The number of children in poverty is rocketing. Who is protecting them?

It’s telling that those zealots who want to defend the ‘unborn child’ are complicit in policies that impoverish women and children

Child on council estate
 ‘Avoiding this hypocritical ‘concern for children’ does not require a complex position: a civilised society would give women the choice not to continue with a pregnancy and in turn support a child’s wellbeing if they are born.’ 

One of the most remarkable things that came out of the Irish referendum was the personal testimony of women who had been forced to journey to England for medical care. But some – poor or migrant or disabled women – recounted how even this option wasn’t available to them; unable to travel, they had no choice but to take the gamble of a pill bought from the internet. It’s a striking insight into the black-and-white thinking imposed on pregnancy: women who could not even afford a flight on Ryanair for a safe abortion were somehow expected to be able to afford to feed, house and clothe a child.

Beyond Ireland, this denial of the material reality of raising a child is an ongoing issue – in abortion debates and beyond. Indeed, the same voices so ardently protecting the “unborn child” are often strangely quiet when it comes to support for children once they are outside the womb. This convenient cognitive dissonance has long been a feature of rightwing attitudes: arguing to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights while supporting measures that push children into poverty. (Some British rightwing – often male – journalists couldn’t resist stepping in over the Irish debate too.)

Avoiding this hypocritical “concern for children” does not require a particularly complex position: a civilised society would give women the choice not to continue with a pregnancy and in turn support a child’s wellbeing if they are born. And yet it is a concept with which many still seem to struggle, including our own government. The Conservatives have long positioned themselves as the party of family – from cruel so-called protection of the “traditional family” such as the anti-LGBT Section 28, 30 years old this month, to David Cameron’s pledge to use the family to solve social problems, and 2017’s backbench Manifesto to Strengthen the Family, pitched as Theresa May’s key social narrative.

At the same time, their small-state ideology can make it devastatingly difficult for a low-income parent to look after a child. Look at the controversial “two-child” limit to child tax credits under universal credit (UC). From its inception, it was predicted the policy would lead to hundreds of thousands of additional children living in poverty, but it’s now emerging that some women are even feeling forced to have abortions because they can’t afford to go ahead with the pregnancy. “It wasn’t planned but it was very much wanted. I was crying as they wheeled me in,” one woman told the Mirror this month about her abortion; without the safety net of tax credits, she had no way to afford another baby. Women in Northern Ireland in similar positions have an even more restricted choice: the rape-exemption clause that gives some women on UC a financial reprieve endangers women who haven’t reported their attack to the police (in Northern Ireland, failure to report a crime is an offence) and, as the renewed calls for reproductive rightsin light of the Irish vote has highlighted, Northern Irish women have no legal access to abortion in their own country if they feel they can’t raise a child.

Recent years have in fact seen a determined removal of support from low-income mothers – everything from forcing single parents (90% of whom are women) to look for work once their child turns three or have their benefits sanctioned, to the benefit cap, a policy so regressive it was actually ruled to be unlawful when forced on single parents with toddlers.

Just this week, it came out that a third of low-income families are missing out on state-funded free food vouchers – a scheme designed to help pregnant women and those with young children afford fruit, vegetables and milk.

Much like Sure Start and child tax credits, these vouchers were brought in by a Labour government to reduce inequalities between wealthy and poor children, based on the understanding that if it takes a village to raise a child, it often requires a government to ensure they don’t live in poverty. It’s no coincidence that, as the welfare state has been pulled back, the number of children in poverty is rocketing to record levels.

In the post-crash austerity era, this sense of social solidarity towards children has noticeably lessened. Under each policy to remove state support from parents there’s a lurking narrative that working-class women are “breeding too much” or that low-income children are drains on the “hardworking taxpayer”. (“Why should I pay for someone else to have more kids?” is the rejoinder on most articles advocating child benefits). In the real world, pregnancy is rarely predictable – contraception fails, relationships end, and jobs are lost – and besides, even the most ardent individualist would admit low-income children have done nothing to “deserve” their own poverty.

We are at the point in which it is not rare to hear of infants living in B&Bssleeping on cardboard, or even scrambling for food in school bins. If the ongoing debate over abortion rights teaches us anything, it’s that there are no shortage of voices content to defend the “unborn”. It’s a shame few are willing to give the same care to those children who are already here. HEAR HEAR!!!

