‘John’, schizophrenia and his debts: The DWP can’t abdicate responsibility

It’s emerging that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out what the Disability News Service (DNS) says were ’60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years’. The excellent DNS obtained the figures from the DWP in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests. The DWP has always rejected any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of claimants.

Additionally, the DWP has now released guidance to staff saying that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving ‘customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers’.

The vulnerability of many benefits claimants is illustrated by the case of ‘John’, who came into the London food bank with a voucher on Friday. He’s 33 and explained to me that he’s in debt. He still owes well over £2,000 to ‘payday’ or short term loan companies. These include Cash Generators, TextLoanUK (offering up to £100 for seven days at APR of 894%) and Miniloanshop. The repayments are coming directly out of his bank account and are causing him to incur bank charges.

‘John’ is on employment and support allowance (ESA) – a UK benefit paid to people whose illness or disability affects their ability to work. He has also only just started receiving personal independence payment (PIP) – a non means tested benefit that offers help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health and disability.

He  has serious long-standing mental health issues – he lives with schizophrenia and depression. The very strong anti-depression and anti-psychotic medication he’s on ‘makes you drowsy and you forget a lot of things’, he says. He adds that he ‘ends up paying money back, but getting new loans’.

I wasn’t able to establish how much he’s currently having to repay per week to meet the horrendously high APRs on his loans. Neither was he able to tell me the rate of PIP that he receives: The level of PIP varies hugely from £21.55 to £138.05 a week, depending on the outcome of the assessment process. I was however able to advise him to immediately contact Christians Against Poverty – a debt counselling charity. He promised that he would indeed get in touch with them urgently.

'John' has been referred to CAP for advice
‘John’ has been referred to CAP for advice

He lives in a hostel, but it does not seem to offer much if anything in the way of personal support or advocacy. His health is deteriorating and he is losing large amounts of weight. ‘I’ve lost two stones in two months and my nutrition is up and down’, he says. When he goes to the GP, he sees a ‘different doctor each time’. He’s started having blackouts, at which point a GP referred him to the hospital. He still doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He sees a psychiatrist once every three months, and has no community psychiatric nurse.

He’s been told by the DWP that he is due to have a work capability assessment (WCA) for his ESA, and has been waiting for this since January this year. No doubt this process will do nothing but add to the stress he is under.

Given his deteriorating health, fast weight loss, lack of day-to-day support with his mental health issues and debt problems, in my lay view any future decision by the DWP to endorse a withdrawal of his ESA following WCA would pose a real risk to him.

Has the DWP got any risk assessment procedures in place for individuals awaiting WCA? The effect on people who are already vulnerable of long waits for assessments that may result in removal or refusal of benefit is a matter of huge concern.

I’ll be contacting the DWP to let them know of ‘John’s’ situation. Many thanks to him for talking about his circumstances.

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Not laughing on the way to the #foodbank: ‘Marie’ the carer and her sons

Marie (not her real name) is 53 and is separated from her husband,  although they are still legally married.  Despite her many health issues, she has been his full-time carer for four years.  He has dementia, while she lives with chronic arthritis, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and anger management issues. They have four sons in their 20s – three of whom still live with Marie. All four of her sons have mild to moderate learning difficulties.

Left with no benefits, she came into the London food bank last week with three of her sons for some help. Her employment and support allowance (ESA) – a benefit paid to the sick and disabled if they are unable to work – had been withdrawn.  It was stopped following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos (whose controversial contract with the government to undertake the tests is ending early). She was declared fit for work and her ESA payments officially stopped on October 16th – a day before her 53rd birthday.

In reality, she says her household hasn’t received any money  – other than one  son’s jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)  – since October 7th. When she began signing last week for JSA, she was not informed by staff at Jobcentre Plus when she would receive a payment. ‘I was due a payment on my birthday week, and that’s when I was told I wouldn’t get anything. I was beside myself  – I was crying a lot. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.’ Another son who lives with her has been told he has to go back on ESA, and her third son who lives at home is in the process of applying for ESA.

She’s very concerned about the impact of her dire financial situation on her housing. ‘Before the ESA was stopped they (the housing association) said that if I did not pay a certain amount of money I would be kicked out. They know my situation and I’ve got a month to let them know what payment I’m going to get.’

Marie broke down in tears as she explained her situation. One of the food bank volunteers brought her a cup of tea. She said that she’s the only person in her house who can read and write, and that she’s been trying to explain to Jobcentre Plus about her sons’ learning disabilities. She described a disconnect between what staff there are asking the young men to do and what their mother believes they can realistically manage. She’s also worried about the impact of the staffs’ approach on one son’s state of mind. ‘They had been telling my sons to do certain things – to meet certain criteria. They are trying – but they don’t meet the criteria required by work plans. They’ve got to look on the computer for jobs (on Universal Jobmatch).’

‘What upset me the most was that my youngest son, who’s 23, saw a disability officer at Jobcentre Plus – and she told him that he didn’t know anything. She was implying that my son was thick and that upset him and he was crying.’

Marie has applied for a mandatory reconsideration of the decision to turn down her ESA application. She is most concerned about having to stop caring for her husband, if she has to now actively search for work. ‘I can’t leave my husband, as my sons wouldn’t know what to do then things get tricky. I’m very loyal to him. I get upset because he’s got dementia and his memory is getting quite bad now. The life expectancy for what he’s got is about eight years. Because he’s been my rock, it’s been hard for me. In the past I could go and ask his advice.’

