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.

If you can only walk twenty metres you’ll get no help

20m in the house of commonsWhen PIP starts to replace Disability Living Allowance next year anyone who can walk just twenty metres will not qualify for help with mobility. Twenty metres is less than the distance most of the disabled parking bays at my local Tesco are from the door. It’s really not much. Hundreds of thousands of people will no longer get a mobility allowance and as a result will no longer be eligible to lease a Motability car. One day it might be you that needs this.

The government has also left out the phrase “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a timely manner” from the PIP regulations. This means that if a person can do something just once, or can push through pain to do it, they might not get help and can’t even challenge it at tribunal.

These are just two of the largest problems. Please write to your MP and ask them to fix this urgently. I can’t stress enough how urgent this is. You can contact your MP at Write To Them

There is lots more information at We Are Spartacus.

Please also sign the (Stop the) War On Welfare petition which is calling for government to do a cumulative impact assessment on welfare reform. A great many changes are being made all at once and yet the government have not stopped to consider how they will affect people when taken all together.

This is the message that I sent to my MP, you can use mine as a starting point for your own if you are stuck. Remember that MPs pay more attention to unique messages.

Dear xxxxxxx,

I am writing to you about the new Personal Independence Payments (PIP) which will soon replace DLA. It has emerged following the publication of the PIP regulations last week that there are many problems with the regulations, two of which are extremely serious.

Under PIP a person who can walk just 20 metres will not be eligible for the mobility component of PIP. That is an astonishingly short distance. Even the closer disabled parking bays at my local Tesco are twenty metres from the entrance. This decision will deny mobility allowance to hundreds of thousands of people who rely on it, and an estimated 100,000 people will lose their Motability cars in the first year alone as a result.

I also note with alarm that the phrase “safely, reliably, repeatedly and in a timely manner” has not been included in the regulations. This phrasing is extremely important, since a person may be able to do something once but then not again for hours – effectively meaning that the activity cannot be done, but PIP will take no account of that.

Government ministers claim that the vulnerable will be protected. I hope that you can see why I am so concerned about PIP and how this will leave people trapped in their homes without transport and denied support for even the bare minimum of activities that they must perform. Please can you give me your assurance that these regulations will be amended so that disabled people can continue with their lives.

Sincerely,

[Name and address]

 

Poor vs poorer

The Conservative party have launched this advert in 60 areas.

Tory scrounger ad

It reads

Who do you think this government should be giving more support to?

Hardworking families…

Or people who won’t work?

Compare that to the recent findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

We undertook concerted, intensive fieldwork in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough but we were unable to locate any families with three generations who had never worked.

If we cannot find a ‘culture of worklessness’ here, amongst these extreme cases of very long-term unemployed families, we are unlikely to find it anywhere.

Even worse, the adverts lead to a statement at the Conservative web site which tries to present benefit rises with inflation as unfair by pointing out that wages have not risen as much. Two questions are asked:

Should benefits increase more than wages?

Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that the average family earns through going to work?

There is a text box to enter your own comments but it is limited to 300 characters which makes it very difficult to say much at all. Here is what I wrote:

I object; your questions are loaded. Benefits must rise in line with with the cost of living but wages must rise dramatically to stop exploiting workers. Austerity is an ideological choice and is destroying our country. Stop pitting poor against poorer in the hope that we won’t notice your crimes.

In my opinion this campaign is a disgusting attack on the poorest people in our society and it is aimed at pitting poor people against poorer people by vilifying unemployed people and presenting a false dichotomy that we can only help one group. It tries to incite resentment among people who are not paid enough against people who receive even less. This campaign is furthering that favourite Tory lie of deserving and undeserving poor. It is utterly disgusting.

 

 

 

Why does everyone have to work?

An audio version of this blog post is available on episode 164 of The Pod Delusion, 40 minutes in.

A lot of tasks are carried out by people not employed to carry them out. People care for relatives, cook for neighbours, run clubs for children, look after communal gardens where they live. This is the real big society. Many of these people are not in employment at all, never mind paid to do what they do.

