Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Welfare Reform Bill: What's wrong with time-limiting contributory ESA?

Another summarising primer on these issues for people who aren't necessarily aware of what's going on with UK disability benefits. If you know all about this already, click here for what we need to do about it today.

There are a few reasons why ESA has not become a national scandal, and one of those is that it sounds complicated. But it is vitally important, if you live in the UK it effects you and I am to try to keep this simple, so please bear with me.

Employment Support Allowance is replacing all the old incapacity benefits. It is awarded to people who are considered unable to work due to illness, injury or disability. There are various different levels of benefit, depending on one's level of impairment and National Insurance contributions.

The most serious issue about ESA in the Welfare Reform bill is that for most people on the benefit, there will be a time-limit of one year. These are people who
  • (a) are considered unable to work but not considered incapable of work-related activity (people in the "Work Group"). Most people on ESA fall into this category, and it includes people with all manner of severe, chronic and even life-threatening conditions.
  • (b) have paid enough National Insurance to be put on the "Contributory" rate. So all of these people have either worked and paid taxes for many years or else became disabled at a very young age. Most people who become incapacitated for work do so in middle-age, so most people on ESA, as with the old Incapacity Benefit, had worked for most of their lives up until that point. 
After a year, all a person's benefit will be means-tested. This means, if they have a working partner or any savings, then they will not have any income of their own. Those disabled people affected by this change were informed last April, before any parliamentary votes on the matter, that they would lose their benefit after one year. This is going to start effecting people's lives in three months time.

There are four very serious problems with this proposal

1. Hardship

Wealthier people, whose partners have well-paid jobs are unlikely to experience real hardship. Single people without savings will not become much poorer. However, the Disability Alliance calculates that on average, a person on this benefit will lose £50 per week. Many people will lose closer to £100.

A partner's income begins to effect benefits at £7500 a year - that's about a twenty-four hour working week at minimum wage. That's still a rather poor household, who cannot afford to lose a penny.

Benefits for people out of work due to ill health have always been higher than unemployment benefit because
  • (a) Disabled people have very limited opportunities to improve their situation, which is likely to be longer-term or lifelong - the government's own statistic is that 94% of the ESA "Work" group will not be in work by the end of their first year.
  • (b) Disabled life is more expensive. We have fewer opportunities to live frugally, such as turning down the thermostat, washing ourselves, our clothes and bed linen less often, cooking from scratch, selling the car etc.. Meanwhile, partner's of disabled people often can't afford to take on extra hours or a second job, even if they are not an official "carer". 
Often, people dismiss arguments about hardship on the grounds that poor people get “their rent paid” and all sorts of other goodies. First off, if you don't qualify for a means-tested benefit, you don't automatically qualify for Local Housing Allowance, Council Tax Benefit, Free Prescriptions and so on. Not all poor people rent - they may have a nearly-paid mortgage at the point the main breadwinner gets sick. And these days, social housing is extremely hard come by and Local Housing Allowance isn't stretching to cover many private rents, especially not accessible accommodation. When the cuts kick in, there will be a shortfall of £150 a month between the cheapest place I could physically live in my area and the amount of Local Housing Allowance I would be eligible for.

2. Hopelessness

Becoming incapacitated for work involves many losses and a loss of income, together with a more frugal lifestyle is inevitable. Nobody asks that those unable to work should be paid anything like what a person could earn in work.

However, some disabled people have savings or money they've inherited.  People affected by the time-limit will face the prospect of having to live off this money, which either they or someone else had worked hard for, resisting all the temptations they might have spent it on.

There has always been some irony in the disincentives to save money for people who might end up on means-tested benefits, but for disabled people, who crucially, have no other means of improving their situation, this seems particularly unfair. Especially, when the three most common scenarios for a disabled person with savings would be either
  • (a) They worked very hard for many years and lived very frugally until they became disabled or
  • (b) Because of their care needs, they were unable to move out their parents' home, so had low living expenses and chose not to squander their low incomes or
  • (c) Someone else, feeling that the disabled person's future looked bleak, gave or left them a lump sum towards their future security and independence.

