Benny On Benefits

A first-hand look at the benefits system in the UK

Advice to new benefits claimants

If you’ve never had any experience with the benefits system before, you may have certain misconceptions about it. If you’re from a leftist middle-class background, you might think it is a safety net, there to offer care and assistance to those citizens who find themselves in difficult circumstances. If you came from a more right-wing middle-class background, you might think it is a free handout to skivers, who barely have to extend their unwashed mitts to have them filled with taxpayers money and the keys to a council flat. If you come from a working-class background, even if you have been in work your entire adult life you probably already know more than you would wish to about the system. (If you are from an upper-class background, jolly well done you for figuring out how to use one of these newfangled computer systems – remember not to tell your butler to iron it like your copy of The Times, laptops are less hard-wearing than newsprint or tweed.)

The truth is, the benefits system is a war. Or at least, it is a theatre in the ongoing conflict, between the Haves and the Have-Nots. Put out of your mind the idea that the people who work in your local “Job Centre Plus” are there to help you: instead you must see them as the enemy soldiers they are. They aren’t bad people, and if you met them in another context you’d probably get on quite well. But fate has put you on opposite sides of a conflict, and your survival depends on their defeat.

The fact is, the benefits system is not benevolent at all, it is decidedly adversarial. As soon as you put in a claim, you are assumed to be guilty of benefit fraud until you provide sufficient proof to the contrary. It is vital you realise that your goal is to be awarded benefits, and the goal of the “advisers” is to deny you those benefits. They represent a government system with limited resources, and they must preserve those scare resources as best they can. They, and the bureaucratic system they are part of, will be seeking to trip you up, to find reasons why you do not qualify to receive their assistance.

I don’t wish to demonise these people behind their desks. They are ordinary workers too, many of them recruited (or perhaps press-ganged) out of the ranks of jobseekers. They may not be unsympathetic – I have even encountered some who willingly gave aid and comfort to the enemy, risking their own position by whispering state secrets to me so that I could avoid the mines laid by their own side – but they are trapped within the same system you are. Even if they wish to help you, they can only do so within the strict rules laid out for their conduct. If you don’t have your papers in order, if you don’t fit the narrow criteria of neediness, if you have foolishly told too much of the truth in your written evidence, then they are simply powerless to assist you. Any powers of discretion they may once have had have been abolished, or given to private companies who can exercise them more impartially, due to being motivated solely by profit, rather than unreliable human notions like “empathy.”

This is the most important thing I can tell you if you are forced to rely on the state for aid. No matter how deserving your case, how upstanding and law-abiding you have been until this day: do not make the mistake of thinking the State is on your side. You cannot simply tell the truth and ask for help. You will be forced to lie outright and by omission, because honesty carries the risk of being labelled a fraud. You cannot expect to be offered the aid which is yours by right, you must demand it, and you must know your own rights, since you have no advocate but yourself.

In later articles, I hope to explain and clarify my position by chronicling events in my own fight with various government agencies and employees. I’ll tell you about how only people with a home are eligible for homelessness assistance, how private companies make medical decisions while the opinions of doctors are disregarded, how being a jobseeker makes it harder to find work, how the safety-net is being shredded and charities being forced to catch those who fall through it, and more from the topsy-turvy world of social security.

— Benny

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2015: DWP staff say targets for sanctions STILL EXIST

Doesn’t look like anything has changed, JobCentre advisors are still under pressure to meet sanction targets which the government denies the existence of.

Stop MP lies & corruption

2015: DWP staff say targets for sanctions STILL EXIST (subtitled video)

DWP staff say sanction targets still exist. Ian Wright was a DWP work coach. Alan Davies was a DWP personal adviser. Both men had key roles in the sanctions process. Both men say they were disciplined for not referring enough people for sanctions.

Mark Serwotka who is the General Secretary for the Public and Commercial Services Union also states there is a target for sanctions referrals and the Government denies it.

He states one of those is 80% of all referrals must result in a sanction. Individuals have to compete against other individuals. Offices have to compete against other offices.  Which side is more credible – the staff expected to implement these targets or the Ministers who live in a world of their own?

