Living Off the State: What Covid-19 Reveals about UK Attitudes on Claiming Benefits

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 and UK lockdown, many in the UK are now left worrying about their jobs, homes and finances. The government has faced a sudden and urgent pressure to support thousands of people as they find themselves without work and income – and suddenly, people who never expected to are living on benefits.

With so many more people having to depend on government grants, benefits, and special payment arrangements, I couldn’t help but think how the idea of ‘living off the state’ has taken a dramatic new angle.

Fascinatingly, the otherwise relatively ‘hands-off’ Conservative Party have been forced to spring into action, providing huge sums of money to try and support businesses and individuals who risk losing everything as they have to adapt or close due to the pandemic. Politicians (including the Prime Minister) who have consistently voted for cuts to benefits, implemented austerity measures that put huge strain on the NHS, as well as under-funding health and social care, education, and social housing, are taking actions we never would have expected.

As a benefits advice worker, I have seen countless working-class and extremely poor individuals struggling to get by on Universal Credit. Before the pandemic, for over-25s the standard rate was £317.82 a month, while under-25s got just £251.77. It is no surprise to see food bank numbers on the increase and street homelessness up by 141% over the last 10 years. Now, with the outbreak of coronavirus forcing almost 10 times as many people to apply for Universal Credit, Rishi Sunak has announced that Universal Credit will rise by £1000 a year. Meanwhile, Statutory sick pay has gone up (as of 6th April) from £94.25 to £95.85 a week.

Obviously in times of crisis the government has to take unprecedented measures to keep the economy afloat. However it is particularly hard-hitting looking at Boris Johnson’s voting record, showing he has voted to reduce spending on welfare benefits 19 times – that’s every single time he has voted on benefits spending. He has literally always voted for benefits cuts.

Why should this bother me? It’s increasing and that is wonderful news, right?

It is indeed wonderful news that those claiming benefits will have more to help them in times of poverty and need. I am bothered by the conditions it took for this spending to take place. Because it wasn’t until people that our government could relate to, those they knew and, crucially, respected were having to rely on state intervention to survive, that they decided to increase the amount available. It wasn’t until the economy on a larger scale was at risk that action was taken to alleviate financial hardship.

In British society, as far as I have seen, there is a common idea of what ‘kinds of people’ are on benefits. So many clients of mine are embarrassed that they have to ‘live off the state’; they know the stigma and they are aware that others will think they are lazy or even immoral. Because usually the poorest people are on benefits, many middle class people and professionals do lead very different lives to those claiming benefits. They think of them as other, often as less intelligent or not hard-working enough. Right wing politicians often push the idea that if only you try hard enough, you can overcome hardship and become financially comfortable. One look at the benefits system shows that their philosophy is based on the theory that if you make life on benefits as difficult as possible, and if you tell those with severe disabilities and illnesses they must work, then they will be forced to do so.

The thing is, the welfare state was always meant to be a safety net. It is supposed to support those in need, who struggle to find work or maintain work due to health issues beyond their control. Yet still, the stereotype of benefits claimants is lazy, less intelligent, rough, or even violent.

Covid-19, however, has imposed just a couple of the adversities so often faced by those in this country who live below the poverty line onto ‘the rest of us.’ That is, onto those who have been lucky enough to find themselves in work over recent years, or with good enough health to sustain employment.

With Covid-19, the safety net that helps those in times of sickness, or lack of job opportunities, is suddenly needed by a massive percentage of the population.

It was this extension of job-instability and financial anxiety to ‘the rest of society’ that partly prompted the Conservative government to finally raise benefits to something resembling an amount you can survive on.

It’s not just benefits; the government has offered to pay 80% of the wages of those being ‘furloughed’, those made temporarily redundant due to lack of available work. Again, this is really great and necessary to keep people going and the economy functioning – but I can’t help recalling other times in history when people lost their jobs due to workplace closures beyond their control and were given no support by the government. Think of Thatcher and the mine closures in Wales and the North of England; work became nonviable, and to this day entire towns built around collieries are still suffering the consequences of the government failing to provide alternative opportunities. There are countless other examples of industry and factory closures that have taken people’s livelihoods and have followed the same path.

Where was this compassionate safety net then?

It takes the middle classes to be hit, even for Johnson himself to be infected with Covid-19, for the welfare state to kick into action properly.