Others pursue hobbies that might bring great joy to them and to society, or provide useful innovations applicable to other things. Writers, inventors, amateur scientists, musicians, artists – all produce things of great worth to society. When people work all hours for an employer these tasks are neglected but when people work less or not at all they are free to pursue these things.

Parents are not valued by society for the task that they do, instead it being expected that both parents in a couple will work

There is worth in a vast number of tasks that are not part of “work” and yet these tasks are not valued by people and government does not see any worth outside of a paid job.

Current attitudes to welfare benefits seem to focus on dividing people into deserving and undeserving poor. Politicians argue that we should have more conditionality in our system; that we should return to an insurance style of benefit for out-of-work benefits so that those who have not spent enough time in work cannot claim the same benefits that those who have worked for years can. They want to take benefits away from those who don’t make enough effort to find a job. The Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity scheme send people to do unpaid work for big businesses and charities, punishing those who refuse by taking away their tiny benefits for weeks, months or even years, even though such “work experience” is often simply manual labour that requires little training and does not help anyone to find a permanent job. Many people express the opinion that those in receipt of welfare benefits should not have “luxuries” such as Sky TV or broadband, and resent such things being paid for by benefits out of tax funds, seeing themselves as personally paying for such things. Indeed, government ministers have floated the idea of paying benefits in the form of payment cards that cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco which is a terrible idea.

The question that I want to ask, though, is why does everyone have to work?

I believe the answer is that they don’t.

In our modern industrial society we have driven down the cost of production through two things: exploitation of cheap overseas labour, and mechanisation and automation. I will come back to the first of these later, but what of the second?

Mechanisation has vastly reduced the need for labour. More could be done to continue this trend, but historically it has been opposed by unions because it puts people out of work. I think the time has come to say GOOD. Let’s put people out of work. Automate everything that can be automated. The remaining jobs should be divided up between everyone who wants to work, reducing the hours of all jobs until all those who want to work have the working hours that they want.

Of course doing so would leave many people without any income, or dependant on Job Seeker’s Allowance and looking for jobs that just don’t exist. (As is already the case.) These people cannot be punished for failing to find jobs that don’t exist, that is indefensible. I propose a change in the way that society thinks about people who do not work. We must stop resenting them, stop begrudging them any small luxuries that they may have, and instead pay them a decent income that allows a decent life. But that would be unfair! Why should they get something that you do not? Well there is a solution to that. Pay a salary to everyone, working or not, deserving or not. This concept is known variously as Universal Income, Citizen’s Income, Basic Income, or combinations thereof. Here’s how it would work:

Every adult citizen would receive a salary, paid to them by the government, of enough to cover basic living costs. It would perhaps be set at a level that would cover one person living in a shared house or a couple living together.

To finance this, the tax allowance would be abolished. Instead the citizen’s income would be paid tax free, and all earnings from other sources would be taxed at the standard rate from the start. Nearly all in-work and out of work benefits would also be abolished. Anyone without a job would stop receiving Job Seeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit as those are replaced by the Citizen’s Income. Indeed, Housing Benefit to anyone who is in work would also cease.

Sick and disabled people would no longer receive ESA. They would receive Citizen’s Income too. In their case, though, they have additional expenses and a higher cost of living caused by needing to adapt things around them and inability to access some services so they would still receive Disability Living Allowance to provide for that, and care would still be funded by government.

The benefits that Citizen’s Income would bring are large. There would be no need to means-test people, and means testing is expensive. There would be no reason to track people’s efforts to look for work, and there would be no reason to punish anyone for not working – eliminating a huge bureaucracy required to do those things. There would be no stress and fear of losing benefits imposed on people who for one reason or another cannot work, no Work Capability Assessment – leading to improvements in health and quality of life.

Of course people will object to those choosing not to work, which is why we all need to approach the idea with less judgement. Although benefit fraud is tiny and the number of people who would choose not to work is low, such people do exist. There are people who do not want to work and there are people who are just plain unemployable. Under the current and proposed systems they would be punished for not finding work and ultimately end up homeless or dependant on family or charity if anyone at all. I do not think doing this is the action of a humane society. Would it not be better to let these people stay out of the workplace, avoid employing people who do not want to be there or would not do a good job? It may well be that eventually such people will decide that they do want to work and will then find a job that they want to do and pay taxes. There are many people that do want to work but only part time, and a Citizen’s income would enable them to do so where the current system would make it impossible.