2015 DWP staff say targets for sanctions STILL EXIST 2015 DWP staff say targets for sanctions STILL EXIST

This is what a Personal Improvement…

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Housing

Probably the most important form of assistance the state offers to those in need is the provision of housing. Even in a market where rents are not inflated far above any sensible norm (like the one in Britain today), rent is likely to be the largest part of one’s cost of living. However, it can also be the most expensive social benefit to provide, for the same reason. Social housing in the UK is a mess, a cluster of absurdities, inefficiencies and Catch-22s, but I’m going to try and make sense of it for you anyway.

Lets start with council housing. Once upon a time, every district council had numerous residential properties, wholly owned by the local government, which  poorer members of the community could rent at an affordable rate, and without fear of summary eviction. Nowadays, most of those properties have been sold-off, either to the tenants themselves (at well below market rate, and with the council forbidden to reinvest the money in new council housing) or to for-profit developers, and not replaced. In most areas, the shortest waiting time for a one-bedroom council flat is several years. Although lots of new homes are being built, almost none of them are social or affordable housing. While laws do exist requiring developers to make a portion of each new development affordable, they are as full of loopholes as a Swiss cheese, so the requirements are routinely ignored.

Thanks to this shortage, there are a number of tricks employed by councils to keep people from even getting on the waiting list at all. The main one is the “local connection.” In theory, this exists to prevent people (‘cos we are all such wicked scroungers) from applying for a cheap council house in an expensive area, and thus escaping their own poverty-stricken ghetto. But in practice, it is just used as one more way to protect council budgets. For instance, did you know that if you are actually homeless, you cannot apply for a council flat? To apply for council housing, you must have an address within the local area. The only people allowed to apply for a home are those who already have one. If you are actually homeless, you have to go through a whole other procedure, which I’ll come to shortly.

Each council can make up its own definition for “local connection”, and it’s entirely possible to have no local connection anywhere.  If you’ve moved between a few nearby boroughs (say, in a major city where there are many local councils), but not spent more than a year or two in any single one, you are probably held to have no connection to any of them: a common definition of “local connection” is for you to have lived in the area continuously for the last three years.

So, council housing is probably out: even if you do qualify for the list, you’ll need to wait years. What about a private landlord? The state will give you housing benefit to cover your rent, won’t it? Well, yes-and-no. Firstly, no private landlord will accept you as a tenant if you receive housing benefit – you can only use it if you already have a tenancy, and you can’t actually apply for housing benefit unless you already have a tenancy agreement or “proof of obligation to pay rent.” Besides, housing benefit doesn’t cover your deposit or advance rent, and if you could afford those, you probably wouldn’t need housing benefit anyway. Secondly, housing benefit doesn’t actually cover market rent. Each area sets a maximum amount of housing benefit (“Local Housing Allowance”) which is supposedly equal to the average market rent, but is usually actually significantly lower. And if you should happen to be a single adult under the age of 35, they base the cap not on a one-bedroom flat, but on a room in a shared residence.* And don’t forget all the other byzantine regulations like the bedroom tax and benefits cap.

In any event, to qualify for housing benefit at all, you usually first have to be in receipt of some central government benefit, which as I have discussed previously, is no mean achievement. If you should lose your DWP benefits (your jobseekers allowance, for instance) which it is very easy to do, the local council will be informed, and they will assume (since you are still alive) that you must have something to live off, and therefore don’t need housing benefit anymore. You must immediately provide some proof of this income, and demonstrate that it is still not high enough for you to pay your rent. If you have no income, you are pretty screwed, since you can’t provide evidence of something that doesn’t exist (so as I’ve said before, if you go to a food bank, you need to get some documentary evidence of this fact – maybe a selfie of you holding a can of beans in a church.)