Where has this compassion been for the last 10 years?

As people have starved to death from benefits cuts, relied more and more on food banks, and struggled to feed their children, austerity-enforcing politicians turned a blind eye and allowed the NHS, homelessness support services, addiction services, social services, and endless other amazing facilities to be starved of resources. I can’t help but think this is related to the class backgrounds of the majority of those who run our country. They have been irresponsibly detached from the realities of daily life for those who usually experience intense poverty. It took a pandemic and the extension of some of these difficulties to ‘everyone else’ for the welfare state to be taken seriously and supported properly.

If one good thing comes from this crisis, I want it to be an increased understanding of the instability, anxiety, and distress experienced by benefits claimants on a regular basis. As more and more people have no choice but to rely on the state, I hope they realise how lucky we are to have the welfare state, and how difficult it can be psychologically and financially to be forced to live off it. I hope this will lead to a revitalised approach to the welfare state and its importance as we finally recognise that we would be nowhere without it.

The Benefits System is Causing Death and Distress- Here’s Why

The UK’s benefits system is poorly funded, and designed without empathy or knowledge of the real lives of those living in poverty. Here’s one Bench Advice worker’s experience of what happens when the system goes wrong.

The death of Errol Graham was widely reported last week, a vulnerable man who died of starvation after his DWP benefits were stopped. His body was found by the bailiffs who had come to the house to evict him.

For advice workers like myself who assist vulnerable people to enforce their welfare benefits rights, this story is awful, but not surprising. Every single week I see clients with physical and mental health problems whose benefits have been stopped, sanctioned or reduced for reasons that are unfair, unclear, arbitrary or unlawful.

One of them has agreed for me to share his story. All names have been changed.

John is a long term client at Bench Outreach. He has significant mental health problems and poor levels of literacy. He is a vulnerable adult who cannot use a computer and needs support to access his Universal Credit (UC) account. 

Just after the New Year, John attended the office in a distressed state. He asked me to look at a letter he had received from the council tax department. It informed him that because his Universal Credit claim had been closed, his council tax reduction had been automatically stopped (see previous blog post The Domino Effect). Because John was not able to log onto his online UC account on his own, he had had no idea the claim had been closed. When we logged on to his UC account we discovered that his claim had, indeed, been closed and his payments stopped.

John is too unwell to work; he is not expected to look for work or participate in “work related activity”. His claim had been closed because he did not log on to his UC account and digitally accept his “claimant commitment.” His so-called “commitment” was zero hours of work. 

Despite a note on his journal from me explaining that John is a vulnerable claimant who does not have digital access, only one telephone call was made to John before his claim was closed and his only source of income stopped.

I assisted John to lodge a “mandatory reconsideration” asking the DWP to reconsider the decision in light of the circumstances. It took three weeks of telephone calls and emails to get his UC and council tax reduction reinstated, during which time he had no income and was reliant on the food bank to eat.

The system is not working for vulnerable, unwell clients like John. With a Conservative government likely to be in power for the next 5 years it’s obvious that Universal Credit is not going anywhere. At Bench Outreach we’d like to see the following changes, as a minimum, to support vulnerable and low income clients:

  • A much shorter wait for the first payment. Five weeks without any money is too long and the advance payment system just means that clients have a reduced income for months as they pay it back
  • A clean slate with regard to previous overpayments. The majority of our clients have crippling deductions from budgeting loans or tax credit overpayments, some of them from over 10 years ago
  • Fewer or no medical re-assessments for people who have long term conditions that are not likely to change or improve
  • If a client is vulnerable due to mental or physical health problems, homelessness, domestic violence etc the DWP should make be obliged to speak to the client, their support worker or agreed family members prior to stopping their payments 

John has his UC up and running again, he’s managing. He knows that if there’s a problem he can come to our office to get help and support. Bench Outreach shouldn’t have to exist, a compassionate society should support and protect vulnerable people like John and Errol Graham. Unfortunately the safety net is threadbare and our work is more important than ever.

“Not Quite Disabled Enough” – proving you need benefits

Many disabled people are struggling to survive on benefits, meanwhile the DWP is constantly pressuring them to prove their disabilities ‘deserve’ benefits.

