Two headlines on the BBC website yesterday.
‘Up to 30,000 passport applications have been hit by delays, Prime Minister David Cameron has said.’
‘Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by a benefits backlog, the government has said.’
The two stories continue:
‘[Cameron] said hundreds of extra staff have been drafted in and new offices are being opened in Liverpool next week to help tackle the [passport] backlog.’
‘More than 700,000 people are waiting for assessments for employment and support allowance (ESA), [the government] said.’
Today, the passport story continues to run in the media – albeit dwarfed by football and the tragedy of Iraq – while ESA fades again.
It is a stale story. On 8 February 2012, the BBC website reported that ‘At least 35,000 people applying for sickness benefit are waiting longer than 13 weeks, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has admitted.’ On 28 April 2010, the Benefits & Work website used DWP statistics covering the period to August 2009 to report that ‘more than one in ten people who made a claim for ESA last August are still waiting for a decision, five months after their three month assessment phase should have ended.’
Yesterday’s quick headlining of extra staff for the Passport Office suggests that disruption to people’s holidays, family weddings and business trips could never have run, little noticed, for at least 5 years.
I have been working with people whose disabilities force them to claim ESA ever since that benefit started to replace Incapacity Benefit in 2008. I was an early ESA supporter, welcoming its promised support for disabled people to return to the workplace and social inclusion. If only that was how it had worked out.
ESA was an early victim of the 2008 crash and subsequent cuts. Any ‘support’ it provides is in homeopathic doses. Rather than supporting people with serious disabilities, it terrorises them. I do not exaggerate. Imagine what it is like for people with invisible disabilities – chronic pain, crippling social phobia or obsessive compulsive behaviours – to know that their income is never safe; that they face a never-ending round of reassessment, always with the strong possibility of being found ‘fit for work’ and so required to take part in wholly impossible job-search activities. The penalty of failure in those activities being destitution.
Delays in assessment do not mean that people have no income at all. That problem faces them when they need to ask JobCentre Plus to reconsider a decision to find them fit for work – money now stops immediately with that decision. Someone asking for reconsideration can only get a basic income by claiming Job Seekers Allowance, even though the reconsideration is based on their inability to work. Even by DWP standards, it is a byzantine logic – though it has the ‘merit’ of dissuading people from asking for a reconsideration of a faulty decision and then from appealing it.
Delays in assessment mean two things. In human terms, months of uncertainty, not knowing what their income or way of life will be. One of the two ESA levels of payment, or JSA (paid at a lower rate)? No work-related requirements, the modified ‘work-related activity’ of ESA’s lower level, or the stringent requirements of JSA? And, meanwhile, the assessment looms before them at some uncertain point.
The depth of dread with which many people with mental health conditions anticipate these assessments is hard to exaggerate. Some put the blame for that fear on campaigners, said to exaggerate the poor practice of assessors employed and trained by Atos, the French IT company responsible for these capability assessments. But people aren’t on the whole stupid. I know plenty of people whose mental illness in no way impairs their intelligence and ability to assess for themselves the treatment they have received over the past six years. It is not entirely Atos’ fault: such a firm is unlikely to have – or be interested in developing – a sophisticated awareness of mental illness, but the questions they ask, the ‘objective’ approach they take and the final decisions made on the basis of their assessments are all the responsibility of DWP.
In financial terms, delays mean significant reductions in the weekly income which the law says people with disabilities need. For a single over-25 year-old, ESA pays £101.15 or £108.15, depending on the degree of disability recognised. In the assessment phase, it pays £72.40. That is a big proportionate difference. People moving from work or Statutory Sick Pay (£87.55pw) have difficult adjustments to make precisely when they are, by reason of the disability, least able to make it. Housing benefit or support for mortgage interest can help with at least a proportion of rent or mortgage interest payments meanwhile, but that entitlement too is lowered during the assessment-rate period, particularly (ironically) for those struggling to do a little paid work despite their disability.
We are not talking here of luxuries, nor of skivers. All too many people I meet in my work at Citizens Advice and in our local mental health trust are destructively self-judgmental about their incapacities. They do not want a life on benefits. But until employment support for disabled people is more widespread and effective than we’ve yet achieved, they face one.
ESA is set at the rate that a cost-cutting government believes to be necessary for survival. Living on £72.40 per week, when help is also available for rent and council tax, may not sound impossible for a while. Try living on it for months and years, and see how the shoe pinches. Poverty is cumulative, as bills creep in for replacing the fridge or the cooker, and the consequences of any ill-judged extravagance (a small holiday? clothes for a family wedding?) bite.
Non-trivial though the impact of passport delays may be, it is too revealing of our priorities – or indifferences – as a society that the ESA delay story should run so long yet sink so fast from public attention. That it should run so long and have no extra resources allocated. People with disabilities do not choose their situation. Their entitlements are not optional extras. They merit our attention.
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