So, you can’t get a council flat, you can get a private flat,  you are basically out on the streets, or in imminent danger of being out on the streets. What do you do? You make a “homelessness application” to your local council, who will do everything they can to deny it. Your first problem is that you must provide “proof of homelessness.” In practice, this needs to be a court-ordered eviction notice or bailiff’s warrant. A mere Notice To Quit from your landlord is insufficient – if you received one of these, and were foolish enough to actually vacate the property as requested, you will be classed as “voluntarily homeless” and as such not eligible for assistance. No, if your landlord wants you out, you must dig in your heels and stay until they turn up to serve you with an actual court order, which you absolutely must not lose (say, when the bailiffs are dumping your possessions on the street.) Oh, and don’t bother going to your council for assistance before things have to to that stage – they will most likely dismiss you and tell you to come back when you’ve had a visit from the bailiffs. If you do find yourself homeless and without documentary evidence of this fact, the quickest way to get assistance is to sleep rough and get noticed by a council social worker. If you can find what route they take with their clipboards of a night, and arrange to be there in a sleeping bag, for at least two nights running, you’ve a good chance of getting into emergency housing. On the other hand, if you aren’t actually street homeless, but just sleeping on a different person’s floor every night, you are likely to be a lower priority, and will likely be told to keep doing that as long as you can.

I haven’t mentioned the most pernicious aspect of making an application for homelessness assistance. You are only eligible for such assistance if you are more likely to be adversely affected by being homeless than an “ordinary homeless person.” This test (called the Pereira Test) is, as you might imagine, not terribly well-defined, and is a great way for councils to reduce demand on their housing services. If you are just going to be made the normal amount of ill, cold, and miserable by living on the streets, you won’t get any help. If you don’t have (or can’t prove you have) some medical or other condition that makes you especially vulnerable (“in priority need”), then your council can refuse to assist you. That’s assuming they aren’t one (like the London Borough of Westminster) which uses laws against vagrancy to just sweep all the rough sleepers into a neighboring poorer parish.


If you are homeless, or threatened with homelessness, I urge you to contact Shelter (England & Wales) or Shelter (Scotland) who can offer you free and impartial advice (freephone 0808 800 4444)


 

 

* There is a useful loophole which allows you to get more than the “Local Housing Allowance” – if you can manage to get a flat from a Registered Social Landlord such as a housing association or resident’s co-operative, then it doesn’t apply, and they’ll pay your whole rent. Of course, the waiting lists for those properties are just as long as for a council flat.

Compulsory Treatment

Back in July, the Conservatives mooted a plan to strip the mentally ill  of their ESA benefits if they refuse to undergo treatment. More recently, they’ve talked about doing the same to those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and the clinically obese. I’m going to talk mainly about why the former proposal is a terrible idea, but much of the same applies to the latter.

I should start by pointing out that these aren’t yet official policies, and so details on how they might be implemented are sketchy, assuming they even do get implemented. That means I’ll have to second-guess the government, and to a certain extent I’ll be railing against a possible worst-case-scenario which might or might not bear any relation to reality. However, I believe that even by the most favorable interpretation, these proposals are just another attack on David Cameron’s arch-enemies, the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

The right of a patient to refuse treatment is a fundamental feature of medical ethics. Any doctor or nurse knows that it is wrong for them to attempt to treat a patient without their informed consent (except in certain emergency situations) and it is definitely wrong to treat them after they have made an informed decision not to consent. It should clearly follow that it is unethical for the government to coerce someone into treatment they would not otherwise choose to undergo. The proposals as stated, that claimants could lose their entitlement to benefits if they do not consent to treatment, are prima facie unethical.

But why would someone not want to be treated, unless they were a malingerer? Surely these people must want to get better? Well, that rather depends on  the nature of the patient, their illness, and the proposed treatment. Lots of patients have serious objections to particular treatments: sometimes because of well-founded doubts about safety or efficacy (for instance, recent meta-analysis of SSRIs have shown they may well be ineffective treatment for depression), sometimes because of a general distrust of certain medical practices, and sometimes from sheer clinical paranoia or medical phobia. Are these patients to be denied their right to refuse certain medical interventions? Will they be allowed second opinions or alternative treatment options?