I’m writing this blog at the end of our third work week of 2020. While it’s great to be back and to check in on my lovely clients, some of them are really struggling. By the end of my first working day of 2020, three people had already told me they simply aren’t coping with their disabilities.

Before I worked in benefits advice, I just didn’t realise how many people who physically or mentally are not able to work are barely surviving on benefits. I think for those who don’t have any experience of the system, the first thing that comes to mind when you mention benefits is unemployment. Obviously for many people, benefits are there to tide them over until they are able to find work. But for so many disabled people who are unable to work, those who can’t rely on family and friends and have no other source of income, benefits are all they will ever have to live on- and it is exhausting.

To be allowed to claim disability benefits, you have to prove that you’re disabled enough.

And not just once. Even if you have a life-long condition, you may have to be re-assessed for your ‘capability for work’ as often as every year.

The process of being assessed can be extremely stressful for claimants, many of whom are terrified that their money could be taken away, which would leave them destitute or forced to work when they physically or mentally are not able to manage (You can read about these medical assessments in this previous blog post). It’s also not straight forward- you are sent a booklet full of questions that are supposed to apply to disabilities, but of course disability can be so varied that half the questions won’t make any sense to some people. Then, if you are late sending the booklet back, your benefits may be reduced as a punishment. If claimants can’t get an appointment for support to fill out the booklet, or if they are too ill to get to a post box, they might not be able to get it in on time. A few weeks later, they invite you to an assessment. For our clients in Deptford, the nearest assessment centre takes at least an hour to get to on the bus.

You can get travel expenses to the assessment repaid afterwards, but no help in advance. For claimants who are unable to use public transport, the cost of a taxi both ways to an assessment centre from Deptford can cost £70, a huge amount for those on benefits (Universal Credit standard allowance is around £317 a month), leaving some people out of pocket until they can be refunded.

Mental Health

It usually takes a lot to convince the DWP that mental illness can be a disability. The questions they ask on disability benefit forms are so clearly geared towards physical disability that often, claimants just don’t understand how to answer. Often, when people with mental health problems are assessed for work capability, their needs are not properly understood. For example, an assessor may see that the claimant can physically walk and move their arms. They may therefore write on the report that the claimant can get up, get dressed, and brush their teeth. In reality, however, they might never brush their teeth or get dressed if they are too depressed. This is one example of the many ways in which the impact of mental health on daily life simply isn’t understood properly. (Read more about the lies and misrepresentations in medical reports here.)

I’ve attended an assessment where the client told the assessor they were having suicidal thoughts and had almost taken their own life, only turning back at the last moment. In the report, this intimate and tragic detail that had been told with difficulty was summarised as something along the lines of “the claimant says he is suicidal, but has no suicidal intent.” Effectively, this means they did not consider this vulnerable adult suicidal enough. It begs the question, what more does it take to convince them?

Furthermore, bad mental health can be exacerbated by the benefits system itself. For example, people who suffer from social anxiety will be very uncomfortable going to a new place full of strangers to be assessed by another stranger, especially when the stakes are high. In theory you can request a home visit- in reality, these requests are usually ignored.

I have had client after client describe panic attacks they’ve had when they have been told to go for an assessment, or the dread and depression they face in anticipation. Claimants may be so mentally unwell before an assessment that they feel suicidal or attempt suicide. They might miss an appointment because they are too scared, and be sanctioned for doing so, losing money from an already small benefit allowance.

As politicians go on about how we need to improve mental health care, it’s difficult to see how there is any effort at all to look after the mental health of Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable individuals as they go through the benefits system.

Disabled Travel

It’s not just benefits. In our local borough at least, the criteria to get a Freedom Pass for public transport have recently got much tougher. Essentially, you need to not be able to walk at all in order to be allowed one. The process can be extensive, requiring lots of evidence to prove you’re disabled enough to need free transport.

This week I saw Lisa, a client who has to use a stoma bag, which regularly leaks and causes her a lot of discomfort, making her feel extremely distressed and embarassed. Her freedom pass has been taken away because she no longer fits the criteria- she can physically walk more than a few steps, so they have decided she doesn’t need free travel. Now, she feels like it’s not safe for her to go out as she needs to get home quickly if there’s a problem with her bag. She has a very small income because she is on benefits and is really anxious now she will have to worry about paying for travel too.

