This is the second half of a post about the benefit system. The first half of the post is here, and dealt with the issue in a fairly general way. This half is going to deal more with my own experiences. And, yes, you’re right, it is later going up than I said it would be – sorry about that.
So, how did I end up on benefits?
Well, it’s a fairly complicated story, so I’ll try to give you just the streamlined version. I was fired from my job because I was taking too much time off sick. When I eventually went to the job centre to sort out benefits – I was ill at the time, and so put off going to see them until my bank account was basically empty – no-one there explained to me it was possible to hand in sick-notes from a GP, so I ended up on Job Seeker’s Allowance. In order to get JSA you have to face a regular interrogation about what you have been doing to find a job. After a couple of weeks I found the stress of this impossible to deal with. I stopped attending the interrogations, and so stopped getting any money.
Feeling literally at the end of my tether I decided to make an appointment with my decidedly unsympathetic doctor. (I was registered at a different practice then, so my regular GP was not the very helpful one I have now.) As luck would have it my regular doctor was on holiday, and so my appointment was with a locum. The locum spotted I was more seriously unwell than had previously been thought, explained to me that I could hand in sick notes at the job centre, signed me off for four weeks, and most important of all put me in touch with a welfare rights officer from the council.
The welfare rights officer, despite being horrendously over-worked, was fantastic. She helped me through the process of applying for benefits, basically handling all the contact with the DWP (Department for Work & Pensions) for me. She wrote to my private landlord explaining the situation (I hadn’t paid any rent for about 6 weeks at this point). The landlord wasn’t prepared to keep me on as a tenant, and sent me an eviction notice. Armed with the notice and copies of the medical certificates from my GP she got me an interview with a local housing association that had a policy of making a small number of flats available to people with mental health problems who were facing an acute housing crisis. Luckily for me, one of their flats became available while I was at the top of the priority list and before my eviction date. I moved in and, again with her help, re-applied for all the benefits I was entitled to. I will always be grateful to her for the help she gave me.
You might have spotted that, all through this story, I’ve referred to being lucky. I genuinely think I have been. When I was in the final stages of slipping to absolute rock bottom, the system worked and I was caught by the safety-net before I ended up homeless, or dead by suicide, or reliant on the charity of my family and friends. But I’m acutely aware that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people every year who aren’t as lucky as me and fall through the cracks in the system.
The thing is, even with the amount of luck I’ve had, getting hold of benefits on the basis of my illness has been anything but easy. First of all, the idea that doctors certify you as sick if you just ask them to is nonsense. Every time I’ve needed a sick-note from a doctor it’s been a long and detailed consultation before I got one. I’m not complaining about that (detailed consultations are a good thing), just pointing out that getting over the initial hurdle isn’t as easy as some people say it is.
In order to get hold of any long-term money for being sick you have to fill in a questionnaire. You don’t only fill in the form at the beginning, but also at various ‘review points’ decided on by the DWP. In my experience the reviews are never more than 12 months apart, and on one occasion the gap was only 4 months. The basic principle behind the form is that you are awarded points for every ‘normal’ activity you can’t do. And what do points mean? Well, in this case, they don’t mean prizes, but they do mean a slightly higher chance of getting benefit, although you’ll still have to go for a specific medical examination. The form, most of which deals with physical problems, is not well thought out for mental health issues. One question asks whether you are able to read a newspaper, or follow the plot of a TV programme, apparently failing to realise that someone whose mental state is so poor they can’t do these things will be incapable of filling in the form.
Far and away the most annoying part of the form is where it asks for the details of a medical professional in order that the DWP can get a reference from them. This reference is completely pointless. On one occasion the reference was from my GP, and was nothing more than a scrawled note of the medication I was prescribed and the date of my last appointment. Another time it was a detailed two page letter from a consultant psychiatrist. In both cases (and every other time as well) the DWP ignored it in favour of seeking its own medical report.
This report is the result of a consultation with a DWP doctor. The appointment letter tells you that this consultation will not be like a normal one, and it certainly isn’t. The doctor sits behind a screen, and asks a standardised set of questions as prompted by their computer. Most of the answers seem to be selected from multiple choice options as she or he mainly uses the mouse – there are a few brief periods of typing. Occasionally the doctor may actually look at you as you answer the questions. I don’t know if the doctors who carry out these consultations have some kind of target system, but it seems likely that they’re under pressure to find as many people fit for work as possible. Certainly the consultation does not seem designed to achieve a fair assessment.