There are a great many possible treatments for disorders like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Some involve medication, some therapy, some lifestyle changes – usually a combination of all of these. What works for one patient may not work for another. Usually, there is a long and difficult process of trial-and-error before there is any improvement, and this can be frustrating for the patient: many find it too difficult and cease to engage with treatment. This isn’t helped by the fact that therapy is expensive and mental health provision on the NHS is woefully lacking, with long waiting lists to see a therapist, and relatively little patient choice. I’ve heard it said (by a therapist) that there are as many types of therapy as there are therapists. While some of them are frankly bunk, a lot of this profusion is down to the fact that different approaches work better for different patients and different illnesses. Furthermore, successful therapy often depends on building a rapport between therapist and patient, and sometimes this just isn’t possible – the patient needs to see several different people before finding someone they can have a productive therapeutic relationship with.

Bearing all this in mind, what happens if a patient doesn’t like the first treatment option they are given? What if an atheist alcoholic objects to the religiously based and scientifically unsound (but free to the taxpayer) approach of Alcoholics Anonymous? What if an anxiety sufferer turns down a prescription for Xanax? What if someone with depression doesn’t get along with their therapist, or thinks Freudian psychoanalytic psychotherapy isn’t doing them any good? What if they miss a couple of appointments because they are too depressed to attend, and thus lose their place to the next person on the waiting list? What if someone sincerely believes that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, homeopathy is a better treatment for their bipolar disorder than lithium carbonate, or a paranoid schizophrenic believes that they are the victim of a medical conspiracy? As I stated earlier, I can only speculate on what will happen in these circumstances. However, given what I already know about the DWPs tendency to use any possible excuse to deny or cut-off benefits payments, I’d bet heavily on the answer to all of the above being “they lose their ESA benefit.” Because at the root, these proposals are not about helping people in need, they are about saving money, and shifting the blame for our economic woes from the haves to the have-nots, just like all of this government’s welfare policies.

JobCentre Insider: ‘Stitching Up Claimants Is All Part Of Job’

Same Difference

Last week Iain Duncan Smith met a whistle-blower who has worked for his Department for Work and Pensions for more than 20 years.

Giving the Secretary of State a dossier of evidence, the former Jobcentre Plus adviser told him of a “brutal and bullying” culture of “setting claimants up to fail”.

“The pressure to sanction customers was constant,” he said. “It led to people being stitched-up on a daily basis.”

The man wishes to be anonymous but gave his details to IDS, DWP minister Esther McVey and Neil Couling, Head of Jobcentre Plus, who also attended the meeting.

“We were constantly told ‘agitate the customer’ and that ‘any engagement with the customer is an opportunity to ­sanction’,” he told them.

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, the member of the DWP Select Committee who set up the meeting, has renewed her call for an inquiry into inappropriate sanctioning.

“I am deeply concerned…

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Jobcentre Whistleblower confirms that they are out to get us

I’ve not bothered to provide any kind of evidence or citations for my rants on this blog so far, because frankly it’s not that kind of blog, and I’m not a journalist. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian is a journalist however, and a damn good one. She has interviewed a manager of a Jobcentre Plus. It makes for pretty grim reading, but does rather prove my central thesis, that the benefits system is not a friend to the needy, but their enemy (emphasis mine):


 

She told me how the sick are treated and what harsh targets she is under to push them off benefits. A high proportion on employment and support allowance have mental illnesses or learning difficulties. The department denies there are targets, but she showed me a printed sheet of what are called “spinning plates”, red for missed, green for hit. They just missed their 50.5% target for “off flows”, getting people off ESA. They have been told to “disrupt and upset” them – in other words, bullying. That’s officially described, in Orwellian fashion, as “offering further support”. As all ESA claimants approach the target deadline of 65 weeks on benefits – advisers are told to report them all to the fraud department for maximum pressure. In this manager’s area 16% are “sanctioned” or cut off benefits.

Of course it’s not written down anywhere, but it’s in the development plans of individual advisers or “work coaches”. Managers repeatedly question them on why more people haven’t been sanctioned. Letters are sent to the vulnerable who don’t legally have to come in, but in such ambiguous wording that they look like an order to attend. Tricks are played: those ending their contributory entitlement to a year on ESA need to fill in a form for income-based ESA. But jobcentres are forbidden to stock those forms. These ill people’s benefits are suddenly stopped without explanation: if they call, they’re told to collect a form from the jobcentre, which doesn’t stock them either. If someone calls to query an appointment they are told they will be sanctioned if they don’t turn up, whatever. She said: “The DWP’s hope is they won’t pursue the claim.