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Thousands of benefit claimants with Multiple Sclerosis told they are ‘not disabled enough’

New figures show the huge number of people with MS – a progressive, long-term condition with no cure – who have claims for PIP rejected.

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Thousands of benefit claimants with multiple sclerosis have been told they are “not disabled enough”, a charity warns today. New figures show the huge number of people with MS – a progressive, long-term condition with no cure – who have claims for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) rejected.

The benefit pays up to £141 a week to help people cover the extra costs of being disabled or long-term sick. But since it launched in 2013, 31% of new claims by people with MS – 4,100 in total – have been “disallowed”, it’s claimed.

A further 6% (1,100) are said to have qualified for PIP initially, but were later rejected following a reassessment. The figures, obtained from the government under Freedom of Information laws by the MS Society, come after a string of complaints about the quality of assessments for the benefit.

Protesters say medical evidence is often missed in the process, and 65% who appeal to an independent tribunal win their case. Thousands of people who scored no qualifying points at all in assessments have won appeals to get PIP.

MS sufferer Bethan Thorpe, 41, who was denied the benefit in 2014 only to win the highest rate of PIP at a tribunal, said: “The assessor wasn’t aware I had MS and obviously hadn’t read my medical reports.

“When I saw my report of the assessment, I was shocked to see I’d been marked down for being able to shake the assessor’s hand, and for carrying a handbag. “I was made to feel like a liar about my condition; it was so demoralising. “For almost a whole year I had no income while I was fighting this decision.

“My health suffered tremendously in that time, as stress makes my symptoms worse. Without PIP I couldn’t even get to my hospital appointments.” Today the MS Society warns the entire system of assessments – which private firms carry out at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds a year – is “fundamentally flawed”.

Chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “It’s insulting that so many people who are diagnosed with a long-term, incurable condition are being told they don’t qualify for support. “The Government needs to review the whole system to make sure it works more effectively for those it’s designed to support. “Having MS is hard enough; it shouldn’t be made harder by a welfare system that doesn’t make sense.”

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) source said new evidence in Ms Thorpe’s case was only submitted a month before her appeal hearing. A spokeswoman said: “PIP assessments look at how individuals are affected by conditions such as multiple sclerosis over the majority of days in a year, rather than just assessing ability on a single day.

“Under PIP, 36% more people with multiple sclerosis receive the highest rate of support than under the previous DLA system. “More than 2.6 million PIP decisions have been made, and of these 8% have been appealed and 4% have been overturned. In the majority of successful appeals, decisions are overturned because people have submitted more evidence.”

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The Universal Credit Rollout Will Cause Liverpool Untold Harm

With respect to Liverpool – Universal Credit is causing misery all over the UK.


The Universal Credit Rollout Will Cause Liverpool Untold Harm – The Government Must Pause And Rethink. Already, we can see a spike in council tax arrears, not to mention the snaking queues at foodbanks and families struggling with things like school uniform costs

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In a city described by the Joseph Rowntree Trust as having the second worst affected in the country when it comes to ‘destitution,’ Liverpool needs Universal Credit like a hole in the head.

Nevertheless, from this week, the remaining parts of my city not already covered by UC will start being migrated across to the new benefit. The dread I feel is because we know what happens next. Already, we can see a spike in hardship and a rise in council tax arrears from those who have already transitioned to UC. Not to mention the snaking queues at foodbanks and the families struggling with things like school uniform costs.

Around 55,000 Liverpool households will eventually see their claim move to Universal Credit. So far, we estimate that up to 2,800 people in Liverpool are affected by changes in work allowances in Universal Credit, resulting in a loss of income to families of between £40 and £200 each month.

The Council’s various discretionary schemes, set up to protect people in hardship, made 13,700 awards last year at a cost of just under £2.7million. 71% of all Discretionary Housing Payments made in Liverpool are to help people who have been hit by the ‘under occupation penalty’ – or as we know it, the bedroom tax.

It’s so frustrating because as a council, we have one of the best records in the country when it comes to maintaining discretionary benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable in our city. We are left picking up the pieces from failed central government changes.

Despite losing two-thirds of our government funding since 2010 (£444million), we have stretched our finances as far as we can in order to preserve basic human dignity, but also because it makes sense to address problems upstream before they swim downstream and cost even more to fix.

