Flash Says…

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

[Crossposted to Where’s the Benefit where I am one of the team. Don’t worry, there is a normal FlashSays article coming soon, but I couldn’t let today pass without recognition.]

Today is World Mental Health Day. It’s also a supposedly auspicious date; many couples are rushing to marry on 10/10/10. But for those with mental illness, there is very little to celebrate. I’ve spoken to two people to find out what today means to them – and to discover how benefit cuts will affect their lives.

Ishmael, a man in his 50s, has manic depression. He is a friendly and engaging man, yet his comments are almost tongue-in-cheek, tinged with the scepticism of a man who has been through the system. He says he is “receiving benefits relevant to someone who lives under the scraped out barrel and is burnt out”.

“It is only because I do stuff for World Mental Health day that I know it is happening. And the awareness events that I have been invited to are preaching to the converted.” He feels that understanding will only come from having a close friend or partner with a disability.

So are “awareness days” actually useful? Do they lead to long-term changes, or even increase knowledge of those conditions?

Kerry is a woman in her 20s with schizoaffective disorder. She speaks eloquently about the understanding that could come if the media report mental health issues appropriately.

“I’d like news journalists to liaise better with specialist health reporters when covering news with health implications. I’m doing an interview soon on my experience of schizoaffective disorder for the Sun newspaper, and whilst their health section is surprisingly reasonable, the main pages often don’t seem to have moved on from ‘Bonkers Bruno’.”

While World Mental Health Day may raise the profile of mental illness among the public, it’s clear that the government could do with a better understanding of the problems faced. Kerry described the difficulties in claiming benefits, in a system which requires illness to be measured in a tangible, predictable manner:

“It’s not possible to give a prognosis as to how long I’ll be in a ‘bad patch’ or not, so when the Government demands that I should be expected to be ill for another six months, that’s not meaningful. I’ll probably always have schizoaffective, but no-one can tell whether I’ll be able to work in 6 months or not.

“The nature of mental illness means it’s hard to deal with the stressful and mentally taxing process of applying for benefits when you are at your most ill. When I most need benefits, I can’t concentrate for long enough to fill in the forms, I don’t properly understand why I have to do them or sometimes just how ill I am, and often I am scared to tell the Government anything because I have delusional beliefs that they will use it to harm me. Housing benefit I find the worst – when you are already scared that people are watching you for malevolent purposes, filling in 19-page forms asking which bedroom you sleep in is not a good thing to be doing.”

Kerry also applied for Employment and Support Allowance, and found the medical assessment difficult, and inappropriate for her condition:

“I found it very stressful and humiliating to answer lots of very personal questions to a complete stranger, particularly as she said she needed to know things which the voices won’t even let me tell my psychiatrist. It was hard to concentrate, I was confused, and my voices were getting more and more angry that I was talking about them to this strange woman.

“Towards the end of the exam, she did some physical tests on me, like seeing how I could move my arms and legs. I thought this was bizarre, since I don’t have a physical impairment, and I don’t like people touching me. I was worried she would hurt me.”

When it is so difficult for someone with mental health conditions to be awarded benefits in the first place, there is a real risk that they will be left behind when the swathe of cuts come in. Ishmael is concerned: “The government thinks that by shutting down services and not paying for the needs of the mental healthers, we and our problems won’t exist. I had better pull my socks up! My early years were impoverished and how to survive has stayed with me, but I am concerned for those who would not be able to manage so well.”

Kerry: “A friend with severe chronic mental illness in Liverpool has been asked to pay £70 per week to use the day centre which is her only social contact. How’s she meant to find that from benefits, particularly if they are being cut?”

As their conditions can be invisible to outsiders, people with mental health issues are vulnerable when times are hard. The final word goes to Kerry, who says that we can fight this: “We don’t have to roll over and let things happen. Get involved with Coalition of Resistance and / or Right To Work in your area. Even if you aren’t able to help practically, tell them about cuts to benefits and services you use. Together, we can spread the message that these cuts will hurt people, screw up the economy, and we aren’t just going to let it happen.”

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

It seems that Disability Living Allowance (DLA) can be quite misunderstood. Even government ministers seem to get confused, sometimes referring to it as an “out-of-work” benefit. (It isn’t.) And now DLA, along with many other essential benefits for disabled people, is under threat. Here are a few basic facts, and an illustration of why DLA can be critically important, in the words of those who receive it.

