, though. Facts are irrelevant in this ideological war.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Strange statistics

BenefitScroungingScum spotted this one but didn't have time to post it because she's moving house today.

Left Foot Forward have today published a post about the news stories reporting that there are 250,000 households in the UK where no-one has ever worked.

LFF not only look at some of the reasons why there are households where no-one will have ever worked (including impairment), they also take a look at the figures themselves and how they're problematic.

Monday, 16 August 2010

"You Could Direct Traffic"

Image shows a man in a full body cast being interviewed for his incapacity benefit medical with the caption "you could direct traffic"

 Matt Cartoon in The Telegraph, Mon 16th August 2010.

Guest Post: Benefits Who?

This is a guest post from Blu.

Slowly but surely over the last few years, I've watched tolerance and understanding of mental health issues evaporate in the benefits system - not that there was much there to start with. The latest portfolio of idiots in power appear to view mental health as something that's guaranteed by the ability to earn money, and those whose mental health is poor need only to take the tablets, stop thinking about those damned problems, and just get on with earning already.

If only it were that easy, I'd currently be preparing for the start of a new teaching term whilst nursing my Seychelles tan and planning for a long weekend away in Singapore in October. I've got the qualifications. Schools are crying out for teachers. The pay is far more than any amount of DLA, ESA, IS or other benefits combined. So why don't I just 'pull myself together', 'get a grip' and 'stop scrounging'?

I have mental health issues. Big, f*ck-off issues. And yes, they prevent me from working. But I know, I'm making it all up, because mental health problems are easy to fake, aren't they? And what a great way to scrounge some benefit money whilst I'm at it! I should get up off my arse, stop making excuses and WORK, DAMMIT.

It's at this point that many people would go into detail as to why they can't work, and what caused them to be this way. I lost patience with justifying myself a long time ago. I shouldn't have to carry a potted medical history around with me to prove to all comers that yes, I am actually ill and deserving of benefits. It's nobody's business but my own. Unfortunately, in the current climate of ‘pick on the poor’ my right to privacy is winging its merry way out of the window, to be replaced by ‘work-focused interviews’, medicals by unqualified staff and financial compulsion (not forgetting the baying masses who believe what they read in the Daily Mail).
Treatment for my condition is my choice – or so I thought. So you can understand my ire when, after re-applying for DLA a couple of years ago, I received a letter stating that my benefit had been revised to a lower level...and when I called to ask why, I was told that the reason for this was because I wasn’t under the care of a hospital psychiatrist.

In other words, if you don’t take treatment, we’ll cut your money.

This was a new one on me. Having patiently explained on the multitude of DLA forms my reasons for not using the NHS psychiatric services – because they don’t listen to me, because they only want to give me tablets and not tangible help, because I never see the same member of staff twice, because having to explain your history and feelings week in and week out to a different person every time actually makes mental health issues worse, not better, and because I won’t make myself worse by being forced to talk about my history and feelings with someone I don’t know and who patently isn’t interested anyway – I’m told that my reasons are invalid, and I must receive NHS psychiatric care (subtext: or you’re either trying to stay ill, or you’re not really ill anyway and a psychiatrist would find you out).

I couldn’t quite believe it. But the (admittedly very helpful) lady on the other end of the phone at DLA Central confirmed that it was true – I couldn’t receive the level of DLA I’d been previously getting if I wasn’t seeing some sort of mental health professional. I noted that she’d softened from ‘hospital psychiatrist’ to ‘mental health professional’. I mentioned that I was currently attending the Rape Crisis Centre for counselling (which I had also included on the DLA forms). This, apparently, was enough. She filled in an appeal for me. My DLA was reinstated at the previous level, although no explanation was received as to why non-NHS counselling was ignored as ‘treatment’ in the first instance.

I thought it was a one-off. And then I read the mass of legalese that made up the newfangled ESA benefit small print. Lo and behold, the benefits office are now perfectly within their rights to remove a claimant’s benefits if said claimant refuses to take treatment ‘recommended by a healthcare professional’. Given that the government and benefits agencies seem to regard anyone who can spell ‘disability’ as a healthcare professional nowadays, that doesn’t bode well for the ongoing treatment of people with mental health issues, thinks I.

