Jeanette Smith (not her real name) lives in the south of England. In this first of a two-part guest blog post she discusses the pincer effect of different conditions in the benefit system – and the mental and physical burden on benefit recipients
I am currently in receipt of ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) and I am due to have a home visit by a ‘Healthcare Professional’ to assess my claim. I requested this due to the fact that I do not feel able to travel to the Assessment Centre in another town. This process took over a month, as they said they had not received the letter from my doctor. I had to keep making new appointments to allow time for this.
I am fully expecting to be assessed as ‘fit for work’, in complete contrast to the opinion of my own GP and various other medical professionals I have seen in the past year. I am very limited physically due to osteoarthritis and also damage to my feet. This is due to the very demanding and physical nature of the work I have done over the years and also to wear and tear that would be expected from a woman of my age. I would have been able to retire in two years had it not been for changes to the pension age. As it stands I will have to continue to struggle to do full time work for much longer.
I have been undergoing various treatments for these issues including physiotherapy. Since I have been in receipt of ESA I have returned to work twice unsuccessfully without getting to the point of being assessed. Over the months I have become very depressed and anxious, to the point where I have been referred for cognitive behavioural therapy by my doctor and prescribed medication for anxiety and depression.
I am at present I feel living in a bubble, I feel stuck in a situation that I cannot get out of and that is having a major impact on every aspect of my life. I did not choose this, it is NOT a lifestyle choice but is a situation brought about by a set of circumstances beyond my control. I started with purely physical issues but being caught up in this Kafkaesque administrative nightmare has affected my mental health and wellbeing to the point where I cannot sleep, cannot cope with the smallest problem that arises and cannot concentrate on my health or the treatments that have been put in place to get to the point where I am able to look for work and sustain a job.
My dread is that I will be taken off ESA and forced to apply for Universal Credit with a huge gap in payments and rent and have to deal with all the stress and pressure that will bring: being forced to constantly prove that I am looking for work and applying for jobs under threat of sanction.
The fact that the DWP would then be responsible for paying my rent instead of the local authority through Housing Benefit fills me with fear. It is remote, impersonal and prone to administrative errors and delays which cannot be sorted out easily. I have also discovered that the Extended Payment or run on of Housing Benefit when moving into work is not applicable with Universal Credit when there is a change to circumstances during the claim, which there would be in my case if I was taken off ESA and put on to Universal Credit, although I have been in receipt of an income related benefit for the appropriate time to qualify.
This is yet another cut that would not be common knowledge unless you are caught up in the system. The Extended Payment of Housing Benefit enabled people moving into work to catch up on rent arrears. Housing Benefit is always paid in arrears and now with Bedroom Tax, if you are not able to make up the shortfall in rent payments out of your ESA or JSA, this also accumulates as rent arrears. It is not long before the letters of ‘Seeking Possession’ start to arrive from housing associations who are not supportive of their tenants.
So, I am not working, unwell, trying to live on £73.10 per week minus Bedroom Tax of £15 per week (I will return to the Bedroom Tax in my next post). I have rent arrears, debts accumulating as I do not have enough to meet my basic needs and yet I am told I should move? That is one of the most stressful things to go through even when voluntary. To be forced into a situation where rent arrears is accumulated, deliberately caused by a government policy and to be in a situation where it is impossible to move but the threat of eviction hangs over your head on a monthly basis if you don’t is beyond cruel. I do not know how this is even legal. The government says I need £73.10 to live on, and yet this policy deliberately takes me below that by cutting Housing Benefit and making me pay the shortfall. Paying rent is not optional, it is not something that can be ‘cut back on’.
It is impossible to pursue training opportunities for alternative employment due to illness or physical issues under the current system. The emphasis is on proving you are looking for work and applying for jobs regardless of whether you can do them or have a chance of actually getting them and sustaining them. I was once sanctioned on JSA for applying for jobs ‘just to show that I had applied’ and not having a serious intent. There was nothing applicable that I could apply for that week, so I just applied for anything. If I didn’t I would have been sanctioned anyway. I appealed and won the case but they failed to tell me. I was told after sitting there actually tearing at my hair through exasperation that I was not well and should apply for ESA. I did and eventually got the money they sanctioned from me and also, some compensation.
It takes a lot of energy and determination to fight a machine like DWP. Not everyone is able to. I have other problems in my life at the moment and things to deal with and I am finding it is all piling on. The pressure builds and becomes too much. I long to just feel light and enjoy a sunny day without dreading the post. Something needs to change, it has to change. It is not acceptable to treat people this way and actually induce ill health in people when they need support. I am NOT trying not to work, I just need to get better and get on my feet so that I am able to in a capacity that is not going to put me back in the same position down the line or even worse.
Read the next part of Jeanette’s blog on our site shortly