Allowing more people to work for less hours might also have the benefit of making some jobs more attractive so that work currently carried out overseas or by immigrants becomes feasible to carry out locally, thus working towards solving the problem of exploitation of cheap overseas labour.

Such a system would have to be introduced alongside rent caps to prevent private landlords from taking advantage of more available income by inflating rents. I cannot pretend that a Citizen’s Income would not be very attractive to people in some other countries too, and short of introducing the idea worldwide we would have to consider carefully how to treat immigrants. (This sentence makes me uncomfortable, but I think it does need to be considered.)

Citizen’s Income would:

  • Replace the tax allowance and the benefits system
  • Make savings on means testing and administration
  • Allow freedom to work part time, full time or not at all
  • Allow the pursuit of hobbies and interests away from work
  • Produce inventions and innovations that benefit us all
  • Result in the production of books, music and art
  • Allow people to perform services for others and their community
  • Shift the balance of power from employers to employees
  • Provide security when jobs are not secure
  • Remove the fear and stress of disability assessments

The whole idea of Citizen’s Income necessitates a huge shift in the way that our society thinks but since many are calling for a rethink of our welfare system anyway I think now is the time to consider it.

Disclaimer: I am no expert, so if I have made any errors or misrepresented anything please let me know.

Further Reading

Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]

Basic Income Earth Network

Citizen’s Income Trust

A Universal Basic Income

Global Basic Income Foundation

 

Iain Duncan Smith is proud of getting people off benefits

IDS - "We've heard enough of you"
“We’ve heard enough from you.”

Owen Jones confronted Iain Duncan Smith with the names of two people who have died as a result of the work capability assessment. He did not react well. I urge you to watch this video of the last part of Question Time, particularly the last minute if you want to see what IDS is really like.

“Hang on a second, we’ve heard a lot from you. Let me tell you something. I didn’t hear you screaming about two and a half million people who are parked, nobody saw them for over ten years, not working, with no hope, no aspiration, we are changing their lives, I am proud of doing that, getting them off benefit is what we are going to do.”

Iain Duncan Smith is proud of getting people off benefits. Never mind that there is no work for them to go to even if they can, and that the way lives are being changed is by sending people further into poverty and homelessness. Not only that, but he thinks that being “parked on benefits” and left alone is a bad thing. Well those of us on permanent sickness and disability benefits do have hopes and aspirations. We hope to not have too much pain today and we aspire to getting the care that we need so that we can undertake something entertaining that isn’t lying in bed waiting to die. We probably don’t aspire to being a rich Tory, which is probably similar to being dead in the head of Iain Duncan Smith. As for nobody seeing sick people, now they are being reassessed so frequently that they are committing suicide. Winning an appeal at tribunal often leads to an immediate call to another assessment.

https://twitter.com/crazybladeuk/status/271197324594786305

Dead people don't get benefits
Dead people don’t get benefits – cartoon by @dochackenbush

Further Reading

Brian Mcardle: Atos benefits bullies killed my sick dad, says devastated Kieran, 13

Karen Sherlock: How many more disabled people will die frightened that their benefits will be taken away?

Karen’s Story – RIP Karen Sherlock, Disability Rights Campaigner – Died June 8th 2012

Hundreds more: The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment

 

Third Harrington review of the Work Capability Assessment

The third independent review of the Work Capability Assessment [PDF] by Professor Harrington has been released today. I am not particularly impressed with it, particularly Harrington’s criticism of those who have campaigned against the current welfare reform.

The WCA continues to be portrayed in an extremely negative light, often fuelled by adverse media coverage, representative groups and political points scoring. Whilst the Review continues to hear examples of individuals who have been poorly treated by the WCA process, DWP can be reasonably pleased with what they have achieved. Some recognition of the considerable work to date would give a more balanced picture and DWP needs to be more proactive in communicating this. [Emphasis mine.]

