Telling the full story of benefit changes

Mainstream media has shown very little interest in covering the coming changes to benefits and the impact that this will have. There is an occasional segment on TV news and a few more newspaper articles but even after two years of campaigning few people realise what is actually happening. The common reaction is disbelief and accusations of scaremongering and exaggeration.

My idea is to create an hour long documentary film using all the professional tricks to make it compelling and informative so that it conveys the full impact of the changes hitting people who live on benefits, whether unemployed, disabled or low-income. It would use personal stories, graphics, commentary, interviews and music to tell the story. The film does not have to convey a political message, only the reality of the changes. Any positive changes that can be found should be included too. I believe that even if made as unbiased as possible the film will be devastating in its message.

To get mainstream appeal the film could be narrated by and feature interviews with celebrities, with well-known paralympians potentially being the best choice but others too.

While a spot on television would be the ideal, these days a film on YouTube can get millions of views – potentially more than would see on TV. An online campaign using very short clips and hashtags could attract viewers. To raise the chances of it being seen on TV a ten minute version could be made using materials from the full version and sent to TV stations everywhere.

I’ve noted some of the steps that I think will be required. They’re not necessarily in any particular order.

  • Find a suitable name and some introductory branding
  • Create a website for the film
  • Crowdsource a list of all benefit cuts, eligibility reductions, care and service cuts and the impact of all this.
  • Start an awareness campaign on social media to get people involved.
  • Ask people to submit short clips through Vine and YouTube telling their stories and what they expect to happen. Clips can be recorded with smartphones or webcams. Gather these clips under a hashtag on twitter.
  • Raise funds through donations  for travelling to record interviews.
  • Interested parties meet to discuss content. Further meetings where appropriate in later steps.
  • Record interviews with celebs.
  • Follow up personal stories for better recordings.
  • Create graphics and animations to explain the changes.
  • Edit together a draft version of the film.
  • Record narration of the changes.
  • Create transcripts and subtitles.
  • Meet up physically and make a final version of the film.

This is all very much at the ideas stage, please comment with your views, suggestions, offers of help etc. Lets make this happen!

Concerns about prepaid benefit cards

The use of prepaid cash cards for benefit payments surfaced a few months ago. The Telegraph published a story that Iain Duncan Smith had asked his advisers to look at paying benefits to “problem families” on smart cards to limit their spending so that they could not buy alcohol or drugs. I wrote at that time about why the scheme is an awful idea including the imposition of the “nanny state” into people’s lives, inability to spend money locally where cards are not accepted and the impact of depriving people of entertainment and pleasure.

That was not an announcement of government policy, and indeed would go against Iain Duncan Smith’s stated aim that Universal Credit will teach financial responsibility and budgeting by unifying many benefits into one monthly payment. However in December Alec Shelbrooke MP introduced a ten minute rule bill to pay most benefits through such a scheme. Shelbrooke specifically intended the welfare cash card as a means to restrict spending by people who receive benefits, including housing benefit paid to people who work. The Telegraph wrote:

The Bill for Welfare Cash Card is designed to stop welfare claimants buying what Shelbrooke deems “NEDD” goods – Non-Essential, Desirable and often Damaging – which include cigarettes, alcohol and gambling. It would not affect those who cannot work and receive disability-related payments or those on the state pension, but it would apply to all other in-work or out-of-work benefits.

The Welfare Cash Card Bill 2012-13 is due for a second reading in March. A ten minute rule bill does not have the backing of government and is unlikely to become law but it may well influence debate and opinion in parliament and could pave the way for a government-backed bill.

I had hoped that this was the end of it, but today thinktank Demos has published a report advocating the use of prepaid debit cards for benefits. The report is backed by MasterCard, although Claudia Wood, the main author of the report has said that they had no input over the content.

https://twitter.com/WoodClaudia/status/296576264767160320

Prepayment cards for social care

Recommendation 1
In the face of unprecedented budget cuts, local authorities should explore the possibility of using prepaid cards for the distribution of personal budgets, as a tool to reduce administrative costs and reduce the budgetary cuts passed to front-line services. From Demos report The Power of Prepaid

Wood has written an article in The Guardian (With little to indicate that she is the author of the Demos report) explaining that Demos does not advocate using the cards to restrict spending, but as a tool for local authorities to allow better auditing and reduce paperwork. She writes:

“Brent council in north London estimates it was receiving 25,000 pieces of paper a year from care users. It expects a 10% reduction in its personal budget costs by using prepay cards.”