This is often down to the scandalous time lag between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a first payment. This is often as long as twelve weeks, with the National Audit Office recently reporting that four in ten applicants had experienced financial difficulties while transitioning across to UC, while one in five were not paid on time.

So my message to ministers is simple: pause this roll-out and listen to those of us on the frontline. It’s possible to reform Universal Credit to keep the original intention of simplifying the benefits system without deliberately causing misery for tens of thousands of people in my city and millions more across the country.

Drop the ideology for a start. There is no good reason to make desperate people wait for their benefits, simply because eight years ago Iain Duncan-Smith wanted to teach them budgeting skills. Pay up straightaway and take that terrible burden off the backs of some of the poorest people in our society.

Unnecessary delay simply throws vulnerably families into the clutches of payday lenders and loan sharks. This is a simple concession that Esther McVey could make that would transform the lives of millions of people for the better and show that the Department for Work and Pensions is listening to evidence about the ill-effects of UC.

I would also urge her to work with councils rather than ignoring us. Along with the voluntary sector, we are working to pick up the pieces of botched welfare changes. But give us the tools to do it. Provide ring-fenced funding so councils can create a local welfare scheme to address acute hardship.

But it’s also about practical steps, like understanding the system simply isn’t flexible enough for people on zero hours contracts and have no guarantees about their work situation from week to week. Also, the DWP could dramatically reduce the waiting time for connection to the DWP advice and information lines.

Before people in Liverpool are exposed to these poorly-conceived and badly implemented changes, I am asking Esther McVey to pause and #RethinkUC.

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Schools washing uniforms and offering food to families in need

Schools washing uniforms and offering food to families in need, governors say funding cuts will harm education.

Schools are washing pupils’ uniforms and offering food banks to help families in need, hundreds of governors have said. Almost half of governors say schools are offering additional services for families experiencing financial hardship, according to a survey by the National Governance Association (NGA) and Tes.

The poll, of more than 5,000 governors and trustees of schools and academy trusts,revealed that nearly two-fifths (38 per cent) of schools offer financial support for purchasing school uniforms.

The annual survey of governors and trustees also revealed concerns about school budgets.

Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of governors and trustees disagreed with the statement that funding pressures can be managed without any adverse impact on the quality of education.

Three in 10 said their schools were in deficit – and only 15 per cent said they had sufficient funding to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

The latest figures paint a particularly bleak picture of the financial pressures on secondary schools. More than half (55 per cent) of those governing secondary schools said the number of subjects on offer had been reduced and 41 per cent had reduced the number of qualifications on offer.

Many secondary school pupils are also being taught in bigger classes, the report says, with 42 per cent of secondary school respondents saying class sizes had risen as a result of financial pressures.

Emma Knights, chief executive of the NGA, said: “Governors and trustees are an enormous group of people who know a lot about state schools, including the tough challenges caused by sustained funding pressures – these are the people taking the difficult decisions like not replacing teaching staff or cutting the curriculum offer in their schools.

“This survey provides evidence, from the people who sign off school budgets, that schools are increasingly unable to provide a good quality of education because of funding. “If we want to avoid negative effects on pupils, then simply, we need to increase the amount of money available to state funded schools overall.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “There is more money going into schools than ever before. School funding will rise to a record £43.5 billion by 2020 – 50 per cent more in real terms per pupil than in 2000 – and high needs funding has risen from £5 billion in 2013 to over £6 billion this year.

“We know that we are asking schools to do more, which is why the Education Secretary has set out his determination to work with the sector to reduce cost pressures.

“We recently launched the School Resource Management Strategy to help schools reduce the £10 billion non-staffing expenditure last year. This will help schools to drive down costs on things like stationery, energy and water bills, as well as supporting them with staff recruitment and retention. “Alongside this we have a nationwide network of Schools Resource Management Advisers who work with schools to help them use their resources as effectively as poss

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Why benefit sanctions are both ineffective and harmful

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Introduction of the UK’s harshest ever social security sanctions regime in 2012 reinforced a dramatic upturnin sanctions. In 2012-2013 alone, ‘more people received a benefit sanction than a fine in the criminal courts’. While this ‘great sanctions drive’ is a defining feature of Conservative-led social reform, the ‘big stick’ version of welfare conditionality was not tested before its application. Here we present evidence that sanctions are harmful and ineffective in moving benefit recipients into sustainable employment.

The problem(s) with sanctions

Sanctions remove benefit income from recipients who break the rules, but ‘the rules’ can lack legitimacy. For example, in the case of jobseekers, vacancies might simply not exist in local labour markets or there may good cause for non-compliance, including illness. At the same time, sanctions can be ambiguous and vary according to work coach discretion or interpretation. Penalties also tend to outweigh the ‘crimes’, such as payments being stopped for four weeks because a claimant missed a Jobcentre Plus appointment. Overall, sanctions can be imposed for up to three years or indefinitely, for reasons such as non-participation in employability schemes.

That the reach of sanctions now includes disabled people and carers of young children, means problems with the current regime are far from a minority concern. Under Universal Credit (UC), the routine threat of sanctioning has been extended to a degree that is unprecedented globally: such threats have become an immediate and core feature of the social security system for working age claimants, most of whom are compliant; sanctions also now reach not only unemployed people but partners of recipients, carers, disabled people, lone parents, and, bizarrely, low paid workers who claim UC instead of tax credits. UC roll-out is expected to extend the reach of sanctions to up to 7 million families.

The great benefit sanctions drive 2010-16 in historical perspective

The consequences of sanctions

In our research – based on in-depth interviews with 52 policy stakeholders, 27 practitioner focus groups, and 1082 qualitative interviews with welfare service users – we found that sanctions were unhelpful in moving people into work. Instead, even the threat of sanctions created unmitigated distress that got in the way of finding work and had potentially life-altering negative consequences.

The threat or experience of benefit sanctions failed to improve job outcomes for those we spoke to, while their pervasiveness caused anxiety, low mood, and depression. Most were afraid that any minor slip-up or misunderstanding could lead them to crisis point:

It’s not only losing benefit, as in losing money for your food and that, I’d lose my house as well. (Kevin, UC Recipient)

Usually, receiving benefits means living in poverty, often exacerbated by factors like the lengthy UC waiting period, which causes and worsens hardship, debt, and rent arrears. Adding the financial burden of living for a month or more (up to three years or indefinitely in the current legislation) without money for essentials tipped those we spoke to into unmanageable debt, with long-lasting financial consequences that low-paid work could not ameliorate.

[My gas and electricity] fell into that much arrears… I was without heating for ages… I pawned everything I had… You’re literally going: ‘Do I eat or do I have light?’. (Linda, Lone Parent)

Sanctions had serious impacts on mental and physical health, worsened existing conditions, and caused new health problems. These impacts were out of all proportion to the often very minor indiscretions that triggered them (e.g. missing an appointment). Many felt angry, hurt, and resentful about what they considered to be inhumane and unjust treatment:

They’re coming down too hard on the wrong people. (Amy, Jobseeker)

The effects of sanctions pushed several people to breaking point and rippled out to families and communities, who often provided money and/or food that they themselves could ill afford to share. Many resorted to using foodbanks, including one man who was claiming UC whilst in work; others went without food, and several were threatened with eviction or became homeless as a result.  There were multiple accounts of those affected resorting to survival crime and suicide attempts.

Sanctions were disempowering and created new barriers that prevented or hindered constructive action, e.g. not being able to afford to look for work or pay for children to get to school, losing confidence and self-esteem:

The sanctions, I think, have held me back from being able to go and look for work… I wasn’t able to get out and look for work further away, but if I wasn’t sanctioned I would’ve been able to look for work in [nearby city]. (Alan, UC Recipient).

Conditionality was counterproductive, pushing recipients to spend large reserves of time and energy complying with onerous job-search or preparation requirements that did little if anything to enhance their prospect of gaining work. Many reported being put under pressure to apply for inappropriate jobs:

It’s demeaning for me to actually do that, apply for jobs that I know I’m not going to get. That if I did get to the interview stage I would go to the interview and say: ‘Oh by the way, I can’t do this job because I can’t work round my children. (Chris, lone parent)

The way forward

Fundamental reform of conditionality and sanctions is both urgent and necessary. It is crucial that the system is changed in positive ways, based on evidence. Key and urgent reforms include:

  1. To recognise and build on the existing high levels of intrinsic motivation to find and sustain paid work. Those we spoke to did not need to be threatened to look for work: they were already keen to work. Sanctions are inappropriate and disproportionate for many people, such as those in work, households with children, and ill and disabled people.
  2. Support part-time work. It is essential that the sanctions system is reformed to offer standard protections for part-time working hours for unpaid carers, including parents with primary childcare responsibilities, rather than assuming a full-time model of work that means part-time arrangements must be negotiated in power-infused discretionary conversations.
  3. Don’t sanction people for various deficiencies of the labour market. Currently, the sanctions system coerces claimants into regularly applying for unsuitable jobs they have little chance of getting because local labour markets are incapable of delivering vacancies for all who want to work. The system therefore needs to be changed to remove sanctions where local labour markets offer insufficient vacancies.