With a more personalised approach, or with the ability to award discretionary Freedom Passes based on individual needs (these do exist in some boroughs) this client would surely be considered eligible. But because the system is automated, with no appeal system or alternatives for those with needs that don’t fit neatly into the criteria, Lisa is not getting the help she needs.

How can I/those I care about avoid these problems?

There are a few things to bear in mind if you or someone you know are being assessed either for disability benefits or for your capability to work.

  1. Always describe your worst day. If you suffer from depression, describe the days you can’t get out of bed, can’t eat, or can’t talk to anyone. This is crucial.
  2. Take someone with you. In some charities, an advice worker can go with you to an assessment, but you can take anyone with you. Whoever accompanies you should take note of everything that is said and done in the assessment, so you can refer back to it if you disagree with the end result.
  3. If you’re appealing or asking for a mandatory reconsideration, get advice. If you can, submit your appeal/mandatory reconsideration in writing, not on the phone. I would always recommend getting advice from a charity- we write hundreds of appeals and know the right things to say.
  4. Whether you’re appealing or just being assessed, have as much evidence as possible. Evidence includes doctors’ letters, hospital admission documentation, your prescription, letters from any key workers or carers you have etc. Letters from your family/friends who help you with your health condition (e.g. getting the shopping for you, driving you to appointments, helping you with your benefits) can be really useful.
  5. Make sure they do the tests they’re supposed to. In your health assessments, unless your health condition would make these tests too difficult for you, the assessor should do some physical tests (asking you to demonstrate that you can stand and sit, move your arms etc). Make sure they do them- if they look at you and decide you’re not physically disabled, they may say in the report they’ve done the tests even when they haven’t.
  6. Don’t wear your best suit. You will be judged on how you present yourself and how you ‘coped’ with the assessment. Most of the time, they say you were neatly dressed and coped well, whether or not that’s the case. This may be used this to say you are mentally and physically well, even if you’re not.

What else can I do about this situation?

Write to your MP!

This will make a difference. The government constantly go on about how they’re taking mental health seriously- they should be held accountable for the treatment of those deemed ‘not disabled enough’ who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, debilitating anxiety, and isolation.

You can find out who your MP is and their contact details here. Tell them what matters to you- it’s their job to listen and take action. It only takes 5 minutes to email.

Support local charities

Like us! Woohoo! Any local charity that offers benefits advice would LOVE your support or donations. Disability charities are great too, and can literally change people’s lives by getting them aids/provisions they need to go about daily life. For example, if you found the story above of the lady with a stoma bag makes you want to take action, see how you can support Crohn’s and Colitis UK (that particular client has found their online info super helpful).

Offer to help

If you know someone who struggles with filling out forms, carrying shopping, or might not get many visitors, you can help. A lot of my job is just helping people to fill out forms or use their online accounts because they struggle with literacy or computer skills. If you could help someone get onto their Universal Credit (it’s easy if you’re used to using computers) or complete the answers on a disability benefits form, you could really make an impact. If you don’t already know someone who could use your help, you could offer to volunteer with a local charity.

If you live in England, you can find your local homeless services here and get in touch to see if they need volunteers. You may find your skills are really needed!

Be vocal

If you have a story to tell, you can use social media or blogging to get your story out!

If you want your experience to be voiced on our blog, don’t hesitate to get in touch on twitter (@benchoutreach) or Facebook (Bench Outreach).

Welfare Benefits: The Domino Effect

A Bench Outreach advice worker talks about the slippery slope of benefits problems and how one DWP judgement can have devastating consequences.

Many of the clients who come to see me are on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This means that they are not currently fit to work due to a mental or physical health problem (or both). Eligibility for ESA is determined through a lengthy form to fill in and attending medical assessments at regular intervals. These assessments usually take place in Marylebone – over an hour and a half on the bus from Deptford on the bus if you are on a low income, or a pricey taxi if you’re not well enough to use public transport.

If you are considered “fit for work” at your medical assessment, or you miss a medical for an “unacceptable” reason then your ESA stops. Immediately.  You can ask for a review of the decision (a mandatory reconsideration) and subsequently appeal but it’s not a quick process. How do you manage when there’s no money coming in in the mean time?