Ally Fogg has written a piece for Comment is Free about the potential savings for councils and the drawbacks – The dubious benefits of welfare payment cards. It seems that councils agree that there are savings to be made. According to Wood,

“About 25% of local authorities are using prepay cards and another 30% plan on doing so this year, mainly to distribute direct payments in social care.”

However while I can see a point here – that councils must audit spending of social care funding and direct payments, that doing so it expensive, that checking transactions from a prepaid card account is easier – I am not happy with the privacy implications. In order to audit the use of social care funding, councils will have to monitor the use of the card. At the moment recipients of Direct Payments have to send in paperwork every so often. One person told me theirs is checked annually. Monitoring of a payment card account, on the other hand, would be continuous or frequent. It may cause stress or fear of mistakes especially if a person chooses to juggle their finances and delay a payment.

Then there is the issue of how money is actually moved to pay for goods and services. Prepayment cards can usually pay through VISA or Mastercard services and so can be used in shops and online. The kind of payment card account that Demos advocate (and it is really a kind of bank account) could allow cash withdrawal, direct debits and bank transfers, which would allow payment to Personal Assistants and carers directly employed by a disabled person.

Prepayment card for Universal Credit

Recommendation 4
Prepaid cards should be used as a secure way to distribute Universal Credit for the unbanked.

From Demos report The Power of Prepaid

Prepaid cards might be a reasonable option for people who do not have bank accounts, but that should be entirely their choice. The Demos report mentions those who fear or do not want a bank account as potential candidates, but frankly if they don’t want a bank account then they won’t want a prepaid card which is basically a bank account with more limits. They especially will not want one which is selected and pushed on them by local or national government. If benefits must be paid into an electronic account then I think that the only acceptable solution here is to allow the recipient to select one. Basic bank accounts are available to most people barring some with particular criminal records and those without any form of ID, and I can’t see prepaid cards being available without ID. If someone who is actually unable to get a bank account wants a prepaid card instead then the choice of which one should be theirs alone.

Recommendation 5
In the longer term, the Government should explore the possibility of using prepaid cards to distribute Universal Credit or other benefits to financially vulnerable groups, possibly integrated with direct payments in health or care.

Some care users (such as those with learning disabilities, mental health needs or older people vulnerable to financial abuse) might find prepaid cards a beneficial way to spend both their health or care personal budgets and their disability related benefits. Those seeking to live with greater independence and develop life and budgeting skills, but who may need the safety net of oversight a prepaid card can offer, would find this particularly beneficial – the alternative at the moment is usually apointeeships and managed budgets, where people have little or no financial responsibility and cannot try to take on more.

From Demos report The Power of Prepaid

Demos also recommend that prepayment cards be considered for the payment of Universal Credit for those considered financially vulnerable. The main reason for this is to monitor their spending and prevent financial abuse through carers and relatives stealing money. Again there are privacy implications depending on who carries out the monitoring, violating a person’s right to a private life. I worry that the range of people considered to be vulnerable will be far too wide, such that people who are old or have mental health problems might be forced to have a prepaid card whether it would help prevent financial abuse or not.

Should the group receiving Universal Credit overlap with the group receiving social care funding then there are serious privacy implications regarding the release of their other spending data to the people monitoring the social care spending.

Concerns

I can see that there are benefits to using prepaid cards where local government has a duty to audit spending. I can see that there would be a saving. I am concerned, all the same, that such monitoring goes beyond what they are required to do and turns something that might be fairly unintrusive and infrequent into a continuous process that will infringe on a person’s right to a private life and will cause stress.

