Flash Says…

Archive for August 2010

[Crossposted to Where's the Benefit where I am one of the team.]

This week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published a report assessing the impact of June’s budget1. It was no surprise to find that the poorest and disabled people have been hardest hit by benefit cuts in a budget that is far from “progressive”.

We know that disabled people often have a low income – the Joseph Rowntree foundation found that three out of ten disabled people of working age are living in poverty2. With this background, the IFS report makes for grim reading.

Their projection illustrates that as a result of benefit changes, the poorest 30% of people will lose 2% of their income. For those who already live hand to mouth, this could be hard to bear.

There are three ways in which we will be hit hard: these concern changes to Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Housing Benefit and the way that benefit increases are calculated.

Firstly, from 2013 there will be reforms to the way DLA is assessed. We do not know much about how this will operate or whether it will affect those who already have indefinite awards, but the Government’s Budget policy costings document says that the result will be to remove DLA from around 20% of claimants. As only 1% of claims are estimated to be fraudulent, surely the other 19% will be people who need help but are turned away. As it is estimated that only 40-60% of those eligible for DLA actually claim it 3 this is a very harsh cut.

There will be various changes to Housing Benefit, but the killer clause for disabled people is “Reductions in housing benefit for those of working age living in social housing that is under-occupied” – the government trumpets that this change is predicted to make a saving of £490 million in 2014-15.

This rule makes no consideration of disabled people’s needs – for example the requirement for an extra bedroom for carers to sleep in, or if a couple (or children) are unable to share a bedroom because one of them is disabled. My own parents are in this situation – my father has a special bed on the ground floor, while my mother sleeps in the marital bed upstairs. But it’s just a numbers game to the government – count the heads, assign the bedrooms. Simple, right?

A parliamentary briefing paper on Housing Benefit4 says “The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have stated that they expect the additional needs of disabled people to be paid for by local authorities from Discretionary Housing Payments but this is not working in practice.” This is a disgrace – discretionary payments can never be relied upon (particularly as they are meant to be temporary, and come from a limited pot of money) so it is worrying to consider how many disabled people will be penalised for “under-occupying” a property, when in fact they need all of the rooms in their house.

In addition, the IFS report goes on to say that “Local Housing Allowance rates will be set at the 30th percentile of local rents rather than the 50th percentile. This effectively means that LHA claimants will only be able to choose from the cheapest 30% of properties in their local area of the appropriate size for their family rather than the cheapest 50%.” This could be a problem for any disabled people who need a ground floor flat – as I discovered when I was house-hunting, they often carry a premium for being a “garden flat”. Housing benefit won’t stretch that far. And what about my friend Sam, who needs a town centre flat because she can’t access public transport to cheaper houses in the suburbs? Yet again disabled people are being penalised by circumstance.

The final way in which the budget is unfair to disabled people is in the way that year-on-year benefit increases will be made. There are three indexes on which inflation can be calculated, and the government is changing the index used for calculating benefit to the meanest one – meaning that we can look forward to an even more meagre increase to our benefits each April. I’m surprised that the government hasn’t axed our traditional £10 Christmas bonus!

This budget is all but “progressive” – as the IFS has concluded. It’s frightening to consider how many disabled people will be pushed closer to the breadline, if they aren’t there already. Of course, we knew this already when cuts were publicised, but it’s good to have it confirmed by an independent research institute. Perhaps now the government will have to ensure that disabled people are not disadvantaged by this budget. If not, how long before they have blood on their hands?

1. The distributional effect of tax and benefit reforms to be introduced between June 2010 and April 2014: a revised assessment
2. UK poverty falls overall, but rates increase among disabled people
3. A brief guide to the world of tax for disabled people
4. Housing Benefit: Size Criteria and Discretionary Housing Payments

I was banged up in a cell last week. Luckily it was a stunt and I could walk free after 60 minutes, but the incarceration made me start to understand how incredibly hard life is for prisoners in solitary confinement.

I arrived at a church near Trafalgar Square and introduced myself. A volunteer led me to the cell, and I blanched. Although I was volunteering, nothing can prepare you for being locked in a cage just 9 feet by 6 – it really does look tiny. A bed, a toilet and sink, a locker, a hook for a towel, a shelf with some books. This is how over 3000 American citizens spend their lives – on Death Row.

Flash in a boxThe cell is being displayed by the charity Reprieve to draw attention to the case of Linda Carty, a British citizen who is imprisoned in Texas and due to be executed any day now. At trial, she was represented by a lawyer who had only met her for 15 minutes, and she was implicated for murder by two men, in a plea-bargain deal to save their own skins. This led to Linda, a Sunday school teacher, receiving the death penalty. Reprieve’s prison cell exhibition is aptly entitled “Death’s Waiting Room”.

I went inside, perched on the hard bed, tried to make myself comfortable. The whole cell was as small as my greyhound’s racing kennel used to be. When I mentioned this to a Reprieve volunteer, he reminded me that the drugs used in lethal injection have been banned for use on animals as they are ineffective and inhumane. You really couldn’t treat your dog as badly as America treats some of its human beings.