Losing one benefit is bad enough but what I see, time and time again, is that it sets in motion a “domino effect”. Receiving ESA means that you qualify for Housing Benefit which pays your rent (or part of your rent) and council tax reduction which is administered by the council. If your ESA is stopped, the DWP write to your local council who will immediately stop your Housing Benefit and council tax reduction.

This seems like madness. Just because your ESA has been stopped, does not mean you’re actually fit for work and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve got a job and money in the bank to pay the rent. All this does is stack up rent arrears and increase stress and anxiety for clients who are already struggling.

Image result for job centre

The problem is not just confined to ESA. I saw a client, Sandra, last week who is the main carer for her son. He is in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and she is reliant on Income Support, Carer’s Allowance and Housing Benefit. Sandra submitted her son’s DLA form slightly late as she was waiting for medical evidence.

Because the form was submitted late, her son’s DLA was stopped.

Because DLA had been stopped, Sandra was no longer entitled to Carer’s Allowance and this was automatically stopped.

Because Carer’s Allowance had been stopped, Sandra was no longer eligible for Income Support and this was automatically stopped.

Because Income Support had been stopped, Sandra was no longer eligible for Housing Benefit and this was automatically stopped. Her housing association had written to her to advise her that she was already in rent arrears.

Does any of this make sense as a compassionate and functional system? I don’t believe that it saves anyone any money and certainly not any time – it takes the best part of an hour to get through to ESA on the phone. It pushes the work out to advice services and charities which are already under pressure. It causes vulnerable people endless worry and sleepless nights.

People have asked if Universal Credit (UC) would stop problems like this. The short answer is no. There are hundreds of thousands of people still on legacy benefits such as ESA and Income Support. It is likely that many would be significantly worse off by moving to UC under natural migration.

In addition, the link between UC and HMRC means that the benefits system can trawl through all your previous earnings. It can, and will, flag up if you’ve earned even a penny more than eligibility for, say, Carer’s Allowance in the past and claw it back. There’s no limitation period so you can have ongoing deductions for overpayments from 15 years ago.

Of course if you weren’t eligible for Carer’s Allowance, you subsequently wouldn’t have been eligible for Income Support… and the domino effect continues.

Universal Credit: The Limits of Computer Illiteracy

In a world that increasingly depends on computers, the internet, and online communication, the barrier to accessing benefits is getting worse for those who struggle with technology.

Frustratingly, at least half of my working hours are spent helping people to access crucial benefits and housing services online, purely because so many clients have never had the opportunity to learn to use a computer. These services are supposed to be user-friendly, simple, self-explanatory. The main flaw? They are not designed to be accessible without a computer.

Today’s blog looks into the problems faced by those who are not computer literate, and the empathy and patience needed by professionals who help them, especially DWP staff.

Universal Credit: all ‘accessible’ online

Universal Credit, the new Welfare Benefits system, undergoes a huge amount of criticism. However, for most of my clients it has just one major problem: it is pretty much only accessible online.

To register for Universal Credit, the only way to get benefits for the vast majority of new claimants, you have to make an application online. This itself is a big barrier to many claimants, and is something we help people with all the time. But the process is never simple!

Barrier number 1: Poorer individuals and families may not have access to a computer at home. Library and community centre computers are a vital resource, but these services are not always open and often the computers are slowly dying from decades of use. The next best option is to get an appointment with an advice worker- that’s if there is a charity or citizens advice nearby that can help, if you can physically make it there, and if you can fit in an appointment around childcare or working hours. If you don’t know how to use a computer, that’s the only option.

Barrier number 2: For someone with learning difficulties or mental health problems, understanding that they need a username, password, memorable answers, and 16-digit identification code can just be too much. Many are struggling to cope day-to-day; remembering to eat and come to appointments is a struggle, let alone remembering a password.

Barrier number 3: Next, the claimant must have an email address- you can’t open a Universal Credit account without an email address, as they have to email you a verification code. Some clients have never emailed in their life, others have forgotten their email address long ago. Sometimes, a client will remember their email address, but when it comes to getting the verification code, they can’t remember how to log into their email. The Universal Credit website will not let you progress beyond this, meaning I’m often making email accounts as well as benefits applications for clients.

Barrier number 4: After entering what feels like endless details, the claimant has to make an appointment with their Job Centre to open the claim. To do so, you have to call Universal Credit.

