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The wrecking ball that is the Tories' benefit reforms

The government is well aware that replacing Incapacity Benefit with the assessment regime of Employment Support Allowance has lead to a mental health crisis and suicide epidemic, writes RUTH HUNT

HOUSING Secretary James Brokenshire has at last admitted that some Tory Party policies might be responsible for the rising levels of homelessness.

This carefully caveated statement has come far too late for those already experiencing homelessness. If this were a genuine position of the government, the toxic Universal Credit roll-out in 2019 would be shelved.

For someone with disabilities the constant threat of losing it all is compounded by the many bewildering caps, cuts, assessments, reassessments and tribunals which place an unbearable strain on their mental health.

So, will we see an admission regarding the harm cumulative benefit changes are having on the mental health of disabled people? I think not.

That is because the government knows all too well that its policies damage mental health. This is exacerbated by the change in culture, from a supportive benefits system to one in which the need for support is questioned, with the disabled person constantly viewed with suspicion.

To experience this hostile environment once is bad enough, but on a cumulative basis it acts like a wrecking-ball to mental health and wellbeing.

This was first shown in the report published in the British Medical Journal, which examined the Work Capability Assessment of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) entitled First do no harm: are disability assessments associated with adverse trends in mental health?

The conclusion was stark: “The programme of reassessing people on disability benefits was independently associated with an increase in suicides, self-reported mental health problems and antidepressant prescribing.”

George Winterbottom, 39 from Bridlington is a claimant who has seen how the benefit system worked before the reforms and how it is now. He suffers from pan/complete ulcerative colitis, a genetic autoimmune condition that at present is incurable.

“My immune system at times malfunctions – this is called a flare,” George said. “They can happen at any time, lasting between weeks and up to a year.

“In a flare my immune system malfunctions and attacks all of my colon producing ulcers which then start bleeding internally. This can cause diarrhoea as my colon cannot absorb enough liquid from my stools. I’ve suffered from incontinence, which in turn leads to rapid weight loss, anaemia, and agony from the ulcers in my colon. Alongside this are a multitude of other painful conditions and symptoms when my condition is flaring.”

As we sit in his kitchen, the warmest room in the flat, George is keen to point out that under the old system of Incapacity Benefit when he could work, he did, with the DWP supporting him when his symptoms meant he had to stop work for a while.

“The system was straightforward with no long waiting times for my benefit,” George tells me. “I never came across any hostile attitudes or was threatened with sanctions. Instead, I received a DWP contact who kept in touch and at my own pace, helped me when I wanted to get back to work. This resulted in support to set up my own business though the Princes Trust and put me in touch with providers of an educational course, so I could train to become a youth and community worker.”

George has lately had to claim ESA, which replaced Incapacity Benefit. He is certain that ESA, like the replacement for Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payments (PIP), can exacerbate mental health conditions and even cause them. “Why this is,” George said, “is because the DWP starts from a position of making the application process as hard as possible.”

George in particular has criticism for the forms and assessments, which claimants are left to navigate themselves. Here they have to state over and over again the symptoms that limit them in their life. This, he argues, is like reliving past trauma, which is only completed when claimants are at their most vulnerable. Assessments are often carried out by people who have little knowledge about a specific condition, or how it impacts someone, with even the best medical evidence not trumping the personal judgement of the assessor. Compounding this is an approach built on suspicion rather than support.

He is now in the so-called Support Group of ESA, but whereas under Incapacity Benefit he was genuinely supported, with assistance from helpful advisers, George now feels as if he has been abandoned.

For the first time in our conversation, George looks as if he is holding back tears as he outlines what happened when his condition deteriorated, forcing him to claim for PIP.

“This was the worst year of my life medically, but what made it so bad was the actions of the DWP. In my PIP face-to-face assessment it was clear the assessor nurse didn’t know enough about my chronic condition, and how, for example, it interacts with my medication.

“I already knew that as someone with an invisible and fluctuating disability I would have a fight on my hands. That meant when the decision letter arrived with not enough points for the right award, I put together a full pack of information for the Mandatory Reconsideration about how my condition affects my mobility and daily living. For this to then be rejected within 24 hours of them receiving it made me feel a mixture of shock, disbelief then anger that I’d put so much effort into something that the DWP is just doing to delay the PIP award process.

“A year after I started my claim, I finally attended the tribunal hearing. They ruled I should receive the highest award for limited mobility and have my PIP arrears paid alongside. I was also informed I wouldn’t be reassessed until 2019.

“I thought the matter was settled but in late October I received a letter from the DWP, saying they were asking for the reason the tribunal made its decision and might appeal its decision on a point of law if they want to within 28 days of the court writing to them and me.”

The overall view George now has of the DWP, who once supported him so well, is as a threat, like an abusive partner. “The UN used the term ‘conscious cruelty’ which is spot-on. I don’t feel the DWP care if how they operate causes harm or death to claimants as long as they are not held responsible.”

For George, this long battle to get his benefits, and the negative messaging of the DWP, has had a devastating impact on his mental health resulting in a serious suicide attempt and the first hospitalisation he has ever had solely due to a mental health problem.

The Tory government wants to hide and deny the unpalatable truth of the damage and despair their destructive policies have created. Rather than coming clean it is charging on, creating more casualties due to Universal Credit and through inaction over social care. With many disabled people no longer here to tell their stories, it is imperative on all of us to keep informed, be supportive towards those who need it and ensure the government is held to account.

The Samaritans can be contacted 24 hours a day , whatever you are going through, for free by phone on 116 123 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org

Ruth F Hunt is a freelance journalist and author.

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