I am concerned that splitting income into separate financial systems – bank account and prepaid card – will allow less flexibility to juggle expenses in the face of the poverty which many disabled people face. It will also cause an increase in administration. [Claudia Wood has pointed out to me that a separate bank account is already legally required for a personal budget. I do think that requiring it to be with a separate financial provider instead of the same bank is a drawback though.]

I am concerned that the prepaid card provider is chosen by government and not the individual. I do not believe that a particular bank or financial service should be forced on someone. If payments must be made electronically then the choice of bank or prepaid card provider must be up to the individual.

I am concerned that these cards will be pushed out of profit motive. Prepaid card provider allpay has already jumped to capitalise on the report from Demos to sell their prepaid cards to councils for the payment of social care funding. An article which is more or less an advertisement for allpay appeared yesterday. (Call for ‘revolutionary’ welfare payments move) The allpay website dedicates a section of its front page to talking about “Welfare reform: how we’re supporting housing associations and councils”. Payment card providers such as allpay will receive a fee every time their card is used, just as with a debit card or credit card so of course it is in their interest to see that benefits are paid through their service.

I am concerned that the use of prepaid cards will be normalised through the requirement for monitoring some payments and will then spread further to all people in receipt of benefits before being used to restrict spending. This report is a subtle shift in argument away from preventing “waste” of benefits on alcohol and cigarettes and Sky TV, and onto responsibility and independence but other politicians and groups still want the ability to dictate what benefits can be spend on. In fact Radio 4 spoke to Alec Shelbrook MP at length this morning and Shelbrook heavily pushed the idea, with Claudia Wood arguing against him. While The Guardian recognised the point that Demos were making in their coverage, The Telegraph has also covered it from the point of view of restricting spending, claiming the card would “help them stop spending taxpayer cash on gambling, cigarettes and alcohol”.

I think when considering the points raised by Demos we should keep individual freedom and privacy foremost in mind and we should realise that there are a lot of things that could be done to save money that we don’t consider acceptable compromises.

Further Reading

Thinktank recommends issuing benefit cash on ‘prepay’ cards – The Guardian

‘Welfare cash cards’ are much more than a tool of state control – article in The Guardian by the author of the Demos report

Benefits on pre-paid cards? – This Morning, Radio 4

Ministers should consider paying benefits via ‘Oyster-style’ cards – The Telegraph

Call for ‘revolutionary’ welfare payments move – an article promoting prepaid cards to councils

The Power of Prepaid – The report from Demos

‘Welfare cash cards’ can help reduce the benefits bill and stop people buying booze and fags with taxpayer’s money – Telegraph

Welfare Cash Card Bill 2012-13 – parliament.uk

The dubious benefits of welfare payment cards – Comment is free

Welfare cash cards and spying: the Tory approach to unemployment – Comment is free

 

Letter to my MP on new ESA regulations #esaSOS

As promised, although a little late due to lack of spoons, here is the email that I sent to my MP regarding the new ESA regulations. Feel free to take any text from this for your own use.

Dear Mr Luff,

I would like to apologise for the swearing incident which led you to block me on Twitter. As I am sure you must realise by now I suffer from mood swings and anger triggered by chronic pain and the painkillers which I take for it – something which will be inadmissible at my next Work Capability Assessment.

I have been shocked to read about new ESA regulations which will come into force on the 28th of January 2013 and I am writing to express my strong opposition to them. I appreciate that not much can be done at this late stage but this is in no small part due to the regulations coming into force less than six weeks after their announcement.

The new regulations allow a decision to be made about benefits based purely on the supposed difference that a suggested change, therapy, aid or medicine would make. This is already the case some of the time but will be much expanded in the new regulations. The new regulations do not require the Atos Health Care Professional (HCP) to discuss the suggested change with the benefit claimant before a decision is made by the DWP. It is of vital importance that any medicine, mobility aid or prosthetic or other change that an Atos HCP might feel would improve the claimant’s chances of working should be signed off by the patients own specialist doctors and by the claimant themselves before any decision. The Atos HCP is not the claimant’s doctor, (indeed, they are usually not a doctor at all) is not knowledgeable of the claimant’s condition, and the Work Capability Assessment, by the DWP’s own admission, is not a medical assessment.