She adds: ‘My husband is on a low budget  – yet he’s been giving us a little money and food. It makes me feel awkward, because he’s on a tight budget himself.’ Her house is cold, she has to use key cards for her gas and electricity and put a little money at a time on them.  To wash, they have to fill up the kettle and use the sink. Her sons and herself suffer from chest problems. Places like the food bank (this is the fourth time she’s had to use it) have ‘ taken the pressure off, but it’s hit my self-esteem and dignity.’ But she says that if it hadn’t been for the food bank she doesn’t know what she would have done – as she has no support network.

A month ago she says she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, ‘because stuff was getting too much and I felt like ending my life – but I’ve got responsibilities to my husband and kids’. She says the stress she’s under is causing her to lose weight and ‘my hair is falling out’. She talks to mental health charity Mind and to her GP. She says her GP, who has known her for 30 years,  is ‘disgusted’ about the way the welfare system has handled her case.

She says she expects a decision on the mandatory reconsideration this week, and that if the answer is another refusal, she will immediately make an appointment with Citizens Advice to discuss next steps.

Marie left the food bank, with her sons helping her carry the bags of food.

This is how what some policy gurus  might call ‘radical changes to  the welfare system in the UK’  are converging to impact one family in London – the capital city of the world’s sixth richest economy by GDP.

 

Linda Tirado: ‘We’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’

Linda Tirado is a genius of a writer whose honest, direct, and unblinking book about what it’s like to be poor in the USA was published recently.  Hand to Mouth – The Truth About Being Poor in a Wealthy World describes her life as a young woman struggling to get by – which essentially means little more than to survive – in minimum wage jobs. She’s also funny and dry as a bone.

Her experiences with poor and insecure housing, little money for food or anything that might ever count as a treat, and the struggle to stay in decent health echo many of the accounts of the people I’ve interviewed at this London food bank during the last year and more.

Before she wrote her book, a post she had written went viral last autumn. It was in answer to a question she’d seen on a forum – ‘Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive?’ That essay, written after a ‘particularly gruelling shift at work’, nails the array of  difficulties that cause poverty, and leads them to make what seem like poor decisions.

We often get academics and think tanks outlining what effect this or that policy might be having on the behaviour of those in poverty. Politicians are fond of speculating about the motivations and needs of various groups – ‘lone parents’, ‘skivers’, ‘hard-working families’, ‘problem families’ and so on. But at last in Linda Tirado we find a woman who has by voicing her experiences, articulated something about the daily struggles of  many of those in poverty. These are stories that very seldom get any real exposure in the mainstream media.

She also showed those who have no idea – who literally have either a failure of imagination or have forgotten – what it could be like to not meet their own or their family’s basic needs.  It’s also a much-needed challenge to those who have a vested interest in telling us that poor people are lazy and feckless, or who continue to peddle myths about all work or workfare being a sure-fire way out of poverty. In the essay that led in the end to her book, she describes life as a low wage worker, with a husband employed erratically and with two small children to provide for. Some of her truths are (and all the words are Linda’s):

  • Rest is a luxury for the rich
  • Planning isn’t in the mix
  • We’ve learned not to try too hard to be middle class (it never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again)
  • Better not to try (see above)
  • Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?
  • Convenience food is just that
  • It’s hard to get a bank account
  • Nobody gives enough thought to depression.
  • I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor
  • I smoke. It’s expensive. It’s also the best option. You see. I am always, always exhausted. It’s a stimulant

The essay gets things kick-started. The book goes on to talk about a host of issues including sex, having children (‘We Do Not Have Babies for Welfare Money), and the cost of being poor (‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive’). In one chapter – ‘Being Poor Isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’ – she describes how she is ‘so used to seeing people beng punished for things they haven’t done wrong’.

She describes how in the USA ‘people seem to be increasingly afraid of the poor – building gated communities and taking separate entrances – but it’s not like criminal behaviour as we think of it has suddenly skyrocketed. We’ve just made more shit illegal. And once you have a criminal conviction, best of motherfucking luck getting a job if unemployment is above zero.’ All the chapters in the book resonated – but particularly this one. I thought of  what appears to be a growing anti-poor and anti-homeless culture here in London, where ‘defensive architecture’ such as metal spikes have been appearing on alcoves outside buildings where people might try to sleep. A policing operation in parts of London involved seizing tents and sleeping bags to ‘reduce the negative impact of rough sleepers’.

Poverty in the UK is also driving people towards criminal acts. I thought of the people – Kevin among them –  that I’ve spoken to at foodbanks and elsewhere  in London who say that they’ve broken the law by stealing food. They’ve done this because they’ve had their benefits sanctioned and have ended up with criminal convictions that will make their return to work even harder and with fines that are impossible to pay. They’ve had their benefits sanctioned, you see.

In the UK, programmes such as Benefits Street that purport to show what life’s like for the poor, seem to be designed to fill an empathy vacuum that’s growing between those with enough  – or maybe just enough –  to live on, and those who need to claim benefits.

Instead of relying on the media to tell you what you should be thinking about those on low incomes, why not get out and  have a direct conversation with someone who might be living around the corner from you about their life? Maybe you could offer to help out at your local foodbank? The Trussell Trust, for example, franchises a  fast-growing network of foodbanks throughout the UK. Even in the global financial centre and metropolis that is London I can guarantee there’ll be a foodbank closer to you than you ever might have imagined.

If this doesn’t work for you, then please give Linda’s book a go. It’s a real eye-opener of a read.

I’ll leave the last words to Linda:  ‘There are poor and working-class people everywhere, guys. You can just have a conversation with one, like a real human being. Give it a try. You’ll like it. We’re entertaining. We have to be; we’re stuck entertaining each other because cable is ridiculously expensive.’