I don’t know what world Harrington inhabits but that “adverse media coverage” was brought about by relentless campaigning from those who are directly affected in horrendous ways – “representative groups” and the only “political points scoring” we’ve made has been nearly universally against all three main parties. We have had a very hard time getting people within those parties to see the problem at all. Calling for the DWP to get better PR is not the solution.
Right in the foreward I was struck by his comments about tribunal judges.

Recommendations on the training of professionals in DWP Operations, Atos Healthcare and the Tribunals have produced some limited progress. In particular, it is regrettable that the First-tier Tribunal has effectively distanced itself from the rest of the WCA. Feedback from the Judges to the Decision Makers has, at last, started in a rudimentary way. However, much, much more is needed if we are to see a real dialogue between the Judges and the Decision Makers. This must happen on cases where there is a difference of opinion on what category is appropriate for that case based on the same set of evidence. For the First-tier Tribunal to suggest that the WCA Independent Review has no remit to consider the appeal stage of the process is illogical and untenable in my view. [Emphasis mine.]

Harrington is calling for feedback from tribunal judges to the Atos assessors and the DWP decision makers over why they reached different decisions to those made by the DWP. However the comments that Robert Devereux DWP private secretary made before the Public Accounts Committee on the 19th appear to be directly quoting the paragraph above out of context and instead criticised the tribunal judges for reaching a different decision. His thought appears to be that if looking at the same evidence then the decision should also be the same, without considering that the original decision makers might have been wrong. What Devereux and Harrington both seem to have missed is that Atos and the DWP have often failed to look at the evidence at all and the face-to-face assessment is not likely to find anything that strays from the Lima computer system’s checklist. There have been many cases where Atos and DWP staff have refused to look at evidence from healthcare professionals or refused to wait for evidence, and many more cases where evidence has been lost in the system somewhere between health care professional and decision maker.

One of Harrington’s conclusions stood out to me:

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) remains a valid concept for assessing benefit claimants’ eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Whilst the WCA continues to garner considerable – and sometimes, but not always, justifiable – criticism the Independent Reviewer has not seen or heard any compelling arguments or evidence that the whole system should be scrapped. Instead it needs to be made fairer and more effective by improving both the process and the technical descriptors used to assess eligibility.

I know a lot of people would disagree with that, but I think this is a lost battle and the public will continue to support assessments in this way. I took a little more hope from his recognition that we do need change.

A number of the major charities in this year’s call for evidence say that although they have seen some change for the better, it is disappointingly incomplete in coverage and depth. I agree with them. Changing such a large and complex process and such a controversial assessment takes time – it is happening.

So far as the descriptors are concerned, progress has been positive but slow. We are close to a new and much improved set of provisions for cancer treatment. For the mental, intellectual and cognitive conditions descriptors and for the fluctuating condition descriptors, work is underway for a formal review of new proposals from a number of charities to compare them with the existing descriptors. This work will continue into 2013 and I have been asked to chair the expert independent steering group overseeing the quality and validity of the evidence-based review. It is important to wait for the results of this before rushing to conclusions about how to change the descriptors.

We know from earlier this year that the DWP have been testing new descriptors and I hope that there will be progress on these so that serious conditions affecting ability to function which are currently missed will be noted in future. Also note in the paragraph above that Harrington is to continue working with the DWP on this aspect.

Media-friendly Cancer

I am concerned that cancer treatment has been singled out as needing special attention once again. Cancer is very bad and unpleasant and everyone knows someone who has had it, that’s why it is politically dangerous to send patients on chemotherapy to work. However many other conditions are equally serious and yet not so media-friendly and are therefore treated differently. The Work Capability Assessment is supposed to be about assessing the impact of the condition on ability to function, not what treatment is being received.

Recommendations

Harrington made a number of recommendations to the DWP. I am pleased that the first is for decision makers to consider the need for further documentary evidence. Whether they will do this or not is another question but as I said before the gathering of evidence is a big problem.