DLA is not means-tested. It is a benefit which exists to compensate the disabled person for the extra costs of living they incur compared to non-disabled people – many examples of which are given below. It’s paid regardless of whether the recipient is in work – in fact, in some cases DLA is crucial in helping the recipient get to or continue in work. There are two parts to the benefit – one covering care needs, and the other relating to mobility. The money is paid directly to the disabled person for them to use as they need.

The government has already said that, although fewer than 1% of claims are thought to be fraudulent, they intend to reduce claimants by 20% via new medical tests. Read the comments below and see if you can imagine one in five of these people having to manage without it. The government may not wish to pay them, but their needs will not disappear.

I spoke to a variety of people who, like me, receive Disability Living Allowance. Here are a selection of comments illustrating its importance.

Education and work:

“DLA means I can sustain myself enough to study. It also pays for taxi fares to university.”

“I damage clothes more quickly than other people because I fall over and sometimes have to crawl; DLA means I can buy new clothes and maintain a professional appearance in my work.”

“I spend my DLA on my education – I need a room on-campus (which is more expensive than alternatives), photocopying and books. I have mental health issues, and that course literally saved my life.”

Food and bills:

“My DLA is spent on food – from ready meals to takeaways – because I’m not able to cook for myself.  Without DLA I’d rely on friends to cook for me or I’d simply go without meals.”

“I have extra costs such as delivery charges from supermarkets, but also I can’t buy the cheapest food because stores like Lidl and Aldi don’t deliver. So my shopping costs are more than for someone who could manage to get to the shops themselves.”

“I am so tired from my job that when I get home I can’t make food for myself. Takeaways are expensive and they have a minimum order price. DLA covers the difference.”

“My electricity costs more than most people because I need the heating on to reduce my pain levels, and I need to recharge my wheelchair. DLA helps pay for the difference in my bills.”

Transport:

“All of my mobility allowance goes to pay for a Motability car – it’s the only way I could ever afford one. But there are still other costs like petrol, so some of my care allowance has to go towards that, because I have to get around.”

“If my money was stopped I would not have a car and would be stuck at home all day while my partner was at work.”

“Until my DLA came through I had to cancel hospital appointments because I couldn’t justify paying a taxi fare except in emergencies. This continued for several months…”

“Without DLA I would literally be house-bound. I wouldn’t be able to get out at all.”

Independence:

“My DLA gives me back some control, it’s the one thing that doesn’t rely on someone else being willing to help me.”

“When my partner and I lived apart, I qualified for a lot more benefit, free prescriptions and so on. Now we live together, his job means that we get less money overall. This means that my DLA is even more important – so I have some income of my own.”

“I have a cleaner who comes every week – she does tasks that I can’t manage myself. It gives me pride that I can manage my responsibilities even if I’m not doing them myself.”

“The most important thing that DLA pays for is my independence. It means I am more equal to my partner and don’t have to keep asking them for money. It means I can pull my weight.”

“I’m recovering from mental health problems and I’m rebuilding my life. I use my DLA money for things like basic furniture and decorating costs. It’s providing much needed support in many areas. I also use it for help with transport. Otherwise I would be in debt.”

And finally…

“If I didn’t have DLA I simply wouldn’t cope. I have cut back on everything as it is, we don’t have any luxuries, so there is no room for me to exist with less.”

“Without DLA I would not manage at all. I would be forced to bed and to beg for assistance from my loved ones, but this position is unsustainable…”

Those last two comments are frightening but demonstrate how tightly many disabled people have to manage their finances and how close to the edge they are operating. They simply cannot imagine a way to cope if this money was taken away.  Essentials such as meals, prescriptions or heating would be at risk if DLA was cut back, and disabled people could be stuck at home, unable to access jobs or education.

Everyone I heard from relied on their DLA payment for independence and quality of life; it was as simple as that.

It is critical that this benefit is protected in its current state and that the government’s proposal to reduce the number of claimants by 1 in 5 is robustly opposed. The treasury may need to make cuts, but when it comes to Disability Living Allowance there is simply no room to manoeuvre.

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

Last week Chancellor George Osbourne paid lip service to helping disabled people saying “Of course, people who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more”1 but then in the next breath made reference to people on long-term out-of-work benefits “who think it’s a lifestyle choice” – the same people that Labour have termed “work-shy”. Has Osbourne not considered that many people who are on these benefits ARE disabled people, exactly those who need his protection? He needs to think more widely, to realise exactly who he is hitting.

