Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights made a study in 2018 of poverty in the UK, looking particularly at the social security system, which has undergone extensive reforms in the last decade.
On completing his study, Professor Alston said: "British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instil discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today's world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society."
Benefits on Trial, a book which describes in granular detail how six people with a learning disability are treated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), vividly illustrates the truth of Professor's Alston's words, and what they really mean in people's lives.
The author, Neil Carpenter, has been working as a volunteer advocate in Cornwall for over a decade. His previous book Austerity's Victims: living with a learning disability under Cameron and May, documented the way austerity has eroded the quality of life of the disabled people he worked with, as the support services they relied upon were reduced, or removed altogether. His new book focuses entirely on the benefits system, and the misery and stress (in some cases, trauma is not too strong a word) experienced by Tony, Ben, Danny, Thomas, Jon and Denise (not their real names) when they try to access the basic means to survive.
In admirably clear prose the book gives a holistic and very readable account of those experiences, combining the financial details of benefits and the incomes on which people try to survive, with an understanding of people's personal circumstances and daily lives which comes from genuine solidarity and friendship. It places the DWP in its true context, as a dominant presence in the lives of people who depend on it to survive, and conveys the terrible misery and angst which is caused when that system is so difficult to access and so manifestly unjust.
This injustice could not be clearer than when the people in the book apply for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Applicants are given points according to how their disability affects their daily life and mobility. All six people in the book receive no points - and so, no award - when they make their initial application. At the tribunal stage, however, an average of 21 points is given, and in four of the cases not just a standard but an enhanced award is made. In Tony's case, he goes from zero to 35 points, illustrating the callous and unjustifiable nature of the initial decision.
The stress and precarity of relying on such a system is highlighted by the story of Danny, who has an acquired brain injury following a motorbike accident when he was a young man. He had to learn to speak, crawl, and eventually walk again, and has been left with serious disability and health problems which will sadly not improve. In 2016 Danny was put through a Work Capability Assessment which resulted in him losing his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) - a ludicrous decision which was reversed after a Mandatory Reconsideration (an internal DWP process) and much stress for Danny.
Danny had also been in receipt of Disability Living Allowance, but this was abolished and replaced by PIP as part of Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms. Rather than being automatically transferred to PIP, Danny had to apply for it. The assessment gave him no points, and his claim was denied. This was a huge blow, leaving him with a total weekly income of £116 from ESA. When a Mandatory Reconsideration confirmed the decision, Danny was inclined to give up because of the stress, but Neil persuaded him to go to an independent tribunal. Before the tribunal could take place, however, the DWP offered Danny a substantial award. This was good news - but would the whole, stressful process which had taken up almost twelve months, start again in a few years, as is often the case? After some discussion, the DWP promised a ten year award, with only a light touch assessment at the end of that period.
This was a good outcome, but reaching it had been agonising. As Danny's GP said in his supporting letter, "All of these conditions are longstanding and unfortunately there is unlikely to be a significant improvement in them. It is therefore frustrating for, most importantly the patient and his family but as well for myself that the support system is threatened at a regular basis." As Neil says, "For someone like Danny, the pressure from the DWP has been continuous. Viewing its actions as 'threats' is no exaggeration: its behaviour is a form of intimidation which if left unchallenged would continue."
And of course, not everyone like Danny has someone like Neil who can accompany and support them through this perilous process - so it does continue. What happens to those people? In one case in the book, homelessness is only narrowly avoided, and one person's mother tells Neil, "There were times when I was so low that I started to wish ***** and I weren't here." Sadly there is ample evidence that many suicides and serious harms have been associated with the benefits system.
A system ostensibly designed to support people with a disability should not be threatening and intimidating, but that is the experience for the six people in this book. And as the author points out, he is not a researcher looking for cases - he is a volunteer advocate working in a small area of Cornwall, and these are the people he happens to encounter in his work. The fact that these circumstances will surely be replicated all over the UK represents a huge pit of distress, poverty and anxiety, produced by the very system which is supposed to provide security.
In this and his previous book, the author comes across as very reasonable, patient and mild-mannered, so the fact that he titles one whole chapter, 'Gibberish, 'dirty tricks' and lies' conveys his frequent shock at the way the system operates. Some of the examples in this chapter are just bleak - when at his assessment Jon is asked what coins he would need to buy something which costs 97p, he replies a 50p and £1. He is then assessed as being able to 'manage complex budgeting decisions unaided'.
Carpenter says, "The DWP stands exposed by the evidence of this book. Only one conclusion is possible: the current benefits system, with its distortions and dirty tricks, does not need minor tinkering; it instead needs to be replaced by one that takes fair assessment as its guiding principle." On the evidence of this book that is indisputable, and it is a great pity that Conservative ministers in the UK Government have repeatedly refused to accept the truth of it.
However, it is important to note that the Scottish SNP Government has recognised these problems, and on 21 March 2022, using its devolved powers, started to roll out its own Adult Disability Payment to replace PIP. People already in receipt of DLA or PIP will be automatically transferred, they do not need to apply. For new claimants, the application process promises to be simpler and more trusting, with 'no DWP-style assessments'. More importantly perhaps for people with a learning disability, the Scottish Social Security Minister Ben Macpherson says: "If they have a disability or a long-term health condition that is unlikely to change, we are looking to provide indefinite awards, which means that people will not need to reapply for their benefit or be reviewed." One can only hope that the UK Government will one day see the wisdom and humanity of this, and follow suit.
* Benefits On Trial by Neil Carpenter is self-published and self-funded by the author, and is available exclusively from Amazon at cost price: £2.83 for a paperback and 77p for the Kindle version. More information here.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden