A Bench Outreach advice worker talks about the slippery slope of benefits problems and how one DWP judgementcan 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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*This client gave permission to be mentioned anonymously.