 

Full article is here.

On Mental Health, Or The Lack Thereof

I suffer from mental health issues. Actually, I suffer from mental illness – isn’t it interesting that we only ever use the phrase “mental health” to discuss people who lack it? Specifically, I suffer from Depression, with a capital-D, with bits of anxiety and Low Self Esteem issues thrown in. It’s the main reason I write this blog, both because without my illness I wouldn’t need benefits, and because writing about my experiences is a form of therapy. I feel a bit crappy today, so I thought I’d write an article and hope for catharsis.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that provision of mental health services in this country is sorely lacking. 25% of the population will suffer from mental illness at some time in their life, but it can take months to get to see a counsellor or psychiatrist on the NHS. If your illness stops you from working, and you need state assistance, things start looking really grim.

One of the worst things about depression is that it stops you from seeking help. It stops you from doing pretty much anything, really, but if “had a shower and got dressed” is your biggest achievement for the week, then you probably aren’t going to be up for dealing with the mass of paperwork, doctor’s visits, and assessments required to claim the curiously named “Employment and Support Allowance.” If you do manage it, the first problem you’ll probably be faced with is that you can only claim it going forward – you need special dispensation for it to be backdated. But falling into a depression isn’t like breaking a leg or starting chemotherapy. You don’t have a definite day when your illness started that you can put on forms, and in any case, if you are in a position to even look at the forms, you are probably starting to get better. If you’ve found yourself so stricken with depression that you’ve stopped going in to work, lost your job, and are living off takeaways and instant noodles, applying for benefits is probably pretty far down your list of priorities, about 30 or 40 bullet-points below “don’t kill myself today.” In fact, if you were up to handling the application, you would have been up to going to work.

So pretty much any application for ESA due to mental illness will need to be backdated. Not for the measly £70 or so it grants you, but because you’ll also need to apply for backdated housing benefits, to pay off your landlord who is about to call in the bailiffs due to your several months of unpaid rent. To do this, you’ll need a special letter from your doctor explaining that you weren’t well enough to fill in the forms any sooner, and you’ll need to write your own apologetic little essay saying the same thing. It’s not clear to me why the government should object so strongly to backdated benefits – if you were entitled to them then, how has that entitlement changed with the passage of time? Surely, according to the laws of compound interest, by not claiming the money sooner, you have actually saved precious taxpayers pennies? But of course, the government doesn’t really object to paying backdated benefits, it objects to paying any and all benefits, and seeks ways to worm out of its financial responsibilities to vulnerable members of society at every turn.

The other big problem with being poor and having a mental illness is that you will be required to prove it. Not to your doctor, or your therapist, or the paramedic who closes your gaping self-inflicted wounds, but to a private company. A private company who has a vested interest in rejecting as many claims as possible, never mind that their decisions will be overturned on appeal. I’m talking about ATOS, of course, the company charged with administering “work capability assessments.” So far, I haven’t actually had one of these assessments, although I’m currently waiting for a date to be set for one. Doubtless, when I finally do face this trial-by-ordeal, I’ll have a lengthy article to write about it, for now I’ll only say that the idea of using a private company to make these kinds of decisions, decisions which until 1995 were strictly the purview of general practitioners, is only slightly less reprehensible than handing over responsibilities for child protection services over to private companies. Which is also a thing the government is planning to do, by the way.

Is that catharsis I feel? No, I’m pretty sure this is violent rage. Oh well.

Hurdles

One of the central points I am trying to get across with this blog is that the government agencies charged with administering our social security system (local councils, the Department for Work and Pensions, ATOS, Serco, WalMart Group, etc) do not exist in order to help those in need, but rather to find reasons not to help people. The popular perception is that one has merely to don a flat cap and some grubby overalls, stroll into a Job Centre, sign your name (or better yet, draw a ham-fisted ‘X’) and then walk out with a load of taxpayers lucre. Like most popular perceptions, it is wrong.