Perhaps the most unfair aspect for those with MH problems is that attendance at the consultation is taken as evidence of your ability to perform all kinds of tasks. So for example under the heading of ability to handle social interaction one doctor once wrote (it must have been one of the typing bits), ‘No problems, attended consultation unaided.’ Of course, if you don’t attend the interview you have your benefit stopped. In other words, if you attend the interview you are (or can be) deemed to be medically fit for work, and so your benefit is stopped, but if you don’t attend the interview your benefit is stopped for non-compliance. This makes the whole thing rather like those old tests for witchcraft, where the only way you could pass the test was by dying, and if you somehow managed to live through it you were immediately dragged off and executed.
This is what happened to me (having benefit stopped for attending the consultation, not the witchcraft stuff). In fact, it turned out that what had also happened at this particular consultation was that the doctor had asked me questions, listened carefully to the answers, and then written down the exact opposite of what I said. She also used a lot of leading questions (‘So you used to suffer from depression, but you’re on medication now, and feeling much better?’), and because I was rather intimidated by the whole process, I stupidly (and inaccurately) agreed with some of them. It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that they seem to do all they can to make the process as scary as possible, particularly for those with MH problems. For example, the appointment letter tells you that you will be under observation from the moment you enter the waiting room, and that the observations may form part of the report. This seems almost likes it’s designed to trigger acute paranoia.
Anyway, as a result of this, I ended up being kicked off IB (Incapacity Benefit), and had to appeal the decision. While you are appealing (it’s a lengthy process – in my case about 6 months) you aren’t entitled to IB, and so you’re presented with two alternatives. You can either opt for a substantially reduced amount of Income Support (which doesn’t give you enough to live on), or alternatively you can get more money by signing on for Jobseeker’s Allowance. If you sign up for JSA, of course, you immediately have to start looking for work. It seems likely that the intention behind this is that, before you have been able to appeal the IB decision, you will have been offered a job. Under the rules of JSA, if you refuse the job your benefit is stopped.
So, at this point you’re having to cope with: your original MH problem; the stress of trying to gather evidence and prepare an appeal for IB; the stress of attending compulsory JSA interrogations; the stress of applying for several jobs a week; and, finally, the stress of deciding whether to accept a job you know you aren’t capable of doing, or alternatively starting a whole new fight with the DWP. Most people will find this level of stress impossible to bear, and there’s a good chance it will trigger a worsening of their condition (it certainly did for me). But there’s also a good chance that quite a few people will decide they can’t take any more, and either accept the job, or just walk away from the whole thing. Either is a ‘victory’ for the DWP, of course, as it means a reduction in the number of people claiming IB.
The fact that, amongst those people, there will be a fair number of the genuinely ill who have been put through an enormous amount of unnecessary distress is irrelevant. The fact that every appeal that goes in favour of the benefit claimant represents an enormous waste of time and money by the DWP is irrelevant. The fact that many of those who are removed from the IB lists will end up back on them in only a few months time is irrelevant. All that matters to the DWP is that they can show to an aggressively right-wing media that they have been “getting tough” with IB claimants.
My own experience hasn’t been quite as bleak as this. With the help of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau I eventually got a chance to fight and win my appeal. I was put back onto IB, and I got the arrears paid to me, which meant I was able to pay back all the people I’d been forced to borrow money from. The guy from the CAB also gave me a lot of advice on how to fill in the IB questionnaire, and how to handle DWP medicals, and as a result of that I have so far (touch wood) not had to go through another appeal. My next review is due in April (I think), so I’ll have to keep you posted as to how this one goes.
Well, this has been an enormously long post. Thanks for sticking with it. I hope it’s given an insight into some of the problems I’ve faced in getting the money that pretty much every doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist etc I’ve seen thinks I’m entitled to. I hope you’ll agree that it’s a long way from being easy money for the work-shy. This is how difficult, traumatic, and idiotic the process is right now – the government are planning to make it harder.