It is essential that all relevant medical and allied evidence about the claimant is available to the DWP Decision Maker at the earliest possible stage in the assessment process. If this can be achieved then Tribunals will be based on Judges and Medical Members considering the same body of evidence as the Decision Maker did.

Less pleasing is his second recommendation:

DWP Operations need to find an appropriate balance between better quality decisions that are carefully considered and ‘right first time’ and the achievement of appropriate benchmarks at a local level.

Now I could be wrong here, but that looks very much like a target.

The third recommendation is that the DWP should try to get more feedback from tribunals as to why decisions are overturned. This seems reasonable as it could affect change in the decisions made to start with. The fourth recommendation is that the DWP must highlight improvements, and be open about problems. As I said before, better PR for the DWP is not the answer. I’m open to hearing about improvements made but not if they are used to distract from problems that remain unsolved.

As an antidote to this review I recommend that you look at The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment from We Are Spartacus. Also note that DWP statistics released yesterday [PDF] show that 53% of the people placed in the Support Group for ESA are put there without a Work Capability Assessment.

I’ll leave you with this comment from Harrington.

Considerable disquiet remains, and this cannot be ignored

You’re damn right it can’t!

 

Poor and disabled? Tories think you’re a troublemaker

I wrote yesterday about the plans by Iain Duncan Smith to restrict what “troubled families” can spend benefits on through the use of smart cards, and why this is a terrible idea for many reasons. It’s even worse than that though. The plan is to get councils to send “troubleshooters” to confront these families and force them to conform to the expectations of the government. The Independent and BBC News both have more details.

What I didn’t write about yesterday is the definition that the government are using for troubled family, and that definition is very bad indeed. The Conservative Party have turned to research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to decide who might be “troubled”. The government have decided that a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria:

  • Low income
  • No one in the family who is working
  • Poor housing
  • Parents who have no qualifications
  • The mother has a mental health problem
  • One parent has a long-standing illness or disability
  • Unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

Government Lies

In fact these criteria boil down to one thing: poverty. And the ESRC have come right out and stated that the government have basically made up their own minds about what it all means. They said “In the term ‘troubled families’ it deliberately conflates families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause trouble.” The definition that the government are using does not mention child truancy, criminal records, ASBOs, police call outs, drug abuse, or any of the other things that they claim to be addressing.

It is quite likely that none of these conditions are under the control of the family themselves, and yet under government plans they can be penalised for it. Even worse than that, though, is the presence of illness, disability and mental health on that list. These are definitely not under the control of the people involved, but it is clear from what Eric Pickles told The Independent that the government do blame these people. Pickles said that these families must end an “it’s not my fault” culture of excuses and must stop avoiding taking responsibility for their own lives. He said that there would be “less understanding” and a tougher approach.

Victim Blaming

This is blaming the victim, plain and simple. It fits right in with the Bio-Psychosocial model of disability that the government have adopted after decades of being advised by insurance company UNUM. The model basically says that disability is all in the mind of the disabled person and they only need to adopt a better attitude to overcome barriers to work and other activities. This is the model that has seen so many people judged fit for work in their Work Capability Assessment by Atos, and now we see it being used to clamp down on poor people who the Tories find distasteful. Instead of helping them, which costs money, they are punishing them because they don’t fit their Victorian ideal of “deserving poor”.

 

120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco [Telegraph]

Problem families told – ‘Stop blaming others’ [The Independent]

Councils back troubled families scheme [BBC News]

No alcohol or tobacco

“No alcohol or tobacco”

That’s what you get printed on vouchers for emergency food supplies  from Co-op and Tesco given out by a charity where I live. And now, it seems, it could apply to all benefits paid to “120,000 problem families” if Iain Duncan Smith has his way. According to The Telegraph:

Iain Duncan Smith has asked his officials to see if so-called ‘problem’ families should receive their welfare payments on smart cards, rather than in cash.

The cards would only be able to pay for “priority” items such as food, housing, clothing, education and health care.

The Work and Pensions secretary wants to stop parents who are alcoholics or who are on drugs from using welfare payments to fuel their addictions.

The team of civil servants in his department have been asked to come up with proposals by the end of this month.