Why shouldn’t people with mental health issues be forced to take NHS psychiatric (or psychological) treatments? It’ll make them better, and able to go back to work, won’t it?

For a start off, no-one should be forced into medical treatments they don’t want, don’t consent to, or that may make their condition worse. Forcible medical treatment happened under regimes like Hitler’s and Stalin’s. It shouldn’t happen in a supposedly free country like the UK. That the basis for such compulsion is financial rather than ideological (although I’d dispute that the two were that much different) makes no odds. Forcing people in any way to take medical treatments that they don’t want is assault, pure and simple.

Added to that, there’s the way in which the NHS has been increasingly co-opted by the government in the last few years. CBT used to be absolutely impossible to get in the Midlands city where I used to live. A friend of mine who had a serious phobia spent years begging and pleading with various doctors and mental health services for CBT to be made available in the area, as it would’ve been the best thing to help her. It’s available now, of course – so available, in fact, that every wallah with any form of mental health issue (and a fair few physical ones too) is packed off to CBT. Hey, if it works for a phobia of buses, it must work for every other form of anxiety, right?

Perhaps your experience of CBT has been positive. I’m not doubting that it helps some people and some issues. But CBT is in no way the cure-all the government seems to crow that it is. I’m very wary of the way in which it’s being pushed on all people with mental health issues, because many mental health issues are caused by very real physical and societal problems. Changing the way the person with mental health issues thinks about these problems smacks of blaming (and silencing) the victim, rather than dealing with the problem. Of course, it’s cheaper that way – which is why, I suspect, CBT is being recommended for absolutely everything and its dog. Blame it on your head. Think differently. Get a grip. Get a job. It doesn’t take much to join the dots.

Outside of CBT, the waiting lists for psychiatric and psychological treatments are astronomical. You’ll need an assessment, which involves going through past history and current issues with someone whom you’ve never met before and may not ever see again. Unsurprisingly, this has the potential to leave people with mental health issues in serious crisis. Yet there’s no after-care – and if the current coalition government has its way, there’ll be precious little in the way of voluntary or charity-based support available either. If you manage to sit though the months of waiting to get a regular appointment with psychiatry or psychology, there’s no guarantee that you’ll see the same person twice (this seems to be the case especially in psychiatry) – and going through your history yet again with someone you don’t know or trust is at best not helpful, and at worst positively damaging. You might not want to take certain medications, based on potential side-effects. You might not want to talk about particular subjects. You might not want to go through any of this at all, as placing your very survival in the hands of someone you don’t know or trust is an incredibly vulnerable position to be in. Most people who don’t have mental health issues would find that uncomfortable. For someone like an abuse survivor, for example, such a situation may feel like the height of terror. But the benefits system doesn’t care if this negatively affects you. Whether or not it makes you better is besides the point – you have to show that you’re willing to ‘get over it’, shut up, take the tablets, IMPROVE, dammit, and WORK. Pretend that everything’s okay for someone else’s benefit, when it so obviously isn’t. I’ve been here before. And I’ve learnt through hard experience that the only way out is to shout – loudly – that the emperor is indeed in the nip.

All this DWP compulsion does is create more of a barrier to treatment for people with mental health issues, rather than less. I don’t want to talk to someone I don’t know about personal and uncomfortable things. I’m even less likely to want to talk to them if we both know that the only reason I’m there is to check up that I’m not faking, and that I’m trying to get better. I already know I can’t trust the DWP to take me seriously. Setting the NHS up for the same thing is a grave mistake – especially as the DWP’s medical ‘assessments’ take not one jot of notice of your NHS medical records anyway!

The current benefits ‘shake-up’ is designed to save money, pure and simple. People with mental health issues will be a prime target because they’re easy to dismiss. Our disabilities aren’t always visually obvious, and the government quite clearly thinks that this means we’re lying about having them. Conversely, if we do have them, then we’re evidently unable to think clearly and make our own decisions – therefore our views should be ignored. As people who are either lying or incapable, we can then be made to take treatments that will make us capable of being financially productive, and anyone who disagrees or can’t manage this is proven to be the very worst of benefit scrounging ungrateful scum.

Which leaves me wondering what will happen to those of us whose mental health conditions leave us, for whatever reason, outside of their glorious ‘Arbeit macht Frei’ future.

It's not benefits that are outrageous, it's the cuts.

