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Turning a terrible mess into a toxic one: #Budget2023

The budget today announced a lot of stuff, and most of it I’m not qualified to comment on. I’m interested, because I have a sister with two small children and a CIC to run; and I care about the environment and about fuel sovereignty. I also care generally about what makes for a good economy and society, and what policies are needed to make that cohere together. A jumble of random policies – like tax cuts for random companies if they do certain random things, but not if they do other random things, or if it is a different random company doing that random thing – is not a good idea. Nor is a childcare system where certain people, who earn either just enough or nothing at all, get free childcare but the middle group gets nothing.

What I really know about, though, is the social security system; and in particular the social security system for sick and disabled people.

People who know anything about the social security system know that the assessments for sick and disabled people are widely disparaged. It should, therefore, be good news if a government announces that it is going to scrap one of these terrible assessments. Surely?

The problem with any government announcement is that the devil is in the detail. And in this case, the detail is not only in a 43-page document (to be fair, 28 pages if you just read the main body of the text), but it’s been demoted to not just the next government, but also to lower-ranking civil servants.

It is one thing to say that you are going to scrap a toxic assessment and replace it with a better one. It is quite another to say that you are going to scrap Toxic Assessment A and instead use Toxic Assessment B – for a quite different benefit, assessing quite different issues of illness and disability – as the qualifier for Benefit A. That’s taking a terrible system and making it even worse, which is quite a mean feat, given how terrible the system is as it currently exists.

The current system allows sick and disabled people to be assessed for two different things (three, if you count social care): whether they are capable of work; and whether they experience extra costs in their day-to-day life. A person can quite easily fit into one but not the other.

For example, a person (let’s call her Annie) with major issues of pain and fatigue may, slowly, over the course of the day, manage to get her basic hygiene and household chores done. But Annie has no capacity for work, partly because all of her capacity for activity is taken up in day-to-day life, and partly because work requires certain standards and deadlines and time commitments which day-to-day life doesn’t. Work might want you to be at your desk at 9am, when actually you’re still asleep and don’t have breakfast until 10am. Work might have a deadline for 4pm, but you’re having a pyjama day in order to save the effort of washing and dressing and put it into doing some much-needed cleaning. Work might need you to be able to write a letter in basic English, but you can’t remember the word for ‘letter’, and when you got a bowl of cereal for lunch you put the milk back in a cupboard (you’ll find it there, gone off, a few days later, but fortunately you’d forgotten that you had milk and had ordered some more).

Annie is assessed by the government as having no extra costs when it comes to day-to-day life, so she don’t get what is called ‘Personal Independence Payment’. However, it is recognised that her general mental incompetence is such that, whilst she can just about manage her life, she can’t realistically work. So she gets what is called ‘Employment and Support Allowance’ or ‘Universal Credit’ with ‘Limited Capability for Work and for Work Related Activity’ (LCWRA).

Another person (let’s call him Ben) might be a paraplegic and also struggle with some fatigue. He can self-propel a wheelchair for a short distance, but soon tires after that and also risks shoulder strain. He struggles to wash, cook, dress, and generally manage hygiene and household chores. He is recognised as experiencing substantial extra costs in his day-to-day life due to his need to have a personal assistant to help with hygiene and household tasks. However, he is mentally alert and has a good job working in an office on computer-based tasks.

Ben receives high rates of PIP, to help with the day-to-day costs, but does not count as being too sick or disabled to work, so when he loses his job due to redundancies he does not get any ESA/UC LCWRA.

Under the government’s proposed changes, Annie can no longer get ESA/UC LCWRA because she does not qualify for PIP. Meanwhile Ben, who actually can work, can get ESA/UC LCWRA because he already qualifies for PIP.

