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The human beings that UK government ‘forgot’

As David Cameron’s panicked government puts on a compassionate face, we meet people harmed by punitive policies.

IMAGE: PATRICK KODUAH

Today we publish the story of Emma, who suffered a mini-stroke after being harassed by the UK’s Department for Work & Pensions. Her mother Penny complained to all the right people but there was no clear line of accountability, no identifiable person to take responsibility for easing the stress of Emma’s move to the Personal Independence Payment, a long-term disability benefit.

So, when on Friday the work & pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith resigned, saying that disability benefit cuts were indefensible within a Budget that rewards higher rate taxpayers, there was a brief moment of relief for Penny.

After a weekend’s turmoil in the Conservative party leadership and rising public awareness that budget cuts would take £3,500 a year from 370,000 disabled people, Duncan Smith’s replacement Stephen Crabb announced a U-Turn. “Behind every statistic is a human being and perhaps sometimes in government we forget that,” Crabb told MPs.

Benefits claimants, essentially people like you or me who may have fallen on hard times or have been struck with illness, have for years been treated with mistrust. To receive a small sum each fortnight, which barely covers living costs, they must meet unbending conditions.

Under Duncan Smith the system became even more punitive, so that when a person couldn’t meet arbitrary conditions because they were too ill or happened to be raising children as well, they would be punished.

This meant that their money was taken away, reducing them to poverty and putting some at risk of homelessness.

In 2013 we wrote about Jen, a single mum and former graphic designer who lost her job and couldn’t pay her mortgage. Going to the jobcentre was hell for Jen, she was mocked because of her bipolar disorder and made to feel “less than human”. 

One interview was so stressful that she had a psychotic episode at the jobcentre and was hospitalised. Jen was put on the Work Programme, one of Duncan Smith’s first welfare initiatives designed for people who have been unemployed for more than one year, to “support” them back into work.

Jen experienced it as a punishment. “I felt like I’d been picked on … bullied. I knew I was trying hard to find a job. So it just felt completely unfair and unjustified. This person had decided that I was a slacker. It makes you feel like you have got no options. It makes you feel like a cornered animal.”

Under Duncan Smith’s tenure single parents, 92% of whom are women, have lost the most; they’re more likely to face sanctions, which is where a claimant’s benefits are stopped for a week or more as a form of punishment for not meeting certain conditions set out by the jobcentre.

Women make up the biggest group hit by changes to housing benefit and they struggle to meet the shortfall created by the under-occupancy fee – widely known as the bedroom tax – another of Duncan Smith’s policies, introduced in 2013 for working age claimants living in social housing deemed too large for their needs.

Last year we wrote about Gemma, a depressed mother who couldn’t afford the under-occupancy fee imposed upon her after three of her four children were taken from her. Gemma fell behind in payments, accrued a debt of nearly £2,000, and was facing eviction.

Social housing evictions continue to rise, mostly as a result of rent arrears. Lydia Nash, Gemma’s solicitor, told us that sanctions and the bedroom tax were the major reasons for her clients getting into arrears.

Angela, a single parent who contacted us after we wrote about Jen, said Duncan Smith’s policies – a punitive back to work programme and sanctions – made it harder to escape poverty. She added: “Once you become poor, once you become their problem, then you stop being yourself. You stop having the right to determine your own future.”

Sialou is another single mother we interviewed caught up in Duncan Smith’s regime, but facing double the problems because of her migration status. In his resignation letter Duncan Smith talks of his commitment to improving the “life chances of the most disadvantaged people in this country”.

Sialou was studying for GCSEs in maths and English to improve her life chances, but the jobcentre told her to quit so she’d have more time to look for work. “I cried. I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I hated the system. I never saw what they were doing for me. Every time I went to the jobcentre, it was always threats. No help to move up. I think the jobcentre people are not really thinking for themselves. Or they want to help you, but they can’t because of the rules.”

Our first look at the impact of Duncan Smith’s policy on women’s lives was written three years ago. We still receive comments from people struggling to cope. The people he says he wants to help. Here are some of the comments from our readers:

Single parent’ says: The most frustrating thing about the job centre is that they are not there to help you they are there to make sure you have ticked all the right boxes and jumped through the right hoops to get your money that week. If there was a more positive approach, if they assessed each single parent based on their circumstances then they might have more success reducing the number of lone parents out of work.

‘SM2b’ says: I am a single parent of a 4 year old and have been bullied and threatened with losing my benefit every single time I have attended the Job centre.

‘Gaz TI’ says: Single dad to a 7 year old just facing my first jc sanction for being unable to attend one of 3 per week hour long sessions sitting on a computer searching for work in the job centre itself, (despite having home Internet) 4 weeks without funds due to my daughter having a tummy bug.

‘mum1’ says: I have just been sanctioned for 4 weeks. Long story but when I first signed up, I made it clear that childcare was a massive problem in my area, it states in my claimant agreement that I have childcare issues too. We agreed that it would be ok for me to look for term time only positions … But she’s [new jobcentre advisor] sanctioned me for not applying for work. I have not applied for things because they are not term time. I feel I'm being penalised for having children and the stress I’ve been under the last few weeks has left me crying and just shaking all the time!

Last week the Women’s Budget Group revealed that the poorest households, in particular lone parents and single female pensioners, will lose even more of their incomes once universal credit, Duncan Smith’s flagship policy which would amalgamate the main working age benefits into one payment, is finally rolled out by 2020.

The brutality of the fitness to work assessments carried out as part of the former work & pensions minister’s reform of disability benefits is well documented. The Centre for Welfare Reform discovered that disabled people bear the burden of 29% of all welfare and local authority spending cuts, according to a report they published in 2013. Their research showed that people with the severest disabilities will pay 19 times more than the rest of the population for the cuts.

Under Duncan Smith the brown envelope landing on the doormat from his department is a source of terror for claimants across the country. Most will have stacks of these letters: quiet threats to remove all support, numbers that don’t match the rent or heating bills, and bureaucratic errors with devastating consequences (it is common, for example, for housing benefit mistakes to create rent arrears leading to eviction).

Sometimes it becomes too much. There was no one to help Libia Montaya, 57, understand all these letters. And no one took responsibility when her employer cut her hours and she fell behind in her rent and had no money for food. We wrote about her eviction in 2014, after which she tried to swallow bleach. “I couldn’t think about where to go or what to do. Committing suicide was the only way to leave behind all of these problems.”

In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123.


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