The Guardian reports on attacks on people who have been on disability benefits for 10 years or more.
Employment Minister Chris Grayling described the figures as "outrageous" and promised action to get people off benefits and back into work.
There is a shocking lack of acknowledgement or awareness that if someone has been on disability benefits for 10 years are probably pretty ill, have significant impairments, or face massive barriers.
"Thousands of people who have simply been cast aside by a welfare system that does nothing but put them in a queue for benefits and then forgets about them.

"Well those days are over. We will no longer accept a system which writes people off at a drop of the hat and expects the taxpayer to foot the bill."
With statements like that, they appear to be trying to cloak their attacks in the guise of concern for the benefit recipients, but it is a thinly disguised threat where the biggest concern is clearly the 'taxpayers footing the bill'.

It shows a complete lack of comprehension of the reality of the day to day lives of those who have been on long-term sickness benefits, and of why people are in this situation. There are many things the government could do to improve disabled people's lives and, yes, their chances of eventually getting back to work, but cutting off benefits helps no-one.

To put the £4.2 billion in context, we also know that £16 billion worth of benefits go unclaimed every year.

(Cross-posted at incurable hippie blog)

Saturday, 14 August 2010

"Councils pay for prostitutes for the disabled" - The Telegraph

Taxpayers' money is being spent on prostitutes, lap dancing clubs and exotic holidays under schemes designed to give more independence to the disabled.


While other papers are content with attacking claimants of DLA and Incapacity Benefit, it seems The Telegraph have set their sights on Personal Budgets; the new-ish scheme which offers disabled people a choice in how their assistance needs are met. I guess they'd prefer to see us get 15 mins of old-style Home Help 3 times a day and only being allowed to go to the toilet in those slots.

They say:

An investigation by The Sunday Telegraph can disclose...

Which means they didn't stumble upon a story about someone using their PB to pay for a Dutch prostitute, they actually went looking for any hint of PB scandal they could find. Because disabled people aren't under enough fire already...

Edited to add: Unsurprisingly the Daily Mail are also covering the story. (Thanks to @CrippledWriter for tweeting the link.)

It's interesting that these papers - the same ones that are so keen to see disabled people off Incapacity Benefit and getting jobs - are the ones decrying Personal Budgets. For a great many disabled people Personal Budgets are the only way they are able to work. Without being able to pay someone to come and get you up and dressed at a time of your choosing you can't go out to work, can you?

The Report

Radio 4's The Report this Thursday Aug 12th was about ATOS, IB, ESA and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

Something that caught my attention was this at the 9min 40sec mark:

If we roll back 30-odd years the number of people on incapacity-related benefits was quite small, less than three quarters of a million.

And then started banging on about how it was the recessions that drove people onto IB. The presenter never gave the name of the person who said this but in his preamble prior to it he hinted that the next person to speak would be something to do with the government. Genius. We're in a country being run by people who aren't intelligent enough to understand that we've seen major medical advances in the last 30 years so we will have a lot more people unable to work. People are surviving cancers they wouldn't have done 30 years ago, but are left too ill to work. We've got people surviving accidents that couldn't be survived 30 years ago but the survivors are left too impaired to work.

There are chunks of the show that are aware of the reality of the current harsh climate, like when they interview a few severely ill people who were deemed fit to work by the WCA. There are also a few quotes from ATOS employees repeated from the BBC Scotland investigation. But for the most part the programme supports the assumption held by our government and our tabloids that most people on IB are there because they're non-disabled/healthy but they've never worked and they don't know how to work. There's also a chunk explaining that ESA is widely appealed and a significant number of the appeals are successful, but it doesn't explore that these appeals are expensive to the taxpayer and it'd be cheaper overall if the need for so many appeals was cut by making the WCA more realistic. Incredibly disappointing from Radio 4.

"Benefit fraud is already low" point out the London School of Economics

This post by Jane Tinkler of LSE explains that:

The coalition government’s initiatives may simply spread a lot of alarm amongst benefits claimants and poorer households, doing little to deter fraud but a great deal to discourage legitimate claimants.

She should explain that to The Sun. She goes on:

My table below shows that over the last decade, the levels of fraud in the system have dropped from over 2% of total benefits payments in 2000 to well below 1% in 2009.

