Wednesday, 20 January 2016

On welfare reform, and those who matter.

Content note for suicide

These last few months have seen some good campaigning, particularly from all sectors around the proposed tax credit cuts. Whilst they weren't reversed in their entirety, I do believe that the work from trade unions, Labour, and other charities and campaigning organisations definitely helped this.

But take ESA cuts.

What is ESA? It stands for Employment & Support Allowance, and is the disability benefit for those of us who are too unwell to work due to disabilities and long-term health problems. When you apply for ESA - an incredibly stressful, over-complicated and difficult process, you usually are called for a Work Capability Assessment. 

Initially brought in under Labour, the coalition government outsourced the WCA to ATOS, a French IT company. ATOS were so bad at their job - to assess ESA claimants to find out if they were fit for work or not - that appeals skyrocketed, costing the government (aka the taxpayer) a shit tonne of money in processing appeals and eventually backdating lots of claims. There were many headlines detailing tragedy after tragedy of people who had died by suicide, usually after being found fit for work and being overcome by despair at their (sometimes inevitable) homelessness and poverty. Some claimants aren't put through a WCA, but this is rare.

Once you have your WCA, you're assigned a group - the work-related activity group, or the support group. The idea behind it is that those who are in the work group may have limited capability to work, but will be able to do some form of 'work-related activity'. The support group is for people who are less likely to be able to return to work in the near future. 

A few months ago, the Tories announced they were cutting the benefit for people in the WRAG group by around £30, to bring it in line with current rates of Job Seekers' Allowance. In April 2017 the rate for those in the WRAG will go from £102 to £73 a week. This will reduce the yearly income of a person in the work group from £5,000 to just £3,500. The government's reasoning is that the money given to someone in the WRAG isn't a good enough incentive to get back to work. Of course it has nothing to do with an overstretched NHS, local authorities being stripped of their funding, and mental health services under resourced about to collapse. Of course those things have nothing to do with why a disabled person may not be able to cope with employment.

If this wasn't bad enough, more shit has been announced in relation to Personal Independence Payments, which were brought in under the coalition government to gradually replace Disability Living Allowance. For more information on what that's been like, read this (by Liam, on what applying for benefits is really like), this (by Liam, what it's like dealing with ATOS) and this (by Becca, and what pushed me to write this post).

This post from Disability Rights is pretty informative - a judgement has recently been announced, meaning that if someone with severe psychological distress cannot leave the house or go somewhere unassisted (for instance, due to severe agoraphobia, or panic attacks), they'll no longer be eligible for the mobility component of PIP, which currently stands at £55 or so a week. 

So what's the point of this post?

Firstly, to give an explanation of (some aspects of) ESA, and an insight into how difficult it really is for people to survive on this benefit. Most people don't know the intricate details - and why would they? Unless they know someone who receives it, it isn't a great surprise.

And then there's the issue of stigma. 

Who would you tell that you're trying to live off less than £5,000 a year? You'll probably receive some housing benefit, but that won't be enough to cover your rent anyway, especially if you live in London. You might get DLA or PIP, but you live forever in fear of new reforms being announced and the small benefit you get (which, rather than being spent on the extra costs of being disabled is probably spent on heating your room and paying your water bill) being cut. If you've kids or people to care for, you probably worry about making sure you can feed them, too. If you don't have anyone to care for, like me, you're one of the luckier ones. 

When someone asks me what I do, I generally tell them the truth. Or a half truth. Partially because I think that I have a duty to, because it's so shameful. I need to make it less shameful. I need people to look me in the eye when I tell them I live off the state. And for the most part, they don't. They glance sideways, awkwardly, look down at their feet. They don't know what to say. And I try to continue the conversation as if nothing has happened. But it's hard. And it's exhausting when this happens frequently. And it does, because I try and do something social at least once a week, and that inevitably leads to meeting new people who ask what I do.  

What is most difficult about being in this situation, is how isolating it is - both on a personal and a national level. When tax credits were being cut, everyone was up in arms - including almost all of the media, which felt like a first. And I was glad, I really was. 

But when it comes to disability benefits being cut, we don't get much. We get a few Guardian articles, a few MPs ask questions on a Wednesday, but it doesn't go anywhere. It's accepted, passively. It's not worth the fight because we're not worth the fight. Our lives are not as valuable as the lives of people who can contribute to the economy, the people who pay taxes, the people who teach and educate and heal and work on our public transport and in our banks and in our shops and our taxis. Of course, the government is currently trying to dismantle the hard-won rights of those working in the public sector, but my point still stands.

We need you - the activists, the politicians, the councillors, the workers, the trade unionists - to fight for us, because so often we can't fight for ourselves. We want to, but we can't. So much of our energy is taken up just by trying to survive. And when it comes to the end of the day, we don't have much left to give to activism, even though our lives depend on it.

So please, in 2016 make the conscious decision to try and raise the profile of issues like ESA reforms and housing benefit cuts and PIP changes, and give us a platform when we have the energy to talk about it. Please make a commitment to fighting for the right of every disabled person in the UK to be able to live a life with access to healthcare, safety, and dignity. Because we can't do it alone, and as each day passes another disabled person loses their fight, and it feels like soon there will be none of us left.  

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