I wrote the following some time before my assessment interview. I was not thinking of a blog at the time, and wrote it purely to try to put my thoughts in order. I wrote more later, but it's disappeared somewhere on the computer - update if I find it. Bits that actually matter in red:
In the nature of things, it's the extremes which are reported. When it comes to reducing the burden of incapacity benefits, we're hearing from one wing about those passed for work who obviously can't and, from the other, about benefit scroungers who demonstrably can. Most people seeking the protection of benefits fall in the middle of that spectrum.
I'm in the middle myself, and I'm not happy.
I've been subject to mental health problems associated with chronic depression since I was a child in the 1960's. More recently, accident has caused moderate physical problems, including fracture damage to my spine. I worked until I was in my mid-forties when growing difficulties forced me to retire.
I am being assessed for the new Employment and Support allowance, which is perfectly proper and unobjectionable. Unfortunately, it means that I now find that I have come to the attention of the Clockwork Orange tendency of the government's bullyboys. ('Clockwork Orange' is my frustration speaking, but 'bullyboys' may or may not be justified by what follows.) I refer only to my own immediate experience and not to horror stories that I've read in the news or heard by way of anecdote.
1. I received a letter recently from DWP with details about forthcoming changes, instructing me to call one of their numbers. (Note: this was my first contact with them.) At my expense. After queuing for 20 minutes, I was told that I had rung the wrong number. Put through to another number, I queued for another 20 minutes. At my expense. The man I then spoke to told me how important it was that I listen to what he was going to tell me. If I did not, he suggested, I would lose my right to any benefit. For 20 minutes (at my expense) he repeated what was already clearly written in the letter: he added nothing - except to repeat more than six times his suggestion that if I did not do exactly what was required of me I would lose my right to any benefit. (Along the lines of: If I do not fill the form in, lose benefit; not in time, lose benefit; not signed, lose benefit; incorrectly completed. lose benefit; incompletely filled, lose benefit; etc. All undoubtedly, and perfectly reasonably, true, but clearly repeated so often and emphatically to intimidate.) He did tell me that, although I had rung the wrong number, it was indeed the number which everyone was told to ring: he couldn't explain why this was the arrangement.
2. I filled in the standard questionnaire which arrived a few days later. It was transparently designed to elicit certain types of information - but, less obviously, to block others.
One example: a question was asked about the effects of taking drugs - illegal or prescribed. Was there a problem due to the abuse of these drugs? [Note to self: the government has been keen to publish figures suggesting that numbers of people are on benefits because of drug abuse; answers to this question may help them to bulk out supporting statistics.] The questionnaire carefully guided me away, however, from mentioning any problem that might be resulting from the correct use of prescription drugs. [Note to self: the government has been accused of sidelining (for example) many cancer treatments.] Here as elsewhere it has been evident that the questionnaire is not only not asking for information which may have a bearing on the questionnee's ability to work but is actively avoiding such questions and is directing questionnees away from giving such information.
By the time I'd seen a couple of questions of like nature, I began to feel paranoid about the whole questionnaire. Unfortunately, once paranoia sets in here, the questions do nothing to dispel it: on the contrary, the impression that the form seeks to maximise certain kinds of information gleaned but to minimise any that may support a case for benefits becomes substantial.
3. [The crux.] In an appropriate section of the questionnaire, I stated that travel is problematic. (Inter alia, that I'm unable to travel by bus, that travel by train is problematic, that I cannot stand on a moving train, that I'm limited at best to about two miles of walking.) I also requested that any appointment for an assessment be made in the afternoon or evening, explaining my reasons.
An appointment was made for 9.20 am, in Guildford, a town well over an hour's travel away in another county. Detailed journey instructions were given, including timings (which are arguably very optimistic [Eg: 10 minutes for a walk that would take a fit person 15; four minutes allowed for buying a rail ticket, during rush hour; four minutes allowed for a change of train at Woking station. I can make it by running, apparently.]). Even by this estimate, the journey time in one direction totals to 1 hour and 13 minutes.
The journey out-and-return involves two stages by bus and four by train, as well as 60+ minutes of walking. [Due to the time of the appointment, train travel would also involve travelling during the rush hour, in the direction of the rush, on a service that is well known to be at or over capacity (standing room only being normal by this stage of its journey). It is also the most expensive time of day for this person, on welfare, to travel.]
That an appointment be made is not only wholly reasonable, but of course necessary. That an appointment for a disabled person has to be made so far away, in the most densely populated part of the country, may be inescapable (although it shouldn't be). That it be made in the rush hour for a person who has declared serious problems in travelling is simply cruel.
Unless, of course, they think I'm lying.
The philosophy behind the current back-to-work drive is to find what each individual can do, rather than cannot.
