Two disabled people who moved to the UK from other EU countries have won an important Appeal Court case which entitles them to disability-related benefits in the UK from shortly after they arrived rather than having to wait two years.
The case, brought by Child Poverty Action Group and Harrow Law Centre, will ensure that disabled EU citizens and their carers who have a “genuine and sufficient” connection to the UK will receive social security support at an earlier point if they relocate to the UK.
The ruling overturns an Upper Tribunal finding that had denied both households benefits. And it confirms that the “genuine and sufficient” link which must be demonstrated by claimants in these circumstances is to the UK as a whole, rather than to its social security system.
One of the claimants, Ms Mohamed, is a Somalian-born woman who after 14 years’ residence in Germany as a German citizen came to the UK to settle here, aged 65.
When her health deteriorated to the point where she could no longer live alone and required the care of her daughter, a British citizen living in the UK, she claimed Attendance Allowance (AA). Her claim was refused.
The other claimant is 18-year-old Brandon Kavanagh, an Irish citizen who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as a child.
His mother, a British citizen, moved to Ireland when she was a teenager but returned to the UK in 2013 with her children to escape domestic violence and to be closer to her family, from whom she receives support. Her son was then aged 12.
She claimed Disability Allowance (DLA) for her son when she arrived in the UK, but her claim was refused.
Between 2011 and 2013 she had received care allowances for her son and for herself from the Irish social security system.
Both were refused disability-related benefits on the grounds that they hadn’t been in the UK long enough to pass the so-called ‘past presence test’.
The test requires people claiming disability benefits to have been in Britain for 104 weeks of the 156 weeks before they claim. EU citizens may be able to meet this test by combining, in certain circumstances, the time they have lived in another EU state with the time they lived in the UK.
Alternatively, the test doesn’t apply to EU citizens if they can establish a genuine and sufficient link to the UK.
Both claimants appealed the refusal of their benefit claims. In Brandon Kavanagh’s case he lost the appeal while Ms Mohamed was successful in hers. Brandon appealed to the Upper Tribunal in his case and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions appealed in Ms Mohamed’s case.
The cases then went jointly to an Upper Tribunal which found that although the “genuine and sufficient link” needed to be to the UK as a whole rather than limited to its social security system and that such a link may be established on the basis of presence alone, neither of the claimants could demonstrate a sufficiently strong link to the UK.
In a judgement handed down yesterday, the Court of Appeal ruled that both claimants had a genuine and sufficient connection to the UK when they claimed disability benefits shortly after their arrival and that the approach taken by the Upper Tribunal was flawed and unduly inflexible because it failed to take account of all the particular, personal circumstances and motives of the claimants which, in the round, proved the required sufficient link.
The Judges say: “… objective evidence of the [genuine and sufficient] link is plainly critical but evidence of the motives, intentions and expectations of the applicant are not to be ignored if they are relevant to proof of the link and are convincing.”
In Kavanagh’s case, the judges found the fact that his mother was fleeing domestic violence explained and confirmed her settled intention to remain in the UK, her country of nationality.
She needed the support of her wider family in England, enrolled her children in English schools, closed her only bank account in Ireland, severed all ties with the Republic and had no intention of returning.
In the case of Ms Mohamed, she suffered a number of physical ailments including osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and high blood pressure.
She used a wheelchair, required support with mobility and daily activities such as washing, cooking meals, dressing and administering medication and had moved to the UK to join her daughter, a British citizen who provides daily care for her.
Commenting on the judgement, Child Poverty Action Group’s Head of Litigation Carla Clarke said: “This is a strong judgement which recognises that justice requires decision makers to take a wide view of all the relevant facts and motives where a genuine and sufficient link to the UK must be proved for benefit purposes.
“Both of our clients already had strong family ties to the UK and a clear intention to settle here when they first claimed disability benefits yet they were denied help with the extra costs of disability because, as today’s judgement finds, the criteria for proving a sufficient link to the UK has been too narrowly applied.
“Today’s ruling means that disabled EU citizens, including UK citizens, who relocate or return to the UK from another EU country because their carer is fundamentally connected to the UK will receive the financial help they need because of their disability at a much earlier point.”
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Patients claiming universal credit who are exempted from prescription charges are receiving penalty notices because prescription forms have not been amended to include the benefit – six years after it was introduced. Some people have reported receiving multiple charge notices. Many people are being penalised for a pharmacy error or because of a misunderstanding. A third of the 2017 penalties imposed were overturned on appeal so far.
Patients who are suspected of wrongly claiming free prescriptions face a penalty of five times the prescription charge plus the charge itself. The maximum is £100; £50 is added if the bill is not settled within 28 days.