There are numerous reasons why the change that the Atos HCP suggests might not be appropriate. It is quite possible that the change might not be available in that area or at all or might involve a very long waiting list. In Worcestershire, for example, wheelchairs are not available at all to people who can stagger around their own home. Prosthetic limbs are expensive everywhere. In many cases a person may be advised not to use a wheelchair, prosthetic limb or other aid because to do so will hasten the progression of their disease. A claimant may well have tried or considered a particular change but ruled it out because of negative side effects.

Even if the change were considered by doctors and the patient, there is the huge issue of consent. This change could compel people to take up a particular medical treatment through pressure from removal of their benefits and several legal experts have suggested that this could well breach their human rights. To push ahead with this could be extremely costly for the DWP when legal cases are brought.

Even worse than the above change, the new regulations will strictly separate the impact of mental health conditions and physical health conditions. This is an absurd change which ignores the reality of illness. Many medications for mental health problems cause physical problems, and many pain drugs cause cognitive problems. Impairments caused by a problem in the other category must be taken into account.

I do hope that you will agree with me that these regulations are a serious problem and will express your opposition to them.

Sincerely,

Steven Sumpter.

Sneaky Work Capability Assessment rules judge you fit for work based on imaginary help

There are new regulations for Employment Support Allowance about to come into force on the 28th of January. These regulations were proposed only six weeks before they will come into force, leaving very little time for the impact to be considered.

Worse, these regulations make drastic changes to the assumptions made during the assessment that will result in even more people being refused sickness benefits or told to take part in work-related activity.

ESA SOS! Refusing help
Doc Hackenbush explains the change (Click to enlarge)

The two big changes are:

An assessor can consider what mobility aids, equipment, medical treatments or medicines might help the claimant return to work, and then, without consulting them as to whether the change is suitable, they can judge them fit for work or for work related activity based on them making that change. This completely ignores things like side-effects of medication, suitability of adaptions and mobility aids, or even if such help is available to the individual. This could already happen to some extent, such as with wheelchairs, but will now apply to a far wider range of changes. This also raises the huge problem of medical treatment without consent, since refusing to take a drug that could help a person return to work, even for very good reasons, could lead to benefits being withdrawn.

The second huge change is to how the the assessment considers the relationship between mental and physical health conditions. Where previously any disability or restriction could be applied to any activity, whether it was caused by mental problems or physical problems. These new regulations will strictly separate the two such that one set of questions considers purely physical restrictions, and another set purely mental restrictions. You may be completely unable to perform a task due to mental illness, but be considered able to physically and therefore able to full stop. This equally applies to side effects of medicines. For medicines that treat mental health conditions, only the impact of side effects ON mental health will be considered. Crippling physical side effects caused by treatment for mental health will be completely ignored when deciding that a person can work.

These changes will pull the rug from under the feet (or wheels) of hundreds of thousands more people who are struggling to live, never mind to earn a wage. Make no mistake; whatever the intention of these changes, this is a cut in support.

What you can do

The clearest analysis of these changes that I have read is from Ekklesia. Briefing on ESA Regulations [Ekklesia] I recommend that you read this.

Please write to your MP urgently to oppose these new regulations. You can find and contact your email through Write to Them. My own communication with my MP will be available on this blog later today.

Please share this and other blogs about this subject on Twitter with the hashtag #esaSOS as well as on Facebook and anywhere else you think suitable. A tweet of your own will have far more impact than a retweet.

Please also add your signature to the War On Welfare petition to call for a cumulative impact assessment of this government’s welfare reforms.