3. Pressure on Sick People.

There's no condition in the world, physical, sensory, mental or intellectual, which might benefit from a ticking clock. In fact, I believe the presence of a time limit could be deadly dangerous in two ways:
  • (a) An increased risk of suicide. When my physical health has been so bad that I have felt like giving up, I have often found deadlines useful. I have thought, “If it is still like this next month, I will kill myself and it'll all be over and done with.” I have experienced depression at times, but usually such deals have been made on the grounds of being thoroughly fed up. Friends with chronic mental illness have talked about doing the same thing in order to put off that terminal decision, whilst leaving the option open for later. However, I also know people who set a date and then proceeded to make a serious attempt on their lives. And this is when the deadline merely signified, “It's gone on too long now.” rather than, “It's gone on too long and I am about to lose all my income."
Last January, Aliquant wrote this post about how, feeling cornered by the benefits system, suicide seemed quite rational. It's a powerful post because Ali was so articulate; she simply couldn't cope with the risk of more homelessness, further hardship or having to jump through any more hoops. Soon after, 5 Quid for Life was set up, a charity to help people like Ali survive when things go wrong. Since then, the benefits situation has been implicated in at least ten suicides.
  • (b) A disincentive to self-management. Looking after your health, when your health is poor, is jolly hard work. Taking unpleasant medication, getting the right amount of exercise, preparing and eating the right food, resting and sleeping when you need to, visiting the appropriate healthcare workers, getting new complications and injuries treated and resisting naughty behaviours that will set you back, can feel like a full-time occupation. If you know that after a year, you're going to lose all income, unless your health significantly deteriorates, then you've got another major disincentive to look after yourself. I don't believe for a minute that anyone would choose to make themselves more ill, to suffer more and to deal with more health-related rigarmorale, even to shorten one's life expectancy. But a system is being created where being a good patient, hard as that is, could actually cost you money. 
I actually find it very distressing when people with far more energy than me fail to look after their health, although looking after is subjective and it is absolutely none of my business anyway. It's probably natural to worry about things that have happened to me happening to other people. However, as some disabled people involved in anti-cuts activism work themselves into the ground and expend twice as much energy in a week than I have in any given year, I am able to reassure myself that, as long as they stay alive, they'll probably wind up too sick to be effected by the time-limit. This situation is all kinds of wrong. There shouldn't be any advantage to getting sicker.

4. Damage Caused to Relationships

Money can't buy you love and poverty doesn't destroy it, but relationships can become a lot tougher when when one partner has literally no income and crucially, no means of bringing in money if they want to. I see three effects of this:
  • (a) The time-limit interferes with the future relationships of single disabled people. Lisa has written about how the combination of poverty and disability dramatically reduces one's romantic chances, and the prospect of complete financial dependence will make this worse. Means-tested benefits force claimants to either restrict themselves to very casual and discreet relationships or else to place themselves in complete financial dependence on a partner the moment they begin living together – a moment which is rarely well-defined. 
  • (b) The time-limit threatens to undermine existing relationships. Sue has described her fears of becoming a burden on her husband. As Shana Pezaro described, desertion is not an uncommon experience in the face of chronic illness, especially among heterosexual women, and the prospect of total financial dependence will only add to this problem. Some families, especially those with children, may even find that they would be financially better off if they occupied two different households. 
  • (c) The time-limit makes disabled men and women, who are already more likely to experience domestic abuse, even more vulnerable. Disabled people are already twice as likely to experience domestic violence. If you have no income at all, then it becomes easy for an abusive partner to completely deny you access to money, to complain about or restrict your expenditure, whether on food or phone calls, bus fare or medicines. It becomes easy for an abuser to tell you what a burden you are, and how you owe them or deserve to be mistreated, when you are both financially and practically dependent on them.   
Unemployed single parents of small children have long had this problematic status, where benefit rules prevent them from having romantic relationships which progress out in the open and at their own natural pace and where the prospect of complete financial dependence can make a person feel as if they are less valuable. This is one of the major reasons that make such families particularly vulnerable to dysfunctional and abusive relationships.