The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA), an arm’s length body of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), says a universal credit tick box should be added “later this year”. Until then, claimants entitled to free prescriptions must tick the “income-based jobseeker’s allowance” box. However, some who did so report they have still been penalised. Furthermore, no one is informing people which box to tick.
Many of the patients who receive penalty notices simply failed to realise that they no longer qualified for free prescriptions and dental treatment. Exemption certificates are automatically issued to those who earn less than £15,276 a year and receive working tax credit, child tax credit, or income support, as well as income related Employment and Support Allowance.
However, apparently, the certificates are only valid for up to seven months and recipients are not notified if they do not qualify for a renewal. The new fraud prevention system seems to be set up to penalise people because of the fact they are not kept informed of changes to their entitlement to free prescriptions, which is categorically unfair.
Moreover, it is creating severe distress and harm.
The devastating impact on vulnerable patients
Last year, Labour called for an overhaul of the system when a woman killed herself after receiving nearly £200 in penalty charges. Penny Oliver, a part-time chef, had not realised her exemption had lapsed after an ESA assessment deemed her fit for full-time work. Because her benefits had been cut she could not afford the penalties. In June 2018, she took an overdose of antidepressants – the medication that had created the debt.
Oliver owed sums of just £8.60 and £20.60. But with penalty fees and surcharges these rocketed – the second one alone soaring to £120.60. That’s ten times the amount for that prescription. After having lost hundreds of pounds a month when her benefits were cut, she simply couldn’t pay. Her housing benefit and council tax reduction were also cut, leaving her facing recovery action for an overpayment.
She had just a few pounds in her account and was surrounded by payment demands when her family tragically found her dead last in June. Letters from the council, the NHS and Department for Work and Pensions included threats to take her to court and inform her employer if she did not pay.
At the time, shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “This is shocking. Questions have to be asked about the humanity of a system that does this to vulnerable people.
“Penalty charges should be scrapped – it’s a disgrace to exploit vulnerable, ill people in this way. Ministers urgently need to step in and review this system.
“Our NHS is there to help patients get better not make their condition worse by putting unacceptable burdens on people like this.”
Single mother Sue Carpenter was ordered to pay £100 after mistakenly claiming a free dental check-up. “I have had an NHS exemption since my daughter was three, but I received no reminder that it would run out when she was 18,” she explains.
“I knew my child tax credit would change, but I’m still eligible for working tax credit and I assumed the exemption was linked to the entire tax credit award, not just to the child component. The dentist didn’t ask to see my certificate, which I now realise expired two weeks before.”
Carpenter says that the expiry date should be made clear. “The NHS exemption seems a unique instance of a status that runs out with no clear warning, allows you to continue using it when it has expired and then incurs a steep penalty without prior notice of the consequences.”
The NHSBSA says it is a patient’s responsibility to check the expiry date on their exemption certificate.
However, recovering costs someone incurred in error is one thing, but fining people because they didn’t read the very small print, especially given that the citizens affected are likely to be ill and also on a low income, is a step too far. While it raises revenue for a cash-starved NHS, it is at the expense of those with the least, as usual. Fining people for a genuine mistake because they are not provided with sufficient information in the first place is outrageously mercenary.
The high cost of countering pre-estimated fraud
It is unsurprising to learn that the NHS counter fraud authority was created by legislation, launched in 2017-18, and is subject to direction by the Secretary of State. It’s also worth noting that the majority of health funding goes to the Department’s
In 2016-17 the Health Department had an overall revenue and capital budget of £122.2 billion. Less than 4% (£4.7 billion) of its funding was allocated to the core Department, according to the National Audit Office (NAO). The remainder (£117.5 billion) was allocated to its arm’s-length bodies. That’s a huge sum of public money that is spent on managing the NHS and not on delivering frontline services.
Usually when Conservatives claim to “counter fraud”, it entails the creation of a hostile environment. Social security, for example, has been transformed from a redistributive system for the public protection from the ravages of poverty to one that administers the discipline, coercion and sanctions, using absolute poverty as a punishment for “non compliance”.
Professional and patients’ bodies have also expressed their concern that the system designed to detect fraud is undermining the whole ethos of the NHS.
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association said: “Serving penalty notices on patients cannot be a caring way to manage this system.”
“Some of the people who received these notices will be in vulnerable situations, and the impact of letters threatening court action, particularly for those who are receiving treatment for mental illnesses, should not be underestimated.
“While it’s important that fraudulent and incorrect claims are identified, nearly one in three penalty notices had to be withdrawn because they were issued in error. This shows a system that is highly dysfunctional.”