Calling Universal Credit

As you can imagine, calling the DWP is never particularly efficient or enjoyable. Calling Universal Credit is often infuriating. At every stage there is an automated message that tells you it’s MUCH better to just go online and sort it out there. You then go through several automated questions, options to dial, and get through to someone after seemingly hours (but often more like 45 minutes) of listening to the tinny hold music version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Poor Vivaldi.

On a more serious note, this phonecall procedure makes you feel unwanted. The repeated attempts to persuade you to go online instead, the long time on hold, the reams of automated questions: they don’t want to talk to you at all. The worst thing is, you are only going to call if you aren’t able to navigate the online system. Being told to go back online is even more frustrating in this situation: if my client could understand the website, they wouldn’t be choosing to go through the painful process of calling.

Often, the advice you get when you eventually speak to a real person is actually quite helpful. Sometimes however, the processes for sorting out a Universal Credit issue are ridiculous. For example, if a client has forgotten their password, they need their personal 16 digit code. 16 random digits obviously aren’t memorable. They will have been written down on a piece of paper by someone at the Job Centre several months ago. When a client is homeless or vulnerably housed, the chances of keeping track of that piece of paper are low. For us in Deptford, our nearest Job Centre can take an hour to get to on the bus. If a client loses their 16 digit number, they have to make an appointment with the Job Centre to get it back before they can reset their password.

For some of our more vulnerable clients, this is simply too much. Having to call, wait, make an appointment, remember the appointment in 2 weeks, travel there, get the number, then make another appointment with me to sort out their account, is just a ridiculous amount to do when everyday life is a struggle. Some clients we see only once, and then they clearly give up with the process, never to get their benefits sorted out. This means they will certainly be destitute if they do not find work. For some, this means resorting to sex work or criminal activity to get by.

When Something Goes Wrong

Universal Credit generally do not send letters, even if you request. “Everything is available to see on your online journal!”, they smugly state at every opportunity.

This can lead to huge problems for claimants. If they can’t look at their online account, they may miss a Job Centre appointment that they’ve been reminded about via email or text on a phone or computer they don’t know how to use. Once, I opened a client’s account for him, only to see in big writing: “Job Centre Appointment in one hour”! He quickly ran to catch the bus and just made it- a near miss. Missing a Job Centre appointment can mean a cut to benefits; it can mean the difference between being able to eat and having to miss meals later in the month.

If the DWP makes a mistake (this happens a lot) and a client doesn’t receive their benefits for some reason, the client may not even realise until a month later, when their money doesn’t come through. Without being able to check online, they will have totally missed that anything was wrong until it’s too late. If they can’t manage to get an appointment with a benefits adviser, they will just have to wait until someone can help them log on and make sense of it all.

So What Can We Do About It?

  1. We must remind each successive government (as they seem to be coming and going every 5 minutes) that their decisions are hurting vulnerable people. They must see beyond their bubble of society where everyone is technologically savvy and privileged, and see the reality of those who experience poverty. We always say this, but seriously: write to your MP. They have to reply to you- your concerns are their job. Remind them there are issues other than Brexit.

We’ve made it very easy: just use this template letter and pop it into an email. You can find your MP’s contact details here.

2. Support local charities. To find out what help is available in your area for benefits/housing advice, there’s a great database on Homeless Link, here. We may be biased, but local organisations can make a huge difference to people’s lives and help them navigate the system we are currently stuck with.

3. Spread the word! Share this article, tell your mates, tell your family. Shout it from the rooftops because this system is not fair. If you have influence, use it to amplify the voices of those who are not heard.

Housing and Benefits Advice: A Typical Week

A brief insight into what kinds of problems are faced by homeless or vulnerably housed clients- this article describes what a typical (part-time) week might look like for a housing and benefits adviser at Bench Outreach. (Precise details changed to protect clients).


Monday morning is for chasing people up. I’ve got a heck of a to-do-list and several calls to make. I’ve made applications for three different clients to supported housing projects, but haven’t heard anything back for a over a month.

I find out that they are all still on the waiting list; I call each of them to explain. They are upset because they have been sleeping rough for long periods of time, but as they are not considered to be in priority need by the council, this is their best option to be housed. I feel uneasy as I end the calls, clients accepting they will just have to make do sleeping outside or in the night shelter for even longer.