Less than 1%. The way the tabloids and the coalition go on you'd think it was nearer 100%.

Jane's article is well worth a read.

Thanks to @RichmondAID for tweeting the link.

Friday, 13 August 2010

ESA: It Doesn't Add Up

The government now has two different, simultaneous official responses to the medical tests for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008 for those who cannot work due to illness or disability. These responses, unsurprisingly, contradict each other.

On the one hand, Chris Grayling wants the rules "tightened" to make it harder to claim benefits. He seems particularly concerned about people who start a claim for ESA and then discontinue it before they reach the top of the queue for their medical test (apparently without considering legitimate reasons why this might happen, such as an improvement in health). That's Official Government Opinion on ESA Medicals Number 1. As usual, the rhetoric is that we must weed out as many 'scroungers' as possible. As usual, important relevant facts are missing - in this case, that the level of benefit received while waiting for a medical assessment is the same low rate that Jobseekers' Allowance claimants receive. I'm not entirely sure the figures add up, either.

Yet a few months ago, a group of nineteen disability- and welfare-related organisations, led by the Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB), released a report calling for a review of the medical test for ESA. In particular, the report highlighted concerns over a low success rate among ESA claimants - rates which Disability Alliance clearly states here. It also offered evidence of the "limited effectiveness of the assessment", and poor treatment by medical assessors, which they claim especially fails those with more complex medical conditions. Examples of CAB clients who had failed the test included "people in the advanced stages of Parkinson's Disease and Multiple Sclerosis, people with severe mental illness, and [people] awaiting open heart surgery." Lisa and incurable hippie have already posted about cases that demonstrate the problems associated with the target-driven medical assessors who conduct the ESA medicals. This report confirms that these are far from being isolated cases.

In response to the report and the organisations' concerns, the government has now agreed to an urgent review into the Work Capability Test, the medical assessment for ESA. In response to comments from the review group, Grayling appeared to support the review. He said that he understood claimants' concerns and anxieties, and that the tests needed to be "applied sensitively". So that would be Official Government Opinion on ESA Medicals Number 2, then.

The review group will report on the Work Capability Test towards the end of this year. We might expect a responsible government to reduce the negative rhetoric that the group has already complained about, and leave further ESA-related comments until after the publication of their report. Which makes Chris Grayling's comments this week all the more concerning. Even more worrying is the way the government uses similar statistics as those that led to calls for a review. Remember that concern in the CAB report over the low success rate among people claiming ESA? The government thinks it just demonstrates how many people are capable of work.

In fairness to the media, there are some newspapers that have highlighted the ways in which the government has spun these figures to its own advantage. This article also highlights the fact that four in ten appeals by people who have been refused ESA are successful. This may not be a huge percentage, but it certainly suggests that significant numbers of claimants are unfairly becoming victims of the government's cost-cutting approach. No wonder there's so much anxiety around the ESA medical assessments. Anxiety that won't help those who already have long-term illnesses, or mental health problems, or acute life-threatening conditions - or who are already living in fear and poverty as a result of the War on Welfare Claimants.

Our caring Tory government: capable of viewing the same results of ESA testing as both a serious concern for the poor sick people who are being refused help and a triumph for the scroungers who are being rooted out. But mainly the second one.

Don't forget that you can contribute towards the review of the Work Capability Test, as incurable hippie posted recently, if you have any experiences that you think would be useful to the group conducting the review process.

Thanks to members of the BBC Ouch messageboard for sharing some of the links in this post.

The Sun hates YOU

TODAY The Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants to slash the £5BILLION wasted in Britain's shambolic handouts culture.

That's the intro to this article in The Sun today.

They go on:

Hundreds of thousands of scroungers in the UK are robbing hard-working Sun readers of their cash.

They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs - paid for by YOU.

Despite the fact that the government has a hotline for reporting benefit fraud, The Sun have felt the need to set up their own. If you're thinking of shopping someone you suspect is a benefit cheat it's worth noting that the government number is an 0800 one so the call is free. The Sun's number is an 020 7 one so if you live in London you'll get charged the local call rate, if you live elsewhere in the UK you'll be charged a national call rate. I figure if you're in the business of reporting people for benefit fraud because you think their TV is too big you're probably keen to know what the call costs.