We can find the government’s definition of these 120,000 “problem families” in an article from The Independent back in June:

Under government criteria, a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income, no one in the family who is working, poor housing, parents who have no qualifications, where the mother has a mental health problem, one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.

There are many problems with this definition but it can be summarised thusly:

“So basically anyone without the good manners to be born healthy, rich and privileged.” – @IamMrJ

The Problems

Leaving aside for a moment the morality of dictating what people can buy, the first problem I can see with this scheme is that it will favour big businesses and supermarkets and leave small local shops and markets by the wayside. There will be costs involved in accepting these payment cards which small shops will be unlikely to be able to afford, as well, I’m sure, as checks to make sure that shops honour the restrictions . Street markets are usually cash only which would bar people from getting cheap local fresh fruit and vegetables too.

The second problem is related; because of barriers to accepting the smart cards or to restrictions on what can be purchased people will be barred from shopping around for cheaper food and some will be prevented from purchasing specialist items that are required for their health but are not prescribed or considered by government to be necessary.

The third problem, and possibly the biggest problem I see is that sick or disabled people often have no choice in where they shop. The limited ability to travel or to carry things can mean that the nearest shop is the only one they can use. If small shops are not able to accept these cards then there may be no other source of food open to these people.

https://twitter.com/Spoonydoc/status/257067504952803328

Many sick or disabled people order their shopping over the internet; in fact this is often a requirement since care plans have written internet shopping in so as to cut costs of providing carers for shopping trips. This will probably be less of a problem since supermarkets will accept cards but the question remains as to whether or not they will accept them over the internet.

Breaking Addiction

If the idea of this scheme is as reported, to stop feeding addiction, then it will be pointless anyway. Addiction is powerful and removing funds doesn’t mean that people won’t be addicted any more. If someone is dependant on nicotine or alcohol then providing benefits on a restricted smart card will not prevent them from obtaining these things if they have to. It will lead to a black market – to bartering of valuable items for cigarettes and alcohol, or to selling of benefit funds for much less than the real value resulting in less money for the benefit recipient. It could well lead to theft to feed the addiction. It will certainly drive some into prostitution. Drug dependency drives people to desperate measures and they won’t always be rational.

Pleasure and Entertainment

Finally we must ask why society deems it acceptable to tell those who are least fortunate that they must not have any pleasures or enjoyment. It seems that those who must rely on benefits are resented and even envied for what they have. Some is illogical; for example Motability cars are not a luxury, they are required for people who cannot walk to get to medical appointments or to go shopping and the cars are leased not given. Internet connections may be the only way that some people can shop, communicate, pay bills, claim benefits or get support and yet some people still think that an internet connection is a luxury that those on benefits should not have. People who have TVs and perhaps TV subscriptions are resented, but for those who are forced to stay in the home by illness or have no funds to go out it may be the only thing to occupy their time. Should these people be forced to sit and stare at the wall for the rest of their lives? We seem to have broken the concept of national insurance. When a person who has worked and paid their dues becomes unemployed or unable to work and receives benefits they are resented for claiming benefits that they have been paying for while working. Must they too give up all pleasure in their lives? We can be certain that restrictions along these lines will exacerbate or even cause mental health problems.

The government hasn’t addressed the reasons for smoking and drinking either, and it’s not just about addiction. Smoking is an appetite suppressant  When food is expensive and income is so low parents often buy food for their children while smoking to mitigate their own hunger pangs. Alcohol is a pain killer and a sedative; like it or not for some people despite all of our medical advances alcohol may be the only way that they can have a few pain-free hours or relax enough to go to sleep.

Nanny State

Others have said this better than me:

https://twitter.com/DickMandrake/status/257065327022718976

https://twitter.com/DocHackenbush/status/257064611390562304

https://twitter.com/DocHackenbush/status/257065034595827712

 

I shall end with this. Another extremely worrying element of this is what the cards would pay for:

“education and health care”

Now why would we need to pay for those?

 

120,000 troubled families could be legally banned from spending benefits on alcohol and tobacco [Telegraph]

Problem families told – ‘Stop blaming others’ [The Independent]