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

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.

TUESDAY

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.

WEDNESDAY

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.

MORE INFO:

If you want to find out more about our services, head over to benchoutreach.com or email us at declan@benchoutreach.com. 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.

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