The government's motives for this are deeply cynical.

Years back, when ESA was first discussed by the then Labour Government, the disability blogosphere and messageboards were awash with anxiety about sick people being pressured into work that they just couldn't get. I wrote a post on BBC Ouch! explaining that logically, we had nothing to fear. If Employment Support Allowance was to have a "Work Group", the government simply had to get these people into work. If vast numbers of us were placed in this Work Group, who didn't have a hope of getting a job, we would become bad statistics.

The Conservative Government came up with a way round this, which is to make these people disappear. Anyone on this band of ESA with savings or a working partner will simply disappear after twelve months.  They will not add to the unemployment statistics because they have been declared unfit for work. They will not be claiming any benefit at all.

Here is the link I gave you at the top: This is what we need to do now.

(A draft version of this may have appeared in your feed-reader last night - sorry about that! I was so confident that I couldn't accidentally publish my drafted post in the new style Blogger (as I often did in the old one), but hey, I found a way.)


Mary said...

I know I've said this before but it bears repeating today.

The Great British Taxpayer saved money when I moved in with my (working full time) partner. No more housing benefit, reduced care costs, no more entitlements like prescriptions or dentistry or eye tests. The incapacity benefit I continued to receive was a tiny fraction of what my survival had previously cost the government - but continuing to receive my own money for my own personal costs meant I could leave the house without having to ask for his permission/cash, like an equal adult rather than like a dependent child. I could keep my dignity and sense of independence, which allowed our relationship to flourish, which means the government keeps the savings.
Everyone wins.

Peter said...

We have found here in New Zealand where one often wonders if we are used as a "test bed" for materialistic stupidity.

People have become completely unimportant, once those employed to manage us have a claim number they can do anything they like without sanction or right or proper reply.
They can rewrite historys Identities and create even entire parallel claims using a "Name"

One can always appeal any decision made of course, and Must go through a one sided appeal process before any recourse to legal help or the courts is allowed.

Staff paid on a meeting "Key Performance Indicators basis are seemingly encouraged to commit Fraud or use any means at their disposal to meet those "indicators" of their performance.
Previously it seemed there was an intention to collect every scrap of information possible and use it against clients to disenfranchise people.

Looking at recent claims
it now seems those same staff (Who have in the past used "pp" names such as "Mary Wilson" to avoid their names being on documents now use a complete lack of communication and claims are simply filed and forgotten or said to be being investigated, which can take two or three months because staff do not believe the claim to be Legitimate the claim seemingly is then again file and forgotten leaving another "Human Being" disadvantaged, which apparently is illegal under the legislation waiting and relying on already stretched families to support them meanwhile compulsory levies on almost every transaction made in the country are "Invested" to fund future claims.

Entitlements, interactions right of reply, all fallacies and seemingly pointless spin intended to pacify the majority who will never experience disability and are taught to despise anybody who dares to claim such.
Even to it seems staff of many organizations, including possibly Hospitals being trained to clinically consider that disabled people have little or no Quality of Life and it would be far happier for them and save the Government vast amounts if disabled people were all Euthenased

Peter said...

Perhaps interestingly however is that prior to the recent General Election the sitting Government used a tirade, almost a pogrom against Unemployed, Solo Mums (Seemingly Most of whom nowadays are 14 or 15 years of Age) and ergo anybody Disabled in the lead up to the election to try and gain favour and Votes.

Seems there as a huge underground swell of abhorrence and discontent with this and suddenly the tirades silenced.
the Minister, Paula Bennet lost votes and lost her seat, which brought great delight to many and then unfortunately regained it by only a minimal majority on recount.
One hopes the Government has had a severe slap on the face for its actions and learns that Human being will not tolerate such stupidity and crass discrimination from any Political identities