In the afternoon, I hold a drop-in clinic at a local community centre in the poorest estate in Deptford. It’s noisy- there’s a children’s holiday club going on in the same room. We huddle in a corner and try and bash out a few benefits problems and social housing applications. Some clients are angry because, although they are overcrowded and need to move their families into a better council house, they have been waiting for well over a year. The council does not have enough properties and simply can’t help people quickly enough.


I have several appointments booked today. The first one does not show up; often clients cannot attend if they are too sick, cannot afford travel, or simply have lives too hectic to manage. They may not be able to contact me if they don’t have a phone. Some are simply too anxious or depressed to attend.

Someone drops into Bench in a very emotional state because he has received a letter from the DWP about his benefits, but he is illiterate so he does not understand it. The letter says his ESA has been stopped- we think this is an administrative error and spend an hour on the phone waiting on hold, before being told it was just a mistake. No apology. This client has gone without money for a couple of weeks now and is behind on bills as a result. We make a plan together to pay the outstanding bills, and I manage to calm him down.

My next client has been issued a notice of seeking possession for a Section 21 eviction: a “no fault eviction”. She has lived in this flat for 11 years. She has built up a small amount of arrears because her rent has gone up beyond what housing benefits will cover, and she’s been £10 a week short for a few months. The landlord wants their money; I call them to negotiate, but they are adamant they will be evicting this client. The client is terrified and clearly badly affected already by this instability. I tell her I will update her with viewings of different properties nearby when I hear about them. This client does not know how to use a computer at all, so looking online independently is impossible.

Some good news! A client has engaged with mental health services to try and get help for their psychological problems. They have also agreed to get help with their alcohol dependence. This is great- it can be an extremely daunting thing for vulnerable adults to reach out when they need help. Hopefully this is the beginning of more independence, happiness, and health for this client.


This morning I’m running a housing advice drop-in at a local drug and alcohol support clinic. When I arrive, there are already three people waiting. The first feels unsafe in their rented flat because violent drug-dealers are looking for them. They are not eligible for help from the council because if they leave the property, they become ‘voluntarily homeless.’ The client has called the police, but has not been taken seriously due to their prolonged history of drug use and precarious mental health.

Another client is in her sixties, and is feeling domestic violence. I refer her to a local refuge who will arrange a safe time for her to escape. Her family no longer want her around because of her drug problem. She began using partly due to the strain of this abusive relationship, and tells me she is fed up and has thought of ending it all. I offer to call an ambulance if she is feeling suicidal; she declines and gratefully agrees to the refuge option.

In the afternoon I attend the Lewisham Homelessness Forum- there are around 30 different charity workers, council homeless prevention workers, and DWP employees who have come together to discuss how we can target certain problems and update each other on our work in the borough. It’s uplifting to see so many different organisations all working together to help vulnerable people. We discuss issues like modern slavery awareness, how we can contact the government to make larger-scale changes, and how organisations can support each other if they need help.

The forum is also a wake-up call. We discuss the tragic deaths of 2 rough sleepers in the borough. It’s crucial to keep talking about homelessness and why it is ruining and ending people’s lives.

As our advice workers all work for Bench part-time, a three day week has been used for this article.


If you want to find out more about our services, head over to or email us at If you’re looking for housing and benefits advice, give us a call on 020 8694 7740.

You can also follow us on twitter @benchoutreach or like us on Facebook as Bench Outreach. Give this article a share if you want to help spread the word about the problems faced by homeless people.

If you’re as fed up as we are with the problems that this particularly vulnerable group of people faces, you can write to your MP. You can find out who your MP and their email address here. If you’d like to use our template letter, you can find it here and copy it into the email to your MP. It’s a really simple way of raising your voice and getting these crucial problems talked about. We need to work together if we want to tackle this problem and save lives.

Medical Reports: Lies and Misrepresentations

Having gone through the often extremely stressful experience of a DWP medical assessment, those claiming benefits then have to deal with the resulting report: a report that may bare no resemblance to what actually happened in the examination.

[TW: mentions addiction, eating disorders and mental health]

As a fairly new employee at Bench Outreach, I’d heard some horror stories about the lies told in medical assessment reports about vulnerable clients before. This happens when the assessor makes assumptions or miscommunicates a claimant’s medical problems, affecting their benefits claims. I had not seen it myself until very recently, and it was quite an unpleasant surprise.

