Sunday, December 07, 2008

Welfare Reform

I'm sure many of the people who read this blog will have encountered the stories in the news about James Purnell's work for welfare plans. On the face of it, and to particular types of people (generally the ones who are well educated/spoken/connected/balanced/experienced/etc enough to have never had too much trouble getting a job) the plans seem quite reasonable - "severely disabled people" and single parents of babies under one will be supported, everyone else will have to work for their money. And let's face it, those are the people we want to help with our taxes. We've had quite enough of supporting entire workless families like the Malcolm family who fulfil every stereotype of a feckless wastrel benefit scrounger that you ever heard (seriously, whichever reporter dug that lot up deserves a bloody medal).

Why does it bother me anyway? I have a job. Well, it bothers me because I know how extremely lucky I am to have got into a position where I could look for work, let alone how fortunate I was to actually get a job. I know that all it takes is one factor to slip - Steve and I breaking up, a change in Access to Work criteria, the company I work for to collapse - and all of a sudden I will be back on the scrapheap, and in a jobs market which is terrifying compared to what it was a year ago. It also bothers me because I know too many people who are in similar positions to the one I was in before I moved in with Steve, who would like to be working and earning their own money but simply aren't in a position to manage it.

The first problem is this "severely disabled" idea. The criteria for this is incredibly stringent. The Benefits and Work website has a free Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) self-assessment test. I count as disabled, but not severely enough that my capacity for work-related activity would be considered "limited", which has surprised a couple of people who know me.

It's not just me though. Here's an example from the DWP's own guidance (pdf):

"Customer receiving DLA (middle rate care) and DLA(higher rate mobility). A person with severe rheumatoid arthritis affecting the hands and feet, limiting the ability to walk and needing some help to wash, dress, cut up food, and attend to toileting needs. The customer is living alone and nobody receives Carer’s Allowance for looking after him."

That is an example of someone who is NOT considered to have limited capability to undertake work-related activity.

They cannot walk, dress, wash, eat, or go to the loo unaided, but they are considered to be perfectly able to do full work-related activity. And they will face "sanctions" if they cannot manage it.

How on earth does that work?!?

The second problem is the idea of full-time work-related activity or community work. Regular readers will be aware that I recently had to bow out of a great interview for a job that I really wanted to do at a place where I really wanted to work, just because it was full time. I'd love to earn full-time wages but the unfortunate truth is that I cannot manage to do a full-time job AND keep on top of life's essentials such as showering and eating and so on - as we've covered before, I'm pretty stretched just working part-time.

These new plans, however, would have me "working" 9-5, and facing "sanctions" when I failed to manage it. Which brings us neatly on to the third issue, which is rates of pay.

Basic ESA is £60.50 per week, which is the same as Jobseeker's Allowance for a person over 25 years of age. Then there's £24 on top of it for participating in the Work-Related Activity. I understand this is the bit that gets withdrawn if you "refuse to co-operate" by, for example, being stubbornly too ill to leave the house on more than one morning.

I suspect there are very few people reading this who would consider working full time for £85 a week, but disabled people will have a choice between that and real heat-or-eat poverty. You see, there are two good reasons why Incapacity Benefit at the long-term rate is more than Jobseeker's Allowance. The first reason is that a disabled person generally has to cover more costs than an able-bodied person. DLA (supposedly) accounts for the additional personal-care-related and mobility-related costs, for instance Meals on Wheels and taxi fares, but there are also increases in general costs - things like having to do more laundry due to frequently spilling things, buying more trousers because they wear through at the knees as you crawl around your home, or having to have an internet connection because you do not have the capacity to get to and around the local shops nor the supermarket for your essential groceries. The second reason is that it generally takes longer for a disabled person to secure a job, during which time they will have more household expenses of the sort that the able-bodied person on short-term JSA could defer until they'd got a job. I'll explain. Even putting aside issues of access and discrimination at the interview stage... let's say that the odds of getting a job are one in a hundred, so if you apply for a hundred jobs you will get one of them. While an able-bodied person could, technically, apply for every job in the paper that they were qualified for and hit the hundred in a few weeks, a disabled person with the same level of qualifications will only be able to apply for the few jobs that also match their physical capabilities - it could take a year or more to find a hundred suitable jobs to apply for during which time the boiler will still need repairing and the wheelchair will need a service.

Even Reasonable Adjustments and Access to work can't make everything possible. A reminder of a post I made before I got my job:

"I still have certain limitations. The obvious physical symptoms of my illness rule out quite a lot of things, especially in terms of the usual easy-to-get minimum-wage flexible-hours jobs. I don't think I'm in any way 'above' cleaning toilets or serving fast-food or collecting trolleys from a supermarket carpark, but I would do such an ineffective job of those tasks that really, another person would have to be employed just to pick up my slack."

Which brings me to my final point. Even with the job that I do, which looked possible enough to make it worthwhile applying, it costs quite a bit of money to keep me in work. I need taxis to and from work. There are no other transport options available to me so the taxpayer contributes about £40 a week to my taxi fares (I pay the rest). I also have a special machine, a mechanical press, bought by the taxpayer as I cannot use the hand-press my co-worker uses. That was £500. Other people need different things - Lilwatchergirl needed a wheelchair, an office chair, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse, and a PDA; Lady Bracknell's Editor needed a laptop and "Secure Remote Access System" to enable her to work from home when necessary, plus however many man-hours were required to untangle the inevitable snarl-ups; various other people have required voice recognition software or Braille displays or even actual human assistants to help with certain parts of their work. That's before we even get started on the costs of things of uncertain merit like DEAs and Remploy. All things considered, I suspect there are more than a couple of us who cost more money "working" than they did claiming IB. How will the costs of enabling us to attend and accomplish "work-related activity" be met on top of paying full ESA?