When you apply for benefits, whether they be housing benefits, tax credits, jobseekers allowance, or the confusingly named ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ (ESA), you are merely embarking on a long journey, at the end of which, if you are unswerving of purpose and quick of wit, lies a paltry handout, insufficient to cover the debts you have accumulated whilst waiting for it.

I’ve heard this process called ‘gate-keeping’, the analogy being that the benefits system is a kind of gated community, and the social services agency act as gatekeepers or security guards, tasked with keeping out the riff-raff. Personally, I prefer to think of it as like the hurdles event at the Olympics, except that each time you leap over a hurdle, race officials quickly place another one between you and the finishing tape.

These hurdles most often take the form of evidence you, the dole-scrounger, must provide. Never mind that both local and central government hold a wealth of data on their citizens (even disregarding that obtained through GCHQ and it’s foreign partners like the NSA), the onus is firmly on you to provide evidence of everything related (and unrelated) to your benefits claim. Any fact you assert must be backed up by documentary evidence, because the unspoken assumption is that we benefits claimants are all liars unless proven otherwise.

Some of the evidence is routine, like proof of identity and citizenship. I’ve never had a problem with this, my passport serves for both. But if you happen not to have a passport or a valid drivers licence, you might fall at this first hurdle, and thus save the taxpayer a goodly sum.

Some of the evidence makes sense, for instance, if you are claiming to be out of work, you’ll need to supply a P45, given to you by your last employer when they sacked you. But woe betide you if you’ve lost, or somehow failed to receive this vital document, since it is quite impossible to receive a duplicate. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs issued it in the first place, and so the government must have a record of all the data it contains, but of course they will require you to provide them with the actual piece of paper, or you fall at that hurdle too.

Some of the evidence is tangentially related to your claim, if at all. For no apparent reason, various benefits claim forms ask you about any courses of study you have been enrolled on. If you are foolish enough to admit to having been a student in the last five years or so, you will be obliged to provide proof of this fact. I can recall being asked to provide my GCSE and A-Level certificates in order to claim Job Seekers Allowance, although the only reason they knew I had these qualifications is because I told them, and had I not had them (or not told them about them) it would have made no difference to my entitlement. It doesn’t matter whether something will affect your entitlement to benefits, if you mention it, you must also provide proof, and failure to do so will be a reason to deny or delay your claim. Another hurdle to fall at.

Some of the oddest hurdles are the ones which seem to require you to prove a negative, i.e. that you do not have any income. This usually arises with regard to housing benefit. Local councils will generally grant this benefit to anyone who is already in receipt of another benefit from central government, on the assumption that the DWP has already verified your lack of income. However, if you stop getting that benefit, say because you missed an appointment at the job centre, or your medical certificate ran out, your local council will assume that since you are still alive, and not receiving government aid, you must have some form of income, and require you to provide proof of it. When I find myself in this situation, like most middle-class generation-Xers, I turn to my parents. You might think that copies of my bank statements highlighting these occasional deposits into my account from people with the same surname as me would constitute proof, but of course that would be too easy. I must also provide letters from my parents (because of course, no child has ever forged one of those before) explaining and accounting for their every contribution to my continued survival. In one instance, my mum happened not to include her own address on the letter, and so it was rejected (although they had never before requested her address.) Incidentally, I am exceedingly fortunate in having parents both willing and able to support me when the state fails to do so – most people have to rely on food banks, or simply go hungry. For those people, this is a particularly difficult hurdle; if you ever have to visit a food bank, be sure to get a receipt, or perhaps save the empty baked-bean tins.

The government doesn’t require benefits claimants to fill in endless forms, provide documents, attend interviews, and so forth because it actually needs any of this information (in fact, it already has it, and often it originally issued the documents it insists on being given in the first place.) It requires us to do these things merely because they are hard to do. The more hurdles we are required to surmount, the more likely we are to fail, give up, turn elsewhere for help, or simply die. These tasks are especially daunting for those of us with mental health issues, and this is why claiming Employment and Support Allowance (which used to be called Incapacity Benefit) requires considerably more paperwork than claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance. If a depressed person commits suicide before their claim gets processed, then that claim won’t have to be paid out, a great saving for the taxpayer.

See you in the dole queue,

— Benny