While spending an hour in the cell, in solidarity with Linda, I wrote a letter to my penfriend on Death Row in Alabama. Slowly, details from his letters made sense. He told me he couldn’t exercise and now I understood why – there is no room even to run on the spot, as space is taken up by a toilet and sink. He spends 23 hours out of 24 in this cell – the boredom must be unthinkable. The average time a prisoner spends in this way before his appeals run out and he is finally executed is an incredible 12 years. Whatever your view on capital punishment, this isn’t fair – the execution is the penalty, not the years of being left to rot. At least when Saddam Hussein was convicted, his death followed soon after.

After an hour, my time in the cell was up, but something strange had happened: the enclosure had started to feel strangely comfortable, secure. While strangers were peering in, something had shifted within me from feeling like an exhibit to starting to feel safe, doing my own thing, protected by the walls all around me. I felt uncomfortable leaving and even asked to stay longer, which I did.

The whole experience was immensely thought provoking. I’d known it would be interesting, but I hadn’t allowed for the depth of my emotional response. Throughout the day, a video of Linda played in a loop on the tiny TV in the cell. Initially I tuned this out and got on with writing my letter, but slowly it began to penetrate. On the 20th play of Linda Carty singing Amazing Grace I was finally compelled to stop and listen. I damn near cried.

Death’s Waiting Room” runs until 5 September so if you pass near Trafalgar Square, do take a few minutes to pop around the back of St Martin in the Fields and see it for yourself.

It emerged last week that the credit reference agency Experian is in talks to do a deal with the Government to try and unearth benefit cheats. It would earn a “bounty” for each person it exposes. To my mind, this is a pointless exercise and full of flaws.

Experian already have a contract with the government to check housing benefit claimants, and say they have saved £17m. Now, they are being more ambitious and claim they could save £1.5bn every year by checking up on those who receive other benefits.

Credit reference agencies keep a record of how much was spent on credit cards each month, and whether it was repaid on time. Presumably then, they intend to identify those on income-related benefits, and see whether their spending patterns exceed their benefit payments – then shop them to the Government.

There are so many reasons why this would not work. For a start, although the Daily Mail would have you believe otherwise, there are not many benefit fraudsters and so Experian would be looking for a needle in a haystack. The amount of work involved may be uneconomical, compared with the payment for identifying a cheat.

Credit card payments could genuinely exceed income, while still being paid off on time. For example, how many times have you slapped down your card at a group meal, then scooped up everyone else’s cash? Or filled your car up with petrol for a big trip, while collecting money from your mates for sharing the journey with them? Even grocery shopping can be organised in this way, perhaps shopping with your mum, putting it all on your own card, then sorting it out at home. I often add items to my weekly supermarket shop for an elderly neighbour, who then repays me in cash. These are common situations, but all that Experian will see is the amount that hits your credit card every month, no matter whether you received money back.

Even at work, this situation occurs. For example, I regularly buy website hosting and domains for customers at around £70 each. This is at cost price which the customer repays in full, and it’s matched up in my accounts. But say I bought 5 of these packages for new customers each month – effectively just ordering the hosting packages with the customers’ own money, to make their lives easier – to Experian it would look like I was spending £350 more than the income I’ve declared receiving, because they only see one side of the story.

So what will Experian really be able to tell the benefits agencies, other than adding a level of confusion?

It is a serious concern that Experian would be paid a bounty for each case. This makes me worry that their staff will become overly suspicious – perhaps putting forward marginal cases – in the hope that they will strike gold. As Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, says, “What we must not do is create a benefit equivalent of parking attendants who are wanting to find people guilty … because that is the way they get paid.” The parking attendant analogy is a good one; in the past I have received tickets when I was doing nothing wrong. The attendant must have known I’d get off on appeal (which I did) but hoped that I would accept the fine and assume that I must have done something wrong, simply because an authority said so – thus lining his pocket in the process. Experian’s involvement is bound to promote an increase in fraud investigations, but it is critical that any approach to a benefit claimant should be gentle and presume innocence – at the moment very frightening letters are sent out to vulnerable people – in one case I discovered recently, the recipient was scared into giving up disability benefits to which they were genuinely entitled, just to be certain that they would never receive such a letter again.

At the moment, many people who legitimately claim benefits are worried about fraud allegations – you just have to read disability-related messageboards to see this concern. Newspapers such as the Daily Mail are quick to pounce on any genuine or high-profile cases that they can find, giving the false impression that there are many cheats and misleading people into being overly suspicious. I remember being worried when a neighbour, who I had spoken to a few times over my front gate, said “Flash, you’re not disabled are you?” – after all if he thought this, what might any investigator or passer by think, when seeing me walk unaided the few metres to my blue-badged car? Yet if they assumed I can walk far, or walk without pain, they would be wrong.

We are in danger of becoming a suspicious society, ready to shop our neighbours when the reality is that we know nothing about their situation. From what I can see, Experian’s involvement in detecting benefit fraud would reinforce that, without adding any value or detecting the genuine – but very few – cheats in the system.


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