Deborah Padfield, a citizen’s advice bureau adviser, returns to report from the poverty line – a part of Britain that is outside David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. In the first of a series of five posts, she describes the benefits regime under which state beneficiaries lead their lives.
The Big Society claims to expunge Thatcher’s nostrum, ‘There is no such thing as society. It may seem perverse to complain of a loss of mutual responsibility under the coalition government, yet that is a feature of Lib-Con cuts and reforms, particularly in welfare benefits and housing. In the spate of measures and rhetoric directed at the responsibilities of welfare recipients, there is little room for wider society’s responsibilities either directly to those caught in poverty or for providing the most basic infrastructure for aspiration. Worse, there is no recognition of the level of responsibility actually observed by members of the ‘dependent poor’.
The ‘Big Society’ is exclusive. There is a deep gulf between its responsibilities and those of people on low or no pay, dependent on benefits.
Since the 1980s, welfare benefit eligibility has become more strongly conditional. Entitlements have given way to means tests and ever stricter rules of conduct. Hand-outs without reciprocity do no favours to the recipients, demeaning and potentially undermining them as responsible adults. But a rationale and practice of judgmental, punitive conditionality is no less distorted and distorting. It sets the recipients apart, discounting their experience of social relationships and responsibility.
Living under a benefits regime
Let me set out some basic requirements, as I understand them as a benefits adviser working with people with mental disorders. Incapacity Benefit has been abolished for all new claimants and all existing beneficiaries are being shifted onto its replacement, Employment & Support Allowance, or Job Seekers Allowance. ). Carers and low-income parents continue to rely on Carer’s Allowance and/or Income Support (IS)..
Means tests now apply to the three benefits with links to housing and If officials at Job Centre become aware of, or rightly or wrongly suspect an anomaly on a claim, a beneficiary’s housing and council tax benefits stop immediately and without warning. Quite significant rent arrears can mount up before an inexperienced, confused, sick or irresponsible claimant becomes aware.
Stoppages of means-tested benefits are frequent because there are inevitably glitches in the hugely complex Job Centre Plus operation. Most are temporary and many are relatively easily put right so the money flows again. But beneficiaries live with the constant fear that their fortnightly income (and rent money) might not appear on the day when it’s expected and needed. This has further knock-on effects for direct debit payments and hence for bank charges. Where there are no savings, the line between solvency and rapidly mounting disaster is very fine.
Under the Work Programme, Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) is paid subject to who fail to some or all of their benefit. Only reluctantly did the government backtrack from its proposal to reduce the housing benefit paid to anyone failing to get a job after a year on JSA.
Employment & Support Allowance (ESA) is conditional initially on GPs’ medical certificates,then on frequent review by self-assessment questionnaires and an independent medical examination, both then being evaluated by Job Centre Plus officials. Most claimants must also follow the Work Programme. The ‘descriptors’ – eligibility criteria for ESA – have just been revised, becoming significantly tighter. Atos Healthcare, which runs the medical assessments, makes the process even more stringent. Its reports notoriously result in refusals of benefit that are reversed on appeal. The tribunal service, like JSA beneficiaries, is under great strain – people I work with no sooner win on appeal than they are faced with another questionnaire and medical assessment, as the whole circle starts again.
It’s up to job centre officials to decide whether further review should start six, 12 or 18 months after the last one. They will stop benefits if the beneficiaries fail to keep to the conditions – such as returning the ESA50 self-assessment questionnaire on time or attending medical examinations and work programme activities – often very difficult for these beneficiaries. Again, housing benefits also stop. Beneficiaries must give ‘good reasons’ for their failure to qualify again.
Parents on low incomes can claim Income Support (IS) until their youngest child is seven - reduced to five next year when parents will have to take part in ‘work-related activity’ where their youngest child is aged between three and five. There is no sign of child care being provided and there is none for people on JSA. (Child-care costs are currently met only for families on working tax credits, who work for at least 16 or, for couples, 24 hours a week.)The inevitable sanctions for failure to keep the work-related activity conditions will obviously cause hardship to families, even with child tax credits and child benefit being paid separately.
Anyone claiming any of these benefits as a single person is liable at any time to have their single status investigated, and often most intrusively. As two single claims add up to more than one joint claim, there is an obvious incentive for fraud and single status is therefore stringently policed. It is assessed by criteria including financial, sleeping and cooking arrangements and friends’ perceptions of the claimant’s relationships: a necessarily intrusive set of questions for what are often ambiguous living arrangements. Living separately for example may or may not be a decisive sign of single status.
In my experience working with people who because of disability claim ESA or IS, these investigations have become more frequent and intimidating. They are often triggered by neighbour reports and involve informal carer/cared-for arrangements between friends.