Without a major rethink, millions of claimants (both in and out of work) are likely to continue to experience the adversity that the threat of sanctions brings. Fear of sanctions is set to drive fervent, but often counterproductive compliance with ineffective interventions at the cost of more meaningful work-orientated or life-enhancing activities. Those who receive sanctions may face avoidable crises relating to worsening mental and physical health, poverty, hardship, unmanageable debt, insecurity or eviction. This also holds a potent political risk since resentment is set to grow:

I hate them for it (David, UC Recipient).

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Britain’s unclaimed benefits: four million families miss out on £12.4 billion

Why aren’t people entitled to benefits claiming them? 
Up to £12.4 billion of means-tested benefits – including pension credit, housing benefit and jobseekers and employment support allowance – were left unclaimed in 2015-16, according to new data released by the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions.

Means-tested benefits are designed to ensure a minimum standard of living for Britain’s poorest families. But not all those people eligible are claiming them – in comparison to the near universal take-up rate of the basic state pension and widespread take-up of child benefit (which is taxable only for high earners).

Annual average amounts unclaimed by eligible families vary from an estimated £5,000 per year for those eligible for employment support allowance (for those with a disability or long-term illness), to £2,000 per year for those eligible for pension credit. In a parallel data series HM Revenue & Customs estimates take-up rates for tax credits – which are paid directly to qualifying low paid workers.

The latest data for 2014-15 adds further to the scale of unclaimed entitlements. The central estimate is that £2.3 billion of child tax credit and £3 billion of working tax credit went unclaimed by 640,000 families and 1.2m families respectively.

Improving take-up rates of means-tested benefits directly reduces poverty. Research also suggests that families who top up their income with benefits also have higher levels of health, family well-being, and employment participation and retention.

Why people don’t claim

The failure to claim benefits stems from a mix of social and economic circumstances, administrative structures, and complex eligibility rules. It may, for example, reflect a lack of awareness about the availability of the benefit or a potential claimant’s expectation that the costs involved in applying for the benefit outweigh the value of any payment.

But there is much evidence that a key factor undermining take-up is the poor design and delivery of the benefits system. Take-up has also been implicitly discouraged by policy changes targeted at some working age groups, especially the short-term unemployed. An increase in conditions and related sanctions are designed to get people into work as quickly as possible and, as a result, make their claims to benefits relatively short-lived.

Plus, the tenor of contemporary media narratives on welfare dependency has increased the stigma attached to claimants, especially people of working age. Research suggests this stigmatisation is linked to reductions in take-up and a reluctance to claim among potential beneficiaries, notably among pensioners.

The British government is unique in Europe in publishing robust annual estimates of benefit and tax credit take-up. The data for 2015-16 gives an insight into which families are at risk of poverty and claim the help from the state that they are entitled to, as the graph below shows.

Take-up rates vary depending on the type of household. For example, while the overall take-up of housing benefit was 77%, it ranged from over 90% for singles with children to only 64% for those eligible in private rented accommodation. And while the main estimate for working tax credit was 65%, only 33% of eligible households without children were claiming it.

The data implies that those with greater entitlements are more likely to claim. A significant change since 2012-13 was a decrease of 11% in means-tested jobseekers allowance caseload take-up – people who are entitled to a benefit but who do not claim it. This may have been due to high employment rates, more stringent conditions attached to claiming unemployment benefit and the early impact of the new universal credit, which for working age people rolls most means-tested benefit entitlements into a single monthly payment.

Universal credit take-up must be measured

There are no estimates or commitment yet given to publish take-up data for universal credit, even though it is now claimed by 1.5m people and will, it is estimated, be claimed by nearly 6m households in 2021. One of the supposed principal benefits of universal credit is that it will improve take-up rates by making the system less complicated and easier to deliver.