The Sun point out that their campaign has some high-profile support:

Our campaign aims to crack down on fraud and has the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron, who explains below how he is committed to tackling our out-of-control welfare state.

I'm off to nail my curtains to the wall so I don't get seen typing this and reported to The Sun for being a scrounger who's wasting hardworking Sun readers' money on owning a crappy old computer.

Hat tip to @CrippledWriter for tweeting the link to the story.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Work Capability Assessment Independent Review: Call for Evidence

Found through FWD (Feminists with Disabilities).
Dear all,

As you may know, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has asked me to undertake an independent review of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). This is an important part of the Employment and Support Allowance claim process, designed to determine which claimants are capable of undertaking work, or work-related activity. My aim is to review the current workings of the assessment, and make recommendations on the future development and efficacy of the WCA.

As part of this process, I have today (27th July 2010) launched a call for evidence to gather information from a wide variety of stakeholders on the WCA. I strongly invite you to contribute to the call for evidence by submitting any information you may have that is relevant to how the WCA is operating. This includes evaluating how the WCA assesses limited capability for work and limited capability for work-related activity. There are a number of questions throughout the document and I would very much welcome your responses to these.

The call for evidence can be found at: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/consultations/.

This e-mail is being sent to a large number of people and organisations who have already been involved in this work or who have expressed an interest. Please do share this e-mail with, or tell us about, anyone you think will want to be involved in this consultation. I apologise if this means you receive this message more than once, but stakeholder views really are important to the process.

The closing date for the call for evidence is 27 August 2010 – please send your responses to wca.evidence@dwp.gsi.gov.uk
(or hard copies to: WCA Independent Review Team, Floor 6, Section B, Caxton House, Tothill Street, London, SW1H 9NA) by then.

Kind regards,

Prof. Malcolm Harrington CBE

Link round up

Some of these links range from a few weeks to a few months old. But I think they're important to post here to give a bit of background as to what's been going on in the War on Welfare Claimants thus far, which prompted us to create this blog.

In May this year BBC Scotland took a look at ESA and its failings. I think the most pertinent element of the piece is the hypocrisy in how Vicki Bell was "assessed" by ATOS. (Incurable Hippie posted a similar case on here yesterday.)

One of the readers of Iain Dale's Diary wrote to him and expressed their concerns about DLA reform. The point the reader emphasised was that they're more financially valuable to Osbourne claiming DLA than not. Of course, that's not true for all of us: Some of us, even on DLA, remain unable to work so offer no financial value to Osbourne despite being rich in human value. But it's excellent news that this reader convinced Iain Dale that we do have some value to society because his is a well respected voice in the Tory party. (This year's Pink List described him as "More influential outside politics than in.")

Anne Begg MP talked to Disability Now about the attack on DLA. Quite worryingly she seems to be under the impression that "The one benefit which we have in this country which actually operates on the social model of disability is DLA," which demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the social model. Yes the DLA assessment currently focusses on what you can and can't do, rather than on diagnosis alone, but that does not make it a social model assessment. It appears that Begg has misunderstood what the medical model actually means, and in turn assumes that the social model must be the opposite. This fab post by Lady Bracknell explains why the term "medical model" can be a bit of a misnomer and might shed some light on how Anne Begg got confused. Misunderstandings of a sociological construct aside, it's good to see that someone in parliament is fighting our corner.

Comment is Free on guardian.co.uk have been great ambassadors for our cause. Articles they've published recently on the subject of disability benefits includes: Disability allowance exists for a reason by Anne Wollenberg, Cutting disability benefits is not 'fair' by Jackie Ashley, Why should I again prove my disability to satisfy George Osborne? By Rhydian Fôn James, and Disabled people are not scroungers by Emmanuel Smith. Especially important is Anne Wollenberg's piece which explains that DLA is not an out-of-work benefit something our government keeps forgetting.

Having been called a scrounger by our press and politicians so many times I felt compelled to write a blog post explaining exactly why I get the benefits I do. It seems particularly relevant today seeing as how this morning I received a letter telling me I'm being summonsed to a Pathways to Work interview next week and if I don't show up my benefits will probably be stopped.

The ever fierce Disability Bitch accepted responsibility for the recession and has agreed to make some cuts to save the government some money.