Today the Guardian published letters from a variety of people who deny that living on benefits is a “lifestyle choice”2– one calling this “the most crass and insulting demonstration of patrician insensitivity and ignorance to have crossed the lips of any politician in recent times”, another stating “to live off £102 as a couple leaves nothing that can remotely be described as a ‘lifestyle’.” Richard Hawkes from Scope asks “Where is the understanding that it costs more to live as a disabled person, or that to find employment many will need individually tailored support?”

Maybe there are a few people in the UK who prefer to claim benefits rather than go out to work, but that does not mean all long term unemployed people should be penalised, as for many it is circumstance rather than choice which is restricting their options. There are sure to be many disabled people who get caught out by these cuts.

One of the tactics proposed by government is to reduce housing benefit by 10% for people who have been on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) for more than a year.3. This is estimated to affect at least 24,000 disabled people.

That is: 24,000 disabled people which we know about. What about others, such as those who are on Jobseeker’s Allowance because they were wrongly assessed by Atos – the government’s medical advisor- as not qualifying for Employment Support Allowance? So far, 40% of those who appeal against the decision, win.4 There must be many more people out there who accepted Atos’s judgement without question, or who lacked the energy and wherewithal to appeal, and are now stuck on Jobseeker’s Allowance without the capacity to hold down a job.

However, there are also many disabled people legitimately claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance – perhaps they can do some work, where reasonable adjustments are made by the employer. Tell me, which employer, when faced with several similar candidates, would choose the one who would need concessions in order to do their job? Not just equipment (which may be funded by the Access to Work scheme) but perhaps assistance in the event of a fire alarm, a rearrangement of desks, or providing the chance to rest every few hours. Be honest, if all other qualities were equal, you’d hire an able-bodied person every time. Given the state of the economy, with [how many people to every job?] it is no surprise that disabled people are stuck on JSA in the long term.

It’s nothing new to suggest that disabled people are often treated less favourably in the workplace – indeed, when my own job was up for redundancy one of the criteria in deciding who stayed was how much sick leave each candidate had taken. I had taken more days off than the others but – as the company’s own doctor had said – “it is likely that Flash would have an above average sickness record due to her established underlying medical conditions”. Yet by adding the sick leave criterion to the remaining vacancies I was effectively excluded and thus discriminated against.

This sort of thing goes on every day.

So when considering which benefit cuts will affect disabled people, don’t just look at those with our name on them, think wider! The 10% penalty on housing benefit will hit those who really want to work, but just can’t get any. And disabled people will really hurt from the loss of every penny.

1. Welfare spending to be cut by £4bn, says George Osborne
2. Living on benefits is in no way ‘a lifestyle choice’
3. Warning over housing benefit cuts
4. Atos Origin don’t give a toss for the sick

I am on holiday this week, but here’s a quick blog I posted on Where’s the Benefit.

The BBC report that Welfare spending is to be cut by [an extra] £4bn – apparently this is what George Osborne has told them.

The article makes for grim reading. For example: ‘The BBC understands discussions are continuing in Whitehall about whether it is possible to limit pensioner benefits – such as the winter fuel allowance, bus pass and free TV licence – without breaking Prime Minister David Cameron’s election promise that he would preserve them.

So they are trying to find out if there are ways they can weasel around and make cuts while still claiming they haven’t broken any election promises?

Mr Osborne said: “There are five million people living on permanent out-of-work benefits. That is a tragedy for them and fiscally unsustainable for us as a country – we can’t afford it any more.”

He’s right on one point; it’s a tragedy when anyone is permanently unable to work and has to rely on benefits. I know many disabled people who would love to work but simply cannot manage it because their impairment makes it impossible to manage, or who would need so many adaptions and allowances that any prospective employer would run a mile. Yes Mr Osborne, that is a tragedy for them to be in this situation. However, if the country cannot afford it, then cuts need to be made elsewhere to ensure that disabled people can continue to be supported – there is simply no alternative to benefits for some disabled people.

However, George Osborne goes on to say: ‘Of course, people who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more.”

He needs to start spelling out how we will get his protection. All I can see on the horizon are cuts:
* Changes to the way ESA is assessed, so that fewer will qualify
* Changes to the way DLA is assessed, so that fewer will qualify
* Changes to housing benefit, which will particularly penalise disabled people, especially those who need an extra bedroom for a carer.

So come on Mr Osborne, how will we get your “protection, and more”?

It’s time he put his money where his mouth is.

[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.