I don't have all, or indeed any of the answers, but what I have heard so far about the reforms strikes me as badly-thought-out and more than a little scary.


The Goldfish said...

The reason I'm mostly not worried about this is that I'm sure most of what we've heard is rhetoric nonsense (in fact I would use a stronger word than nonsense). There have been so many threats made which, if they actually went ahead with it, the government would be shooting themselves in both feet and then refusing their own DLA application - both economically in terms of the administration and everything you describe (it is going to be far cheaper to let most of us alone), but also politically.

If most people on incapacity benefit now are placed in the "Employment" category of ESA, then you're going to get a whole load of bad statistics; people who they cannot find employment for, however much training or whatever else they can do. People who will be getting extra-help and failing to get into work, whilst even non-disabled people (who get no such help) will be struggling to get jobs. The last administration is often accused of moving people onto incpacity to deal with the bad employment stats. This lot aren't renowned for their resistance to spin.

If they were to actually penalise people financially for the effects of their ill health (missed interviews etc), then there would be an enormous scandal. People hate scroungers, but I'd say they hate to see sick and vulnerable people being bullied even more.

So personally, I'm not scared. But I also know that I'm in a pretty safe position. However, the rhetoric spouted about this by politicians and others is really harmful. There will be a lot of people, especially people with mental ill health (who have been held up as the ones who aren't seriously incapacitated need work as some sort of cure) who will be very worried about this. And that's not right or fair.

Mary said...

I realise on re-reading that this post probably has its fair share of rhetoric-spoutage, so first things first, an apology to anyone I've panicked.

I agree that the Great British Public would hate seeing sick and vulnerable people being bullied even more than they hate scroungers. It would be a scandal. To me, it already is a scandal - you don't want to know how many times I had to re-read the DWP example situations for who falls into the "work" or "support" categories, because I was sure I was getting it wrong.

Trouble is I have no faith in the government's ability to avoid shooting themselves in both feet.

The Goldfish said...

I hope you didn't think I meant you were being rhetorical - I mean all the stuff said in the media, by politicians and the like (few of whom seem to understand how current benefits work, let alone how things are going to work out).

And remember, the DWP's examples are about how much money people will receive as opposed to qualifying criteria, which isn't explained. I think the arthritis example is extreme, but it is conceivable that someone with a severe physical impairment can nevertheless work(with plenty of help).

However, you could have someone who has no physical impairment, gets no DLA but sleeps 18 hours of the day. They couldn't be expected to work full time because they're not awake long enough.

I would imagine that you would qualify for the Support category simply because doing more than you are doing would be dangerous to your health. Hopefully, you can build yourself up in time and be able to cope with more and more, But anyone who has observed the patterns of your health will recognise that you walk a very fine line. If you were obliged to work full time, then you would very quickly be in a position where you couldn't work at all...

porillion said...

Hi, Mary,

A well-written post. I wrote last Tuesday on my blog similarly.

I agree with what The Goldfish says that I think this is rhetoric nonsense by "our" government. (The government sprouting nonsense, not you!) This is, I suspect, aimed at deflecting attention from their inability to help people in genuine need. But there is an undercurrent of prejudice against those on benefits. That is something I'm more worried about. The government bodged the 2005 reforms of the DWP and put bad legislation through despite warnings from Community Legal Services and Child Poverty Action Group that the reforms would cause hardships. I myself lost £1,000 when I first claimed because of a massive legal black hole. And would have lost a further £250 because of a minor mix up, on their part of dates, had my MP not again intervened.

I'm not in such a good position myself. I have frequent and severe migraine caused by irreparable damage to my neck. My specialist says he has now done all he can (though he hasn't, in my view, tried to tackle the malaise that I get with or without actual pain). Despite this, my migraine rate is as high now as when I first signed onto Incapacity Benefit.

I'm not classified as disabled. But I have to wonder whether, in my case for example, it is reasonable to expect an employer to take on someone who would be at best unproductive typically half to one day twice a week - at random intervals? Is it reasonable to expect colleagues to, as they would see it, carry someone who is frequently ill? I would think not. I don't want or choose to be on benefits, and I certainly don't want or choose to be in pain or confused or "narcotic" during attacks. But I don't have a choice.

The "logical" assumption behind the legislation proposed, as I read it, is that either most claimants are criminal fraudsters and that this will catch them out, or that those with genuine claims will somehow get better just because of frequent monitoring and harsh words. To the first I can't say, but although I suspect some people I know of of being as much I doubt the majority are. I'm certainly not. As to the latter, that doesn't make any logical sense.

With the "recession/credit crunch/downturn/failure *in* the system" (for which read failure *of * the system which last time - 1930s - resulted in a depression) predicting between 3 and 3.5 million unemployed by this time next year, I don't see this plan as in any way workable.

Outraged? I suspect the British public will be. And how many of *us* have votes? (Noting that both Labour and Conservatives want to penalise or "incentivise" claimants.)

Anonymous said...

Everyone seems to be missing the point of these welfare reforms. They have nothing to do with getting people back into work, or cutting benefit budgets, or anything like that. The government knows full well that these idiotic schemes do not work. Their only purpose is to syphon off billions of pounds of tax payers money into the pockets of private companies (ie government cronies) who will be running them.

Gone Fishing said...
My post is probably fairly incohearrant but all I'd like to do is show what happens to people like us who simply strive to charge ahead and avoid having the "third wheels" complications of paid "lackeys" managing lives to their own apparent monetary advantage.

More and more I am convinced that we sell our freedoms for entitlements and the less we claim the more freedom we should have, however that it seems causes managers to become vindictive toward us in ways we never conceive as humanly possible zealous paternalism is a nasty thing to endure in my view!