The evidence on take-up suggests these assumptions are over optimistic. It will take time for awareness to develop about the new rules and regulations involved.

It is unlikely that public and voluntary sector organisations will be able to invest in the additional effort needed to inform potential claimants, front line delivery staff, and related intermediary organisations that assist more disadvantaged groups and communities. There is also a risk that the “default digital delivery” (which means that most universal credit claimants must apply and self-manage their claims online) may reduce and deter take-up among people without access to computers or the skills to navigate digital channels.

Means-tested entitlements will likely remain at the centre of the British welfare system, including for many pensioners. And measures to improve take-up will remain central to national and local poverty-reduction strategies. It’s therefore vital to continue publishing take-up data to gauge the future impact of universal credit and related welfare and pension reforms.

If universal credit take-up rates do not improve as anticipated, the government should establish and state what percentage of eligible people eligible it expects to take it up. Measuring take-up rates would provide an important way to assess the impact of universal credit and help establish a transparent benchmark to measure whether the new system is achieving its objectives of reducing poverty and incentivising work. The government might also consider investing some of the £12.4 billion unspent means-tested benefits to develop new ways to increase take-up.

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Disclosure statement
Dan Finn received funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for some of the research drawn on for this article.

 

No Progress On PIP Video Recording Or Improvements To Claim Forms

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The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has slammed the government for failing to make any progress on video recording PIP assessments or improving PIP and ESA claim forms, arguing that the DWP “still refuses to engage with the huge problems” connected with claiming the benefits.

Back in June of this year we highlighted a statement by Sarah Newton, Minister of State for Disabled People, who claimed that the DWP were about to pilot the videoing of PIP assessments. The intention was to make “. . . video recording of the PIP assessment a standard part of the process . . . We will be piloting videoing the assessment with a view to then rolling this out across Great Britain.”

Though this decision appeared to have been made without any form of consultation with claimants and, judging from the comments we have received, many would prefer audio recordings only.

The government gave assurances that they would carry out this work following a highly critical report on PIP and ESA by the Commons committee, which was based in part on an unprecedented number of responses from claimants to a call for evidence. However, three months on and there is no sign of the pilot even having begun. Nor is there any evidence of work being done on make the claim forms for PIP or ESA any more user-friendly, another undertaking given by the minister.

Whilst welcoming the latest response from the government, which they have published on their website, the Work and Pensions Committee is now asking for a detailed progress report on these issues.

Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“There is a welcome change of tone in this response which seems to finally begin to acknowledge the deep distress and difficulty PIP& ESA claimants have experienced.

“But that counts for little when it still refuses to engage with the huge problems in quality control—the reports riddled with errors and omissions, the huge numbers of overturned decisions, the outsourced contractors that rarely or never hit their targets—and when the pace of the change it is making is painfully slow.

“Claiming a benefit to which you are legitimately entitled should never be a humiliating, distressing experience. Government must move now, faster, to make this right.”

You can read more on the parliament website.

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People with mental health problems are being stripped of their benefits

‘I have lost hope’: the people with mental health problems who are being stripped of their benefits. Personal Independence Payments – the points-based system for disability claims – only works for people with physical disabilities, say campaigners. We meet some of those who feel they have slipped through the net

Kloey Clarke at home in Devizes, with her son Seth.Kloey Clarke, 28, from Devizes in Wiltshire, has had severe anxiety and type II bipolar disorder for six years. “I’m scared to leave the house,” says Clarke, who does not feel emotionally or physically stable enough to hold down a job and relies on her husband for care and support. “I have a constant fear of dying. I can’t socialise and I can’t communicate outside [the house].” For four years, Clarke depended on a Disability Living Allowance (DLA). The DLA was replaced by Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) in 2012 – and phased in from 2013 – but she was receiving them for less than a year before she was reassessed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and told she no longer qualified.

Clarke believes that the assessment for PIP is aimed at people with physical disabilities and does not account for mental illness. “I was asked if I could walk 200 metres unaided. No, I don’t need a stick or an aid, but I do need my husband or someone with me. Can I talk to people face to face? I talk to my family when they visit, but can I speak to strangers? No.”

She has had panic attacks as a consequence of losing her benefits, she says, and her family is now struggling financially. They have had to visit food banks twice since being rejected for PIP, but Clarke’s pride has stopped her from going more frequently. “I just find it so degrading. I don’t feel as if I should be there. I feel that, if I just had what I deserve, then I wouldn’t need to be in that place; I wouldn’t need to take food from, say, homeless people.”