This sounds, and is, desirable. However, there are some drawbacks.
a) It requires that the questions in the questionnaire be meaningful. (Eg, to what extent can the individual lift realistic weights, rather than only whether (s)he can lift an empty cardboard box or a milk carton.) Too many of them are not.
b) It is negated if, as is widely and repeatedly reported, large numbers are simply passed through (in effect) on the nod - to the extent that 40% of appeals are upheld. Following the questionnaire, each appeal requires the individual to state what (s)he can't do and, by extension, the pressure is on those individuals who do have problems to be negative from the beginning.
c) Must crucially:
Logically, it assumes that the baseline is 'unable to do anything', so that things that the individual can do are added on to the baseline. But, this is not how the assessments are arranged - the boxes are ticked according to what the individual can't do; ie, the baseline is in practice assumed to be 'able to do anything' and these things are subtracted from the baseline.
Not only does the system therefore require the individual to denigrate himself/herself; it then treats the consequent pleas as ignorable. So it is - from the start - cruel.
The philosophy as propounded is therefore unworkable; and it remains so unless and until at the very least the system invites the individual to self-build rather than to self-denigrate.
The stress for many people of this process is compounded because it takes place in an atmosphere of threat, the beginnings of which I've already experienced. The real threat, however, clearly meant to be deniable, is summed up by the particular context of 'making work pay'. With falling real pay and growing insecurity that millions of people are undergoing, this would immediately be worrying. But, many of those being returned to work are faced with minimum wage (sometimes lower), zero-hour contracts, short-time working, dead end working, and an environment in which very little effort is really being made to ameliorate these (indeed, employment protection, social cover, H&E legislation and who knows what else being, on the contrary, dismantled). The threat, then, lies in the fact that, realistically, 'making work pay' can only really mean 'making incapacity intolerable'. ['Making work pay' becomes as bereft of meaning as finding out 'what the unemployed can do', not because there's anything wrong with either statement, but because they aren't advanced with honesty.] It is a long way, yet, from the workhouse ethic, but it's beginning to move there. Is that why we're starting to hear of the growing number of suicides contemporaneous with these assessments?
I await my assessment appointment not only with trepidation but with growing distrust. I should have nothing to fear if a genuine effort is going to be made to help me find proper work - but I cannot escape the tiny but growing feeling that I am intended to be afraid.
A final thought. I am in my sixty-fourth year. Even if I find work immediately, I am months rather than years from drawing my pension. I have peripherally wondered, therefore, why considerable effort and disbursement are being expended to help/get me back into employment. [I already know that my chances of finding engaging work will not be very good. I cannot imagine that I'll be offered any meaningful training at all.] I'm not sure whether I'm glad or not to have been given a possible explanation (which I have yet to substantiate), which is this:
Once I present myself for a job, even if I am fired five minutes after I arrive, I will be engaging with the DWP on a new basis. I may find that the level of credit I have accrued in the past towards future pension or benefits is reassessed, and that I will be in a much weakened position when it comes to holding on to what I can presently regard as my earned entitlements. For example, social security payments to me dependent on final salary may be sharply reduced: the effect of working at a low-paid job for a few months now may be to reduce my pension throughout my retirement.
I don't know if this last is true. The fact that I believe that it might be is an indication of how much my trust in the system is failing.
If my benefits continue, the subtle, deniable but systematic bullying won't stop. Again, one example: Disbursements are being adjusted to monthly 'to wean the unemployed off fortnightly payments' (the statement being made that monthly wages are becoming the norm). But monthly income for those in work is generally in the thousands of pounds: if you can understand the impact of the change (in terms of worry and indeed fear) on those whose income is only in the hundreds, then you understand how... again, cruel... this is.
That the loan sharks with their thousands of percent APRs have been legalised beggars belief of itself: that that legalisation has so closely coincided with the new scheme of monthly payments (or vice versa) moves us into a completely novel range of subtle cruelty. My mother was a widow; I remember her increasingly desperate struggles with the comparatively gentle Tallyman of fifty years ago. The ‘payday loans’ can only damage the vulnerable and invisible – the young, the unemployed, the poorly employed.... At this point, I am tempted to ask for a place in my nearest workhouse just as soon as it opens.
Ironically, I owe one very small debt of gratitude to the bullyboys – and, strangely, it is quite genuine; it is this: the sharp acid of lively anger with which they are infecting me goes, momentarily and in a very small way, to pierce the deadening horror of the mental illness which is my real enemy.
However, it is not the insouciance that angers me so much, nor the casual cruelty. And it certainly isn’t the principle that I should be assessed from time to time.
I was a child of the 1950s and 60s when, for a few years, we believed that the confrontational, or adversarial, element which disfigures so much of life in this country was being diminished at least a little. What angers me – to the extent of a fuming, ‘coming out on the streets’ rage – is that I and those in my boat have become the target of so ancient and confrontational an attack: I have no impression that I am seen as a partner in an effort to help both me and our economy.
Of course, it’s not only those at the bottom of the pile who can be targets – look at the glee with which the proposed affluence assessments are being greeted. Just as repellent, really. But the wealthy will not, on the whole, be such defenceless targets, I suspect (even if some of them genuinely believe themselves to be relatively poor). And at least (we may suppose) they will be assessed on slightly more objective criteria.