Further Reading

DWP guidance on the changes: Memo DMG 1/13 [PDF]

The Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012 [legislation.gov.uk]

Diary of a benefit scrounger: ESA SOS

Thousands of disabled and sick people will be hit by new ESA/WCA changes [Ekklesia]

 

Banks and benefits

I recently applied for a new credit card. Not because I want more credit, but because I have a credit card at the moment which is carrying more than a thousand pounds of debt and charging me 34% APR for it and I want to move to a cheaper card. I’ve had that level of debt for years now no matter how hard I try to pay it off and I’m certain a large part of that is paying a third of the balance a year in interest charges.

Applying for credit while living on benefits isn’t straightforward. First off, you have to specify your occupation. I’d love to reply “working full time managing my illness” but that isn’t an option. As someone who cannot work I resent having to select “unemployed” from the list. Some people have suggested that the correct option is “retired” but if so then the banks have not said this anywhere that I can see. I’d really like the banks to clarify what someone who cannot work should chose, or add an option to specify that.

The larger problem is working out what income to put and how it is arranged. Do all benefits count as income? Are some excluded because they are less likely to continue? Is DLA excluded because it covers costs that other people don’t have? Some benefits are paid jointly to a couple, how do you divide that up?

In my case, I receive Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance. My wife receives Carer’s Allowance. We jointly receive Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit. It’s quite hard to know which of those count as income in the view of the bank.

I would like to see the banks add an option to the list of occupations for people who cannot work due to sickness and disability, and I would like them to clearly state what benefits count as income and how to divide them up.

Compulsory Jobs Guarantee

Labour have announced their answer to unemployment. They have called it a “compulsory jobs guarantee”.

“A One Nation approach to welfare reform means government has a responsibility to help people into work and support those who cannot, but those who can work must be required to take up jobs or lose benefits as a result – no ifs or buts.” – Ed Balls

Under the scheme those who have received Job Seeker’s Allowance for two years would be sent to work for six months. The scheme would be funded by reinstating tax on income used for pension contributions. On the face of it, guaranteed work is a great idea. Providing jobs for anyone that wants them is fine with me. I see a few problems though.

  • The work will only last six months.
  • Only people unemployed for two years will get it. (At first, anyway.)
  • We have no idea what that work will be, what organisation it will be with, or if it will be meaningful work or just activity to pass the time.
  • Removal of benefits for those who do not take up this unspecified compulsory work.

The compulsion is the biggest problem to me. There are lots of reasons why this work may not be a good idea. Off the top of my head, the unemployed person may be in training towards finding a job for themselves, they may be engaged in voluntary work in their field to keep themselves employable, or, indeed, voluntary work providing valuable services, they may have been judged fit for work and removed from sickness benefits while not actually being fit enough to do the compulsory guaranteed work, they may have childcare or other carer responsibilities that their work must fit around.

I have serious reservations about what organisations this work will be for. Current schemes, commonly derided as Workfare, involve sending people on benefits to work unpaid for supermarkets and shops such as Tesco and Argos, or in charity shops. These schemes are a direct subsidy to those businesses with free labour and result in less work available for paid employees. Sending people to work for a business for six months at a time would make this situation even worse with more loss of paid jobs.

It is my belief that there are not and cannot be enough jobs available for everyone. We are able to fulfil all our needs with less than full employment, and capitalism has already got providing things that we want covered. There are places where people could find work if only funding were available – healthcare, housing, and education and all those services and public sector jobs that have been cut. Government should invest in teachers, social housing and the NHS, which would boost jobs in those fields. The so-called “culture of worklessness” is a myth, and I believe that people would happily work in those jobs.

In my ideal world we would pay every citizen enough to live on, and working for more income would be optional but until then let’s at least get some social security that isn’t based on scrounger rhetoric.

https://twitter.com/itsmotherswork/status/287097851266351104

More information

Ed Balls: Britain needs real welfare reform that is tough, fair and that works – Politics Home

Labour announce compulsory work scheme for long term unemployed – and those who refuse to take part could lose benefits – Labour List

Labour proposes ‘tough but fair’ jobs and welfare scheme – The Guardian

Recomended Reading

Why does everyone have to work? – A Latent Existence

Poor vs poorer – A Latent Existence

What might a world without work look like? – Nina Power – Comment Is Free

Are ‘cultures of worklessness’ passed down the generations? – Joseph Rowntree Foundation