Spoof news website Newsarse.com published a piece titled "Osborne to put coma patients to work as draft excluders". Sad thing is that given the current climate it wouldn't be too surprising to see that as a genuine headline on a real news site.

Bitch and Newsarse may be humorous sites but for my money, the funniest thing I've read since these attacks began was this piece quoting Yvette Cooper on the Tories' plans to cut DLA. Why is that so hilarious? Because the two-faced woman was a vociferous advocate of ESA, the problems with ESA having been established in my first link.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Not fit for work, not fit for benefits.

Many disabled people are currently terrified of the threats to their benefits, and those with mental health problems are especially scared. The benefit system has always been more geared up towards assessing physical impairment, and the new ESA assessments appear to have reinforced rather than reduced the discrepancy.

Meridian Tonight has reported on the case of Nicola Hobbs, who after years of anorexia applied for a job. However, she failed the health test and so was not given employment. As a result of this she applied for benefit and in this case was found fit for work.

A very confusing situation - judged too ill to work when applying for a job, yet fit for work when applying for benefit. But to add insult to injury, these two opposing judgements were made by the same company - ATOS Healthcare, who do the ESA assessments for the government.

Meridian Tonight has a two minute video covering the story on their website. Worryingly, it is not the first time I have heard of cases exactly like this, with ATOS declaring the same person unfit for work when doing an employment health review, yet fit for work when doing a benefit assessment.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Cameron's credit-spying plans to cut benefits

Today’s announcement by the Cameron administration on the latest tools they intend to use to crack down on benefit fraud is worrying news for disabled claimants.

The governments wants to use information from credit reference agencies and other third parties to identify suspicious claims. Cameron says welfare and tax credit fraud and error cost the exchequer £5.2bn a year, with a further £1.6bn a year lost on  administrative incompetence. He made no distinction today between the amount of fraudulent claims and the amount of error, although it is widely accepted that fraudulent disability claims are only around 1%, while administrative errors average 2.5% a year.

However, benefits minister Ian Duncan-Smith, who is overseeing reform of the system, was interviewed on the Today Programme today and was forced to admit that the Tories had overstated the amount fraudulently claimed by some five times and that the true figure for fraud was in fact just £1.5bn, according to official Treasury figures, which show that along with the cost of errors amounts to just £3.1bn.

A pilot scheme is already operating in Manchester where the city council works alongside the Department for Work and Pensions to uncover fraudulent claims and co-prosecute. They use data-matching software to examine the financial habits of claimants – where they see someone appearing to spend more than their benefits they will then launch a more in-depth investigation. There is an average of three court cases a week in Manchester at present.

Under the new plans, this scheme will be rolled out nationwide. While cracking down on fraudsters is to be welcomed, it is highly likely that disabled claimants could find themselves being unfairly investigated.

Many genuine disabled claimants live in constant fear of having their entitlement cut off. The current daily rhetoric that lumps together fraud and error, combined with “helplines” that encourage people to report neighbours they suspect are defrauding the benefits system, is now discouraging many from leaving their homes, particularly those who use mobility aids only part of the time. The BBC’s Ouch disability forum has already documented some cases where neighbours reported genuine claimants for fraud because they left their house on foot rather than a wheelchair.

A further concern over the decision to use credit reference companies to piece together claimants’ spending habits is the issue of invasion of privacy. Disabled claimants already surrender almost all their privacy when filling in complex claim forms. Being forced to describe toilet needs, for example, to faceless administrators is very distressing for many claimants. But, at present, claimants can still spend their Disability Living Allowance as they wish so they can make their lives as easy as possible. Snooping by credit agencies could mean many will be forced to justify how they use their benefits. There is a real fear that under such circumstances, official disapproval of how benefit money is used could result in more disabled people finding their meagre income will be severely reduced or even cut off.

Cameron’s announcement was made in the Manchester Evening News and he has given no further statement to the media, leaving Duncan-Smith to do that. An as yet unsubstantiated rumour has been flying around Manchester Twitter users that the MEN rejected Cameron's article when it was first submitted.

And finally, to put this latest proposal into context, it’s worth remembering that the TUC says the cost of benefit fraud is minuscule compared with that of tax evasion and avoidance. The most recent figure from the organisation Tax Research put the figures for combined tax evasion and avoidance at £95bn. Maybe this is where government resources should be targeted?

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