It also indicates the introduction of an increasingly hostile environment within health services, especially for those ill people on low incomes.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has previously said: “The message is clear. The NHS is no longer an easy target, and if you try to steal from it you will face the consequences.”
I’m wondering how it is possible to steal healthcare, bearing in mind that the same minister insists that the healthcare in the UK is still “free at the point of access”. I think this systematic restriction of access to public services more generally is precisely what David Cameron meant when he said that he wanted to tackle the “culture of entitlement”.
The public pay taxes and national insurance – “social insurance” – for increasingly little return while millionaires get tax cuts and carrots while everyone else gets the austerity stick, and told to live within our increasingly diminishing means. We are being dispossessed, so the very wealthy can accumulate even more wealth.
This year the NHS is piloting a digitised system that it claims will enable pharmacists to check eligibility instantly. However, surely the same system could be used to inform patients of their eligibility status also. That would reduce error considerably, too.
The NHSBSA say they are digital by default, and: “We use complex algorithms and data mining tools as a means to identify both normal behaviour and outliers in NHS data, within which fraudulent behaviour may be found.
The resulting “analyses” are used to support ongoing investigations as well as inform the intelligence picture and guide fraud prevention steps.”
The “complex algorithms” are very clearly being used as a blunt instrument, resulting in least one death, to date. Yet one of the highest costs of “highly probable” fraud, according to the NHS BSA is from procurement and commissioning fraud, at an estimated cost of £266m £266m between 2016-17. (See page 8 here).
The key stakeholders of the counter fraud authority include NHS England, NHS Improvement and the Cabinet Office.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the British Medical Association fear the new system will withhold vital treatment from people on low incomes who remain eligible for free prescriptions but have failed to renew their paperwork.
“Pharmacists don’t want to be the prescription police, spending their time checking exemptions rather than advising on patient care,” says Sandra Gidley, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English pharmacy board.
“It’s very easy for mistakes to happen. Sometimes it’s that the computer says ‘no’, on other occasions people have simply forgotten to renew. Some don’t know if they’re exempt or not, or wrongly assume they are.”
She says that the prescription system should be overhauled to prevent confusion and reflect medical advances. “Medical exemption criteria have not changed since 1968. This means they are completely unjust. For example, those with long-term asthma have to pay for prescriptions, whereas people with diabetes don’t. Many new long-term conditions have been discovered in the past 50 years and they aren’t covered at all.
“It would be much simpler to have free prescriptions for everyone, as is the case in Scotland and Wales, because then no one would have to worry about remembering to fill out the right form.”
Data released under the Freedom of Information Act last year shows that 1,052,430 penalty notices were issued to patients in England in 2017 – about double the level in the previous year. But the data confirms that 342,882 penalty notices were subsequently withdrawn because the patient was entitled to free prescriptions after all, upon further investigation.
The NHSBSA, the agency in charge of issuing the fines, said it was “continually reviewing its data-matching process and making improvements to ensure eligible patients were not wrongly pursued.”
The agency said it was also trying to educate patients on the importance of keeping the details on both their GP records and their exemption or prescription prepayment certificates up to date.
It’s yet another public service system that’s been designed to assume people are guilty of fraud, with the onus on patients to provide proof that they are innocent.
“The NHS loses millions each year through fraudulent and incorrect claims for free prescriptions,” said Alison O’Brien, head of loss recovery services at the authority. “On behalf of NHS England, and in discussion with the Department of Health and Social Care, the NHS Business Services Authority checks claims randomly and retrospectively to appropriately recover funds and return them to NHS services.”
However, as the data strongly suggests, in far too many cases, it isn’t appropriate to recover funds and impose fines. Errors are happening all too frequently, creating anxiety, distress and hardship. When accusations of fraud are made which are not true, it causes humiliation and creates scapegoats.
Given that the neoliberal state treats citizens as if they have done something wrong as a starting point – which is the key message embedded in hostile environments; creating stigma and criminalising already marginalised groups – it’s become a standardised form of political abuse which is entrenched within our public services. It’s designed as a punitive form of resource gatekeeping, resulting in withholding service and support from the very people who those services were designed to support.
Unfortunately, there is a pathological political narrative that tends justify cost cutting measures and punitive policies which portray the state and the mythically discrete class, “the taxpayer”, as victims, when the state is actually perpetrator, and we all pay taxes for the services that are being dismantled by stealth.
Many of us have raised concerns related to the impact of the government’s various “hostile environment” policies in the health, housing, welfare, finances and banking, education, social services and other sectors, on vulnerable groups and those who share protected characteristics. The Equality Act was originally designed to address this kind of discrimination. But as we have learned over the last eight years, the government regards human rights and equality frameworks as a mere inconvenience.