Clarke’s marriage and her relationship with her children are suffering. “I’m useless to them, I’m not half the mum that I could be. I haven’t got enough funds. The government has no idea what these types of assessments do to people with mental health [issues]; how much it takes to walk into that room and talk about something so personal and then be told you aren’t ill enough.”

The evidence is mounting that people with mental health problems in particular are being failed by PIPs, with claimants reporting that the new system takes no account of the needs of people with conditions ranging from schizophrenia to severe depression. Figures released by the DWP in October showed that complaints about the PIP assessment process increased by 880% last year. The number of complaints that were upheld rose similarly dramatically, by 713%.

The DLA was first introduced in 1992 by John Major’s Conservative government and was paid to eligible claimants who had personal care or mobility needs as a consequence of a physical or mental disability. PIPs were introduced by the coalition government as part of the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, and have been steadily replacing the DLA since 8 April 2013. Some claimants who received indefinite DLA awards were not being reassessed, and the government then argued that it was necessary to have a system that frequently assessed people in order to determine if their needs had changed over time. In 2013, the then work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the Daily Mail that “70% of people on it [DLA] have lifetime awards, which means no one sees you ever again. It doesn’t matter if you get better or your condition worsens – it’s quite ridiculous.”

The big differences between PIP and DLA claims arise from the assessment criteria. DLA is based on an individual’s condition and the needs arising from this, while entitlement to PIP is assessed using a points-based system. Claimants are typically invited to a face-to-face assessment in a private consultation room, but are sometimes assessed in their homes. People score points according to their ability to complete a number of everyday activities, such as washing and cooking, and whether they need aids and appliances or help from another person to do so. According to Full Fact, an independent factchecking charity, between October 2013 and October 2016, 22% of DLA claimants with mental health conditions had their benefits reduced when they were reassessed for PIP, and a further 25% lost them altogether.

Many of the people I speak to say the PIP assessments do not take into account the effect their mental health conditions have on their lives. Some say that, even though they are physically capable of preparing a meal, driving a car, or dressing and washing themselves, the ability to do these things changes all the time. This is especially the case with conditions such as clinical depression or bipolar disorder, when, on some days, a person may find it difficult to get out of bed.

Daniel O’Connor, 64, from Glasgow, has led a tough life. He has severe depression and adjustment disorder, and has twice attempted to end his life. O’Connor had been receiving DLA for nearly 22 years when, this year, his application for a PIP was rejected. Since then, he has experienced financial hardship and says his condition has worsened. O’Connor says he felt as if he wasn’t being listened to at his PIP assessment and recalls telling the assessor that on some days he struggles to get out of bed because his depression is so debilitating. However, his assessor dismissed his story, citing the fact that he could drive as evidence of his ability to carry out everyday tasks. “We got to discussing a previous suicide attempt I had [made],” he says. In the final moments of the interview, the assessor asked him seven times if he was going to go out of the door, there and then, and kill himself. O’Connor adds he found himself in the position of having to placate the assessor. “It seems to me that her concerns were not about me; her concerns were about what the reflection would be on her if I did go out of the door and kill myself.”

Rejected PIP applicants have the right to appeal the decisions made by the DWP, and statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that 65% of appeals are ruled in favour of the claimant. Campaigners say this demonstrates a systemic ineptitude in the way the assessment criteria are being interpreted.

Alison Smith with her husband, Mark, at home in Beverley.
 Alison Smith with her husband, Mark, at home in Beverley.

Alison Smith, 55, from Beverley in Yorkshire, cares for her husband, Mark, who has bipolar disorder. Mark “is unable to go out without someone with him or socialise”, she says. He can go for days without washing, dressing or eating. He will neglect his medication if not reminded and has self-harmed. The couple have lost other benefits, including their housing benefit, since losing PIP and they have been relying on a lump sum from Alison’s pension to get by.

Alison had a difficult time at her husband’s appointment. “The woman who did the assessment was horrible. She wouldn’t let Mark speak. When he tried to say anything, she kept saying: ‘No, I’m not interested in that – I need to go through what’s on this computer.’ They don’t look at the mental illness side of things. Mark has the [physical] ability to make a sandwich, but he doesn’t have the mental ability to do it.”

