Given that the welfare system has been in the news recently, with the release of Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake,’ and the UN’s investigation into the governments treatment of disabled people, I thought I would interview my sister (Laura), who – unfortunately – is reliant on welfare. I wanted to get a perspective on the experience of being on benefits and to raise awareness of the shortcomings and injustices the current benefits system perpetuates. Please read and share widely to help raise awareness and to let other who are at the mercy of the system know they are not alone.
What are your thoughts on the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’?
It was very good. Despite what several Tory politicians have been saying, it’s very close to the reality and nightmare of the benefits system.
There have been some politicians (again mainly Tory) who have been quite critical of the way the Jobcentre staff have been portrayed in the film, and I didn’t think that was deserved; I thought that they were portrayed a bit too nicely really. My encounters of anyone in the benefits system is more towards the sort of unpleasant, domineering, don’t want to help you type people, whereas this film portrayed them with some compassion and trying to help people. Having said that, there was one character that had a strict attitude. It was basically ‘these you have to follow’ and the reasons she gives when she is challenged is ‘well these are the rules, it’s in black and white and that’s what you have to do.’. There is no thought or compassion given to the individual and their circumstances, and it’s that attitude that is more in-line with the reality of dealing with the DWP.
Were there any scenes that shocked you?
Yes. Despite being on benefits and not expecting to be shocked, there were some bits that actually managed that. There’s a scene where Daniel Blake and his friend, Katie, goes to a food bank. You find that she’s hasn’t eaten for days and she’s so hungry that she grabs a cold tin of beans, rips it open and starts to eat it with her hands; that is based on a real case. I didn’t realize that there are situations like that. There’s also a scene towards the end where Daniel Blake goes to a tribunal; that was the bit that got me the most, partly because of what happened in the film with his character and it’s tragic, but also having been a tribunal myself and just everything I had experience on that day, all the memories and feelings I experienced in relation to that just came back. No word of exaggeration but I cried my way out of the cinema afterwards.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the film?
There’s something about the film that you know all this stuff is happening, you know that you’re being taken advantage of, you know that you’re being punished and humiliated but then seeing it accurately being portrayed on screen and showing back to you, it kind of confirms that it’s not all in your mind, this is how people are treated, this is how you are treated and that feels like a kick to the gut.
Do you think that everyone should see this film?
Yes, everyone should see this film, whether you think benefits is a good thing or a bad thing, you should see this film.
What is your benefits story?
I started working as a Civil Servant in the ONS (Office for National Statistics) in July 2007 and I worked without a problem up until December 2010. During that three-year period I noticed little things like the odd ache or the odd pain, a lot of burning pain in my spine and I was becoming ill quite a bit, just picking up every bug that was going around and I was feeling more tired than usual but because I was doing an admin job, covering the work of several other people for various reasons and doing a volunteer Union Rep role, all of which meant I had an increasing work load; it would get quite stressful, so I just put it all those symptoms down to stress. I thought then ‘I’ll have my Christmas break, get better and then go back to work’. I was a bit under the weather on and off over the Christmas period, but then two days before I was due to go back into work, the dog woke me up wanting to be let out, so I got out of bed and I felt rotten – the worst thing I have ever felt in my life! I was aching all over, I was cold through, I couldn’t tolerate any noise or light, I had a crashing headache, my neck was stiff and at one point I seriously thought I had meningitis and I considered calling an ambulance because I was in the house on my own. But I was also so tired that I just had to go back to bed. I awoke a few hours later not feeling any better and led on the sofa to rest some more. Strangely by the early evening I was feeling better and almost as if I hadn’t had anything wrong with me at all during the day.
On the Monday morning, I wasn’t feeling well but not as bad as the previous day. The day after I was meant to go back into work but I had developed the flu and I thought maybe it was that that was causing me to be ill. After a week, it still hadn’t cleared so I went to see my GP, who diagnosed an ear and throat infection; I had another two weeks off with that and that was the longest period I had been off sick since I started my job in 2007.
I remember going into work at the end of January 2011 and I felt fantastic; I had plenty of energy, I was bouncing around and I felt like I could do anything. Then come the afternoon I started crashing again and I felt like I didn’t have any energy. From that point to the beginning of March, I was feeling tired all the time, I was aching all the time, constant headaches, feeling sick and I couldn’t stop sleeping. I went to back to my GP a couple of times and they were just baffled as to what was wrong with me.
At some point, I went back into work and I had a meeting with my manager; I was feeling so ill that morning and I had to go up two flights of stairs, by the time I got to the top I was exhausted and part of me wanted to crawl the rest of the way. I met with my manager where she informed me that HR (Human Resources) wanted to know why I was sick all the time, they thought I was making it up! That shocked me a bit.
As the day went on I was felt worse, I was out of breath and I just had to go home. On my way out of the office, I met with my Union Rep, as I was so confused by the situation and didn’t know how I could convince HR I truly was ill when my GP couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I was advised to get a sick note and a long period of sick leave to get HR off my back. How I managed to drive home God only knows! I took B roads because I was feeling that ill, I thought if I’m going to crash at least I’ll crash doing 30mph max rather than 60 or 70 mph on a dual carriageway. I got home and went straight to bed. I went to the doctors that afternoon, where they gave me a sick note for a few months…that few months turned into the rest of the year.
During that time I was allowed 6 months off on full sick pay, then I had 3 months half sick pay and then after that no sick pay. I had to get in touch with the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions), to apply for ESA (Employment Support Allowance). That came through and I didn’t have any problems with that. With help from the Citizen’s Advice Bureaux (CAB) I filled out the form for the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), but that assessment never took place because I returned to work and signed off ESA before they could assess me.
By March 2013, because of the situation with work and my unsupportive boss, I ended up being made redundant and I had to rely on the DWP. I applied again for ESA and then I had an assessment.
The assessment was carried out at one of their assessment centres, that went okay but okay in the sense that I got through it and got put in the support group. The person that was assessing me could see that I wasn’t well and she spoke to the manager and cut short the assessment; at the time I didn’t know what to make of that but thankfully it did go in my favour.
I also applied for DLA (Disability Living Allowance) which was the predecessor to PIP (Personal Independent Payment), at which I had that humiliating tribunal. Separate to that, I have had one PIP assessment, which was done at home. The assessor came to the house and the appointment was at 9 o’clock in the morning which is the sort of time that I don’t function well. Mum had tried a couple of times to get me up, but it didn’t quite work and I was still in bed when he turned up. He told me that the assessment had to be done downstairs and that it couldn’t be done in the bedroom – I ever had a reason for why this was. He saw that I was genuinely ill and was quite sympathetic to my position.
What was your tribunal like?
The tribunal was for my DLA before PIP had replaced it. I had done the paper assessment, I can’t remember what points I scored but it wasn’t enough, so I asked to see the report and for it to be taken to tribunal (this was before Mandatory Considerations were brought in). I remember I spent hours going through the report, highlighting of the errors, the incorrectly reported information and, at worst, the lies. They do actual lie about you! Considering that you can prosecuted for lying to the DWP, I don’t see how or why even they should be allowed to get away with lying in their reports! It’s not only unprofessional but also it’s a form of fraud; the assessors create a fraudulent report that could stop people get the help that they’re entitled to.
My DLA claim then went to the tribunal. It was the only one I’ve been to (so fa) and I never want to go to one again if I can help it; it was horrible! I think it’s been my worst experience in this whole benefits nightmare!
You’re given a time and place to go to. I’ve heard, and I don’t know how true this is but apparently, they monitor you from parking car, to walking into the building, to getting into the courtroom and how you behave and stuff like that. So, I went into the room and mum was with me. There were three people there. There was a chairperson, who also acts like the judge with some sort of law background, there was a doctor or health care professional and then there was a person with knowledge of disability rights and laws.
So, it started and they explained that they couldn’t accept any evidence which was outside the scope of that assessment period, so for me that was as far back as September 2012. Anything outside that, that came before then they wouldn’t consider, you’re not allowed to use it to support your case. They started going through the papers; there was a question on there about walking in yards and feet. The judge was very patronising and told me that I should be good at maths; maths isn’t my strong point and to have someone there who doesn’t know your history, to then say “come on, you should be good at this, why aren’t you good at this?” I found it very demeaning and very patronising. I had myself tied up in knots about that and I just knew that it was a lost cause by that point – and that was just the start!
In some ways, it was like something out of a warped TV show. The doctor sat there in his tweed suite, his glasses, his greying beard and every time I spoke he would interrupted and be like “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” as I was talking and I thought, how can you possibly take in and process what I’m saying to you if you are talking over me? It just got a point where I felt like he’s wasn’t listening to me and he was just putting on this act.
It went on, it was fairly basic. Then we got to bit where they looked at my complaint letter. That detailed all that was wrong with the assessor’s report and why I wanted a tribunal; this letter was at least five pages; it was a lengthy document that had taken me days to type. Now, I don’t think I should have to ask my own family members to sort my affairs when they have issues of their own to deal with. So, I sat for a couple of minutes each day just typing this document, despite the pain it was causing me in my hands and arms but it had to get done. Then I remembered the disability awareness person picked up the document and only way I can describe her expression was a sneer and all the way through she just looked at me with distain; she came across as quite hostile towards me, I didn’t feel comfortable with her in the room. She grabbed this document, she thrusted it forward at me and bellowed “Did YOU write this?” in a tone I can only describe as accusatory; I was just so stunned by the tone of her voice and her body language. I admit that I wrote it and that counted against me in the end.
At one point, they asked me when did I last go on holiday abroad. That would have been October/November 2011, outside that scope of time. I later found out that went against me as well. I went holiday outside of the period that had been set, and I was led to believe anything prior to September 2012 a won’t be considered. I was stunned to later find that they used it against me!
It was no surprise when I found out that they hadn’t turned over the decision. It was a horrible experience and I remember coming out feeling defeated and upset. I could have perhaps pursed going to the Upper Tier tribunal but I didn’t the energy to; my illness had worsened due to the stress of going through this and I just lost all the fight left in me. I just left it at that and then tried again for PIP.
I must add that although that was three years ago the experience still affects me. I feel sick when a DWP letter arrives in the post (so-called Brown Envelope Syndrome), I have had nightmares where I am back in that courtroom and have been left feeling on the edge of tears for the rest of the day. Although I can talk about it, I experience the very feelings I felt at the time as I discuss it, and can see clearly in my mind the three people sat on that panel, how they made me feel, can hear their voices. I imagine they have forgotten all about me though.
How do you feel about benefits being represented in the media?
Absolutely appalled! And even those words do not cover my sentiments fully. Most what is portrayed in the mainstream newspapers and on TV is a mix of myth, falsehood and extremes. What I don’t think is known or understood very well by wider society is why the media portray the benefits system as such. Until people realise that the main stream media is owned by a very small number of very rich, right-wing people who use their papers to push their own interests and views (and that of the wider elite), and that they are not in the business of portraying the news accurately and impartially but want you to believe nothing, is going to change. It is more important now than ever before that people do their own research into these stories, listen to those who are trapped in the inhumane benefits system, and apply critical thinking – and this applies to everything else that is going on in the world too.
How do you think we could end the stigma attached to benefits?
I think there are serval approaches that need to be taken to end that stigma. There needs to be more awareness of that stigma and that we shouldn’t be demonising welfare claimants just because of their source of income. I also think any changes to the welfare system and any support for those claiming need to be positive and effective; nothing this government has done has been positive or effective. There needs to be better collaboration with people who are claiming whatever form of support and acknowledging and understanding the underlying issues for why people are claiming. It’s about education; there need to be things like employers being educated better about taking on younger people, people with no previous experience, taken on people who have a disability or who have a long-term illness. I think until those things change then it’s going to be hard.
How do you feel about IDS (Iain Duncan Smith)?
You wouldn’t be allowed to put in the public domain what I think of IDS, and you can also expand that to David Cameron, George Osbourne, Damien Green, Therese May. All I would say is that if I was in a room with them – I won’t say what I would do and I would ensure they would come out alive – but their lives would be miserable from then on and it would all be done with my bare hands.
If you were to meet with the Government tomorrow, what would you say to them?
I don’t know only because I know that if I met with them – and I’m talking of the Tories here – and talked to them and tell them of my experiences I wouldn’t get a lot of sympathy, I know it wouldn’t change them, they wouldn’t act on it. There may be some sympathetic nods and noises but it would just be a bit of a show from them. Why would I want to waste my breath for that? And my energy doing that? It wouldn’t make a difference, it wouldn’t change their minds because that’s the sort of people they are, all they see is the money side of things, making money for them, making money for their friends; you’re just a source of income and expendable when we can’t add to their wealth rather than individual beings with emotions and feeling and with complicated lives, which goes beyond just being an economic slave.
What would you say to someone who may be having trouble getting their benefits?
Get as much help as possible! Whilst it might feel that you are alone and are the only person going through the nightmare experience of the benefits system, there are people out there who care and can help. Check out your local CAB service, see if your council has a welfare officer, even take it to your MP if needed. Social media is also a good resource with links to things like Fightback and 4up available through Facebook and Twitter, as well as there being a plethora of blogs that are a good source for information and tips on how to navigate the system, finding out your rights and providing information about the many originations who are there to help. Above all else, don’t give up!
I would like to thank my sister for allowing me to interview her and for also spending hours helping me write this post. I would also like the thank Ken Loach for giving and fresh and very truthful view on benefits.