 

Voters ‘brainwashed by Tory welfare myths’, shows new poll – The Independent

 

The continuing saga of my electric wheelchair

I have to use a wheelchair for most journeys outside of my home and car. Because I do not need one inside the home I do not qualify for any help at all from Worcestershire Wheelchair Services even though an NHS occupational therapist has agreed that I need it, and I get High Rate Mobility Allowance and a Blue Badge for parking because of my inability to walk. I use my DLA to lease a Motability car and I bought my own manual wheelchair which I can only self-propel about as far as I can walk.
My current power wheelchair
My current power wheelchair
I would benefit greatly from an electric wheelchair because at the moment I require someone to push my wheelchair. With an electric wheelchair I would be able to visit places without my wife. My wife intends to go back to work and I won’t be able to go anywhere without her that requires walking more than few metres from my car. Even the medical appointments will be difficult.
After all the drama detailed in previous blog posts herehere and here I applied to a local charity that provides grants for people in and around the area including helping with mobility. They aren’t a disability charity and so they don’t have a great understanding of my problems. They seem convinced that because they have purchased mobility scooters for several people with my illness, that I should be able to get buy with a scooter too instead of an expensive electric wheelchair. My correspondence with them has dragged on for months since I first applied. When I first looked at a suitable chair to obtain a quote I asked about a second controller which would enable an attendant to operate the chair if I were too exhausted to. (This can happen after a long day.) The charity administrator immediately panicked on seeing this in the quote and demanded that I get my doctor to write a letter saying that I could safely operate a power wheelchair. This despite the fact that I drive a car! I had the second controller removed from the quote anyway when I realised that it cost about £500 extra but they still insisted. Obtaining that letter took three months, after which I was sent another letter which I detail here.
Further to your application for an electric wheelchair, we have now received confirmation from your Doctor that you are suffering from ME and would benefit from a mobility vehicle.
However the electric wheelchair you have requested has been quoted by INDY at £2410.22 [This is the price with 2nd controller] which is greatly above what trustees would normally consider for someone with your health grounds. In similar circumstances they have purchased a Aerolite Scooter in the region of £800 which easily fits into the boot of a car.
In order for Trustees to consider your request we would ask that you obtain a report from an independent Occupational Therapist as to why such a specialist chair is necessary for your condition.
I did contact my NHS Occupational Therapist but she declined to provide such a report. I have no idea where to go to pay for a report or if that is suitable so this is where it has stopped for the last two months. I have already considered and tested mobility scooters. They are unsuitable for several reasons:
  1. My size 12 feet do not fit within the footplate of the more affordable smaller scooters and instead sit awkwardly across different levels of the scooter.
  2. The seats on all the scooters that I have tried do not give enough support to my back, leading to pain.
  3. Stretching my arms out to the handlebars puts pressure on my wrists leading to increased pain, and using the arm rests causes me to slouch forward, hurting my back again.
  4. I would have to leave it outside some shops, which is no good as I cannot stand and walk for long enough to queue or browse the shelves for what I need.
  5. I cannot take a scooter on a bus. They’re not allowed.
A larger scooter would solve part of this problem including footspace and seat height, but would cost more and still hurt my arms and hands. The one I tried was also too heavy for me to lift into my car and possibly too big to fit. A proper electric wheelchair would have a good seat, proper arm support, a controller suitable for the level of pain in my hands, enough space for my feet, would be allowed in shops and other places, and could go on buses.
Since my application I have actually bought a second hand electric wheelchair for £300 but while useful on occasion it is far too bulky to go in my car and the batteries are nearly worn out and will soon require expensive replacements. If this local charity insist they will only pay for a scooter then there really is no point in my getting one. I’ll have to use my current chair until it dies for journeys on public transport and will have to have someone with me to push when I go out in my car. I’ll be writing to the charity with all of my reasons and I will also suggest to them that they purchase a slightly cheaper electric wheelchair, although finding one that is both cheap and reliable will prove tricky.