Now, I don’t begrudge Ben his ESA/UC LCWRA. If he didn’t get it, he would, like Annie, be expected to live in destitution whilst he searches for work. Unlike Annie, he has some chance of getting work, because he’s actually capable of work and has recently been in work, having lost his job through no fault of his own. Nevertheless, his disability is off-putting to employers, and some small employers who would have liked to have taken him on have had to refuse because the cost of putting in wheelchair ramps and wheelchair-accessible toilets into their very small office/shop is too high. Ben doesn’t deserve to be put into destitution (no-one does, but that’s a different part of the story), and he may take longer to find work than the average jobseeker. I’m happy that Ben gets nearly enough money to meet his basic subsistence needs in the long-term, which includes things like household maintenance and which isn’t covered by the basic jobseeker’s benefit.

But Annie, who manifestly can’t work and not only can’t work but can’t meet basic work-search and work-preparation requirements, is now not only required to look for work but is required to do so on an income which is not sufficient to live off in the short-term, never mind in the long-term future that faces her until she is lucky enough to reach retirement age (if she doesn’t die first). Not only that, but because she doesn’t receive PIP the Jobcentre doesn’t believe that she has a work-limiting illness and therefore doesn’t reduce her work-search requirements.

Annie fails to make it to her Jobcentre appointment, having forgotten what day of the week it was, and try as she might she can’t manage to log 35 hours of work search. She’s just too tired, and the time it takes her to make sense of everything is so long that the Jobcentre doesn’t believe that she’s really spent that long trying, and thinks she’s just pretending to have spent that many hours at it. So they sanction her.

She gets no living money for a month, and because this money included top-ups for rent and for council tax she is only able to pay for one of those (she’s in a two-bed social flat, because there are no one-bed flats to downsize to, which means she gets the ‘Bedroom Tax’ penalty; and the government made it so that no working-age person can get full council tax support, so there’s a gap there too). It happens that her rent goes through first, lucky her, so she isn’t in rent arrears but there then isn’t any money in her account to pay for her council tax and for her energy direct debits, so those fail to go through, and she incurs penalty charges on her bank account. She also can’t buy any food for a month and has nothing to top-up her phone with when her £5 monthly bundle is due to renew. So that lapses too, which means she can’t phone any advice centres for help. She isn’t well enough to walk to the nearest one, which is a mile away, and she hasn’t got any money for the bus fare.

Annie is lucky because she has neighbours, but she is exhausted and distressed and it takes a few days for her to turn up on her neighbour’s doorstep in floods of tears and beg for help. Unfortunately Annie is so tired and upset and confused that her neighbour isn’t able to make any sense of what is going on, but it is clear that Annie is in need of food, warmth, companionship and support. The neighbour has to go out to work, but she offers to let Annie stay in her flat. Annie is too embarrassed about this, and in need of sleep she goes home to her familiar bed.

Having struggled to get help once, Annie finds it hard to go out again. But she has no food in the house and so, in deep tears, she goes back to her neighbour. The neighbour hasn’t forgotten Annie, but with her shifts and the hours that she puts into helping her own elderly mum she hasn’t been able to get over to see Annie. The neighbour is very upset to hear more about just how difficult things are for Annie. She gives Annie a meal and phones some charities on Annie’s behalf. She manages to secure a food parcel, which she has to go out to get on foot because she doesn’t have a car and Annie can’t walk that far. Annie feels deeply embarrassed.

It is a few days until the neighbour can check in on Annie again. Annie’s house is freezing because, being a conscientious person and knowing that she can’t afford to pay and has no idea if let alone when she’ll be able to pay, she has turned off her heating. Annie also isn’t using any lights, and isn’t charging her phone, which means she can’t receive calls or messages either. Annie is deeply miserable and doesn’t answer the door when the neighbour knocks on. She knows that, without any money to access the internet, she isn’t keeping up with her Jobcentre requirements, so she’s going to keep being sanctioned. The neighbour leaves a plate of food on the doorstep, hoping that Annie won’t mind.

