The figures around deaths of benefit claimants following ‘fit-to-work’ assessments released recently were alarming but sadly not surprising. Benefit claimants have been the victim of a compulsively negative rhetoric over the last five years, where the use of terms such as ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ are commonplace.
Cardboard Citizens is a theatre company that work with and for homeless people. Because too many people deny that their experiences of the benefits system are realistic, five of our participants have chosen to share their stories.
“My forms haven’t been accepted for two years because the system keeps changing”
Sarah suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after being abused earlier in life. Having been homeless several times following the abuse, Sarah fears a change in her benefits would make her homeless again.
“I sent my ESA (Employment Support Allowance) renewal forms back in October 2013, and two years later I still haven’t had confirmation that this has been accepted. Back then, I called every other week, but they kept telling me, ‘It’s not our fault - the government keep changing the requirements so we can’t assess it.’
“I used to volunteer one day a week. I stopped because I’m so scared they’ll see me doing that and think I’m fit to work when I’m not. If I got moved to JSA, I wouldn’t be able to afford the service charge and I’d lose my home.”
“Breakdowns in communication between council staff almost led to me losing everything.”
"I've been threatened with the bailiffs three times over the last five years"
“I got into arrears and agreed to pay back £30 a month. But then I received four different letters stating I owed totally different amounts –from £800 down to £100 and then up to over £1,000. They were going to evict me, I was summoned to court – I was really scared.”
The council reviewed the debt in more depth, and acknowledged that the amount was too high. But the issues are ongoing. Having recently informed her council of a change in her employment situation in good time, Danielle was told she owed nearly £500 in council tax, and to ‘pay immediately’. This has since been acknowledged as a breakdown in communication between council staff.
“I found my dream job, but I can’t take it”
Lola has not had full-time employment for over 15 years due to a long-standing illness. She is currently on ESA, but she has been trying to progress back into part-time work for some time.
“I was participating in the ‘permitted work initiative’, which allows you to do a limited amount of work for a year. I got some work as an actor, but I nearly got done for fraud, due to an error on their part.
“The initiative stopped in February. I recently got offered a great opportunity, but I can’t earn enough on it to entirely come off benefits, and my benefits technically won’t allow me to work for another year. It puts you off wanting to try to work at all.”
“Being assessed ‘fit for work’ set me back years”
Sam, now 58, ‘cracked up’ (in his own words) when he was 18 following a traumatic time in the Navy. He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and has struggled with alcoholism throughout his life. He has been on ESA for some time.
“Two years ago, I had an assessment. It was a box ticking exercise; they’d drop a pencil and ask me to pick it up, the same questions for everyone. They decided I wasn’t disabled enough and they cut my benefits by a third.
“It took over a year to appeal the decision and get back on ESA. In that time I got into real debt trying to pay the bills, debt I’m still trying to pay off now. These medicals knock you right down when you’re only just keeping your head above water. You’d think, if they’ve made the decision once, then why do it again.”
Sam has another ‘fit to work’ assessment in a few weeks’ time.
“The system isn’t realistic for homeless people. Everyone is living in an atmosphere of fear”
Matt, in his late 50s, was recently homeless and has seen many other homeless people struggling with the new systems.
“The system is not set up for homeless people. They want you to use a website to find a job – but in most hostels there are only two computers between fifty residents. A lot of the people I know are not IT literate, and this Universal Job Match website is useless – even the Jobcentre Advisors know it’s useless.
“When you’re homeless and don’t have an address, you can’t get a bank account. You can get a Post Office account – but you can only draw cash out of that, you can’t set up debits.
“The JobCentre forces you to sign a Job Agreement – but what employer is going to take you if you’re on the street? At my age, not many employers are willing to take me on anyway. I may get sanctioned if I don’t get a job. I live in fear of being sanctioned. Everyone is living in an atmosphere of fear.”
In Cardboard Citizen’s recent tour of a play exploring the benefits system, audiences from every walk of life became very emotional. A surprisingly regular comment was, “We had no idea it was this bad”.
Now the true impact of the welfare reforms is starting to come to light, it is time to reopen the benefits conversation – and include those at the bottom of the social rung in the dialogue. With more information comes more compassion. If Iain Duncan Smith could take the time to read these experiences, perhaps he might change some of his policies.