Recently, a client I had accompanied to an ESA medical assessment received the resulting medical report in the post. I was totally shocked to read the contents. It did not properly represent their severe mental health problems or alcohol addiction at all.

As I mentioned in a previous post about medical assessments, some clients get extremely anxious and can not handle the environment of the assessment very well at all. The client I accompanied was shaking, sweating and could not understand simple questions as they would normally be able to.* The client needed prompting, reassuring and supporting during the assessment itself, which I was able to help with. They were wearing unclean clothes, including a stained t shirt, and looked very unwell due to lack of sleep and mental health.

The report said ‘coped well with assessment.’ It said ‘was well-dressed’. It said ‘behaved normally.’

These stock answers totally undermine the stress and strain of the assessment for the client, and misrepresent their severe mental health problems.

[Photo by Pixabay]

This was particularly striking because I had been in the room at the time of the assessment, taking notes right in front of the assessor. The idea that they could then write something that did not represent what actually happened, despite having a witness there, is particularly worrying for those who do not have anyone to go with them. For those without an advice worker to provide that support and to challenge the decision made, the system seems particularly harsh. It can even seem exploitative of the vulnerable position of those who do not have the understanding or stability to challenge a decision confidently.

Mental Health is still not being taken seriously.

There were several assumptions made based on the physical health of the client. This is far too common. For example, the report said the client ‘can brush their teeth daily.’ The client, while physically able, suffers severely from self-neglect as they do not have the willpower or mental well being to look after their self. They do not brush their teeth, and say they can barely wash due to depression.

The client also emphasised their suicidal feelings strongly in the assessment, but the report played this down, saying the client had ‘lack of intent’ as they had previously changed their mind about attempts to take their own life. This massively undermined the risk of suicide for this client, who regularly calls me to say they are feeling suicidal.

For this client and so many others, just getting through each day is a huge achievement. To juggle extra commitments like work-related activities, which have been assigned to this particular client following the assessment, can really push someone over the edge if their mental health is not stable.

Not only might they have work-related requirements to fulfil, but their money will be affected if they do not carry these out. Sanctions can be placed on those who do not fulfil requirements, which leads to them getting even less money from their benefits. The loss of income can in turn dangerously affect mental health, and the cycle continues.

The national conversation about mental health is definitely improving but we have such a long way to go. Judging by this and so many other medical reports, mental health still is not seen as a good enough reason to not be able to do basic tasks. It is still not seen as debilitating, despite obvious evidence that it can be.

We have seen similar cases surrounding eating disorders and substance or alcohol abuse. These illnesses are not seen as ‘bad enough’, as they are often invisible. There was a blatant lack of empathy from the assessor who saw my client surrounding his alcoholism. The monotone voice and tired expression was by no means encouraging, and I’m sure for many would have discouraged them from fully explaining their situation. For those with issues surrounding addiction, this is not a supportive environment and the feelings of guilt or embarrassment experienced by many with these problems could easily surface, inhibiting a decent assessment.

What can you do?

Things may seem impossibly difficult, but there are some things you can do to help. Never underestimate the power of individual actions!

  1. Write to your MP. The more we bring this problem up in parliament, the more likely we are to see change. You can find out who your MP is and their email address by clicking here, and if you need some help knowing what to say, you can copy and paste this template letter to email them, to raise your voice and encourage your MP to make a difference.
  2. Support local charities! (OK, so we’re biased, but hear me out!) Charities often don’t have the resources to accompany clients to their assessments. It’s always good to have an adviser or a volunteer to go with a client and hold the assessor accountable. Could you offer your time to go and help out? If you don’t have time but can donate money, that’s always hugely appreciated as well. Find out how to support Bench Outreach here.
  3. Share our posts and other news/articles you come across. Social media can actually be a good thing sometimes! So many people aren’t aware of these problems- I’ll confess that before I worked for Bench, neither was I. There are people suffering without a voice; use your online presence to amplify their voices. And your offline presence- start a conversation, get chatting!

Thanks for reading and supporting our work! Follow us on twitter (@benchoutreach) or like us on Facebook to stay up to date and get updates on further blog posts.

*This client gave permission to be mentioned anonymously.

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