A couple of days later, the neighbour sees that Annie hasn’t taken the food. She goes to knock on Annie’s door again, and still doesn’t get an answer. She doesn’t have Annie’s number, so she checks round a few other neighbours until she finds one who does. Together they try to call Annie, but Annie’s mobile is switched off. They confer together and confirm that no-one has seen Annie for several days. Deeply concerned, they call the police. When the police eventually come round and break down Annie’s door, they find her hypothermic and dehydrated in bed. She is taken to hospital.

Apart from Annie’s underlying medical conditions, there’s nothing wrong with her that a stay in a warm place with food and drink can’t put right. If Annie were a pensioner, she wouldn’t be discharged without social care. But she is only a lowly working-age adult, so the hospital is able to discharge her without consideration for what they’re discharging her back to.

Fortunately for Annie, her neighbours have been keeping an eye out for her return. They know that she needs help, and they’ve coordinated a plan to get a charity in to see Annie to help her with her benefits. Annie is extremely lucky to have such neighbours; without them, she’d probably end up needing hospital again. If she’s very unlucky, she could die from starvation or hypothermia, whichever comes first.

The neighbours manage to help Annie take out a loan from a pay-day lender. She is deeply ashamed at having to do so, but there is no other option. Annie also applies for PIP. A charity volunteer fights her case at the Jobcentre and, whilst the sanction isn’t overturned, the work coach agrees not to put any further requirements onto Annie until the PIP result comes through. This means that Annie at least gets destitution-level benefits without having to search for work. But with the loan to pay back as well, Annie is living off seriously little money.

There are two ways Annie’s story could go from here. If she is lucky, she will get PIP. The assessor may take into account that collapse that Annie went into, and consider that she does need support with day-to-day living. However, it is equally possible – even probably – that Annie simply won’t meet the criteria for PIP. Her collapse may be seen as a one-off that isn’t reflective of her long-term condition, or it may simply not bear any relation to the things that the PIP assessment is interested in asking.

If Annie doesn’t get PIP, I don’t know what will happen to her. Perhaps, like the old woman who swallowed a fly, she’ll simply die. That seems to be about all the consideration that this Conservative government has for people like Annie. We’re reduced to a child’s daft nursery rhyme.

I didn’t really expect Annie’s story to take so long to write. But as I typed it, I realised I couldn’t find a way out for her. People like Annie have no hope under the government’s proposed system. If she’s lucky, her health will deteriorate so much – yet she will also be identified and supported early enough by friends, neighbours and charities – that she will obtain PIP and therefore ESA/UC LCWRA. This isn’t enough to live on decently, but it’s what she’s used to. She doesn’t expect hobbies or a social life or treats or the ability to buy presents for family at Christmas, so she can get by with just the very basics.

If Annie is unlucky, she will continue to be treated as ‘fit for work’ because she does not have (if she isn’t required to work) ‘extra costs’ associated with her long-term illness. Some people in Annie’s position may just about manage to navigate the Jobcentre requirements. Some may be able to get their GP to write repeated sick notes, telling the GP to only make them do 10 or 20 hours of work-search a week. All find their lives dramatically curtailed, hampered and worsened by the requirement to put energy into something which is futile, demoralising, and beyond their limited capabilities. All are at repeated risk of financial sanction, from a position where they are already destitute. All are at risk of rent arrears, council tax arrears, eviction, and bailiffs. All are going to have their lives dramatically, and unnecessarily, and deeply inappropriately, made worse if these Tories get the opportunity to put their plans into practice.

I don’t know how Labour are going to respond to this. They have been put into the invidious position of either defending a terrible benefit assessment, or supporting this government’s toxic idea of using a totally inappropriate benefit assessment in place of the terrible one. There only option is to commit to researching how to properly assess sick and disabled people’s capacity for work, and in the meantime move all people currently assessed as ‘unfit for work but fit for work-related activity’ (a crazy statement if ever there was one’ into the ‘not fit for work or work-related activity’, where they can maybe start to get a chance to put their life and some measure of health back together.

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