“Often, we hear from people with mental health problems who tell us that they dread the face-to-face assessments,” says Paul Spencer, policy and campaigns manager at the mental health charity Mind. Spencer adds that, as well as reforms to the Work Capability Assessment, used to determine one’s eligibility for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), “we also urgently need the government to overhaul the PIP assessment process to make sure it is fit for purpose – and delivered by people who really understand how someone’s mental health problem can affect their daily life”.

Lorna Crofta’s story illustrates this lack of understanding. Crofta, 53, from Worcester, has had severe mental health problems since childhood. She was awarded DLA for three years and then invited to apply for PIP this year. Her application was refused because she failed to attend her assessment – she had received a diagnosis of bowel cancer and the assessment was scheduled just before an operation to have a tumour removed. “I had come to a complete standstill physically, and that had an additional impact on my mental health. I hadn’t even opened my post for weeks and had gone beyond thinking in a rational manner about anything. I would not have been able to handle someone being in my house.” Crofta says she has been living in poverty all her life. Even before losing her DLA, she says, the benefit wasn’t allowing her to do much apart from securing basic subsistence. “My life is just existing between one appointment and the next. I have lost hope. I dread how much worse things will be if my appeal is turned down.”

Lorna Crofta in Worcester.
 Lorna Crofta in Worcester.

The shadow work and pensions secretary, Debbie Abrahams, has seen first-hand some of the hardships disabled people are facing as a result of the government’s welfare reforms. “The number of cases I get, not just in my constituency but right across the country, is shameful – and shameful on the country as a whole,” she says, from her constituency office in Oldham. The system, she argues, is designed to put people off and to stop them claiming, “and, unfortunately, it’s working”. Abrahams adds that the assessors need to be held to account: “The fact that two-thirds of assessments are overturned on appeal just shows the fact that it is a warped system.”

The DWP responds: “PIP looks specifically at how someone’s life is affected by mental health, unlike the old system, which did not sufficiently recognise mental health problems.” They add that there are now more people with a mental health condition receiving the higher rates of PIP than their DLA equivalents. “PIP ensures that mental health conditions are given the same recognition as physical ones. It does this by considering how impairments affect a person’s life, rather than labelling individuals on the basis of a condition.”

In February, the DWP was advised by judges at the Tribunals Service (the branch of the Ministry of Justice that oversees tribunals and adjudications) to award more points on the mobility assessment of the claim if people suffer from “overwhelming psychological distress”. However, because of concerns that these changes would cost an extra £3.7bn by 2022, the government enacted legislation reversing the judgment: it altered the mobility criteria to exclude people who had psychological distress – specifically, psychological distress caused by following the route of a familiar or unfamiliar journey when travelling alone. The move will mean that 292,500 claimants will no longer be entitled to any mobility component, which could affect people with a wide range of conditions including learning disabilities, autism, schizophrenia, anxiety conditions, social phobias and early-stage dementia. The government argued that the judgment had “interpreted the assessment criteria for PIP in ways that are different to what was originally intended”.

In April, Valerie Grant, 73, killed herself after her severely autistic son was told he did not qualify for disability benefits. Her death came after a UN report, published in November 2016, concluded that the UK government has failed to uphold the rights of disabled people, a verdict the UN reached again this August. Areas of concern highlighted in the UN’s report are high levels of poverty for disabled people and their families and reduced standards of living as a result of multiple welfare reforms and benefit cuts. One of the welfare reforms highlighted for criticism is the criteria used to assess people for PIPs.

In response to the UN’s findings, the DWP said: “We’re disappointed that this report does not accurately reflect the evidence we gave to the UN, and fails to recognise all the progress we’ve made to empower disabled people in all aspects of their lives.” It added that the government spends over £50bn a year to support disabled people and those with health problems and that “it is encouraging that almost 600,000 disabled people have moved into work in the UK over the last four years”.

Abrahams says that Labour, if elected to government, would aim to scrap both the Work Capability Assessment, the ESA and the PIP assessment, and devise a system that doesn’t look for ways to stop someone’s support. She says: “First of all, we should recognise and value what our social security system is for, and I make it absolutely clear it should be like the NHS. It is there for everyone in their time of need and we should value it.” In the meantime, disabled people will have to continue to battle the DWP for access to benefits.

 Universal credit’s hidden cut pushes disabled people into poverty

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.