Peter Burt, a patient who was wrongly issued with one of the NHS penalty notices, said he worried about how certain patients would react to receiving one. “Some of the people who received these notices will certainly be in vulnerable situations and some will be receiving prescription medication for anxiety and mental health issues,” Burt said.
“They should not be receiving letters threatening court action just because the NHS can’t be bothered to check the records to see whether they have a prepayment card – especially if there is no intention of carrying out the threat. It’s hugely disappointing that, at a time when clinical services are clearly facing financial strains, the NHS bureaucracy is wasting money by sending out hundreds of thousands of inaccurate demands every year.”
Watson said more problems lay ahead if further planned changes to the way medicines were prescribed were introduced.
“The bureaucracy around prescriptions is unfit for purpose, and will only get worse if NHS England introduces its planned restrictions on prescribing over the counter medicines,” she said. “Serving notice of penalties for free prescriptions on patients who may be vulnerable and unwell and are then required to demonstrate their right to a free prescription cannot be a compassionate and caring way to manage this system.”
It certainly seems to be the government’s modus operandi to withdraw compassion and care when it comes to public policy design, which have been templated to implement austerity rather than ensure delivery of public services that are fit for purpose.
My work is unfunded and I don’t make any money from it. This is a pay as you like site. If you wish you can support me by making a one-off donation or a monthly contribution. This will help me continue to research and write independent, insightful and informative articles, and to continue to provide support others who are affected by the welfare ‘reforms’.
A recent research report launched last month by anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust(Z2K) reveals the devastating impacts that the government’s welfare reforms are having on the lives of people who are disabled or severely unwell.
Those benefits that were supposed to provide support for disabled people – Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – are leaving hundreds of thousands of disabled and unwell people wrongly assessed and denied the vital Social Security benefit they are entitled to. Without this essential income, many people are pushed into debt, face rent arrears and eviction and have to rely on food banks to survive.
Poor design and implementation of the assessments means PIP and ESA are failing, forcing ill and disabled people to go through arduous and distressing reviews and appeals processes just to access the payments they are entitled to. The numbers of people who are wrongly assessed and let down by the system are likely to be much higher than official appeal figures suggest.
“For the past two years I’ve been surviving on foodbanks, borrowing money and well-wishers helping me. Even now I’ve got over £8,000 debts to pay people.” Kalifa, ESA claimant
“I went to see my doctor and I said ‘I can’t stand this anymore.’ I would wake up in the middle of the night worrying about this.” Darren, PIP claimant
After being wrongly turned down at assessment, claimants must first go through Mandatory Reconsideration (MR), which can take anything from a few days to several months. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) argues that claims are fully reviewed at this stage, but the fact that 69 per cent of claimants win their appeal after having gone through MR proves that the MR itself is failing to correct the assessment’s flaws.
While those who reach the appeal do eventually receive a fair hearing, the arduous process means many never make it to this stage. Drastic cuts to legal aid mean countless ill and disabled people cannot get the legal support and representation required – and which significantly improves chances of success: 88 per cent of the clients Z2K itself supports win their appeal. The Government’s cuts to legal aid and reduced local funding for advice charities means many disabled people are losing out purely because they cannot afford private legal advice.
Raji Hunjan, CEO of Z2K, said “The whole appeal process – and the months of financial and emotional hardship people have to go through to get there – could be avoided if DWP got assessments right in the first place.
“Instead of creating such a hostile environment for those who are disabled, and assuming everyone is trying to cheat the system, ministers urgently need to recognise the reality of people’s disabilities and illnesses and give them the support they deserve.
“That means fixing the assessments, fundamentally improving MR and reinstating legal aid for disability appeals.”
The report recommends clear changes to the assessment, MR and appeal stages, in order to ensure that disabled and unwell people no longer have to suffer to get the payments they are entitled to.
DWP and its contracted assessors must start recording all ESA and PIP assessments to ensure an improvement in their accuracy;
DWP should introduce a new quality management framework for its contracted assessors and meaningful penalties to hold those companies to account for the quality of their work;
If DWP will not commit to reforms to the Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) stage to ensure it corrects inaccurate assessments, MR should be scrapped and claimants should be allowed to go straight to an appeal hearing at the Tribunal;
The Government should reinstate legal aid for disability benefits appeals.
Access Denied: Barriers to Justice in the Disability Benefits System illustrates the many barriers to justice that disabled people face, and highlights the potential solutions. It is based on in-depth research with Z2K’s clients, whose claims for ESA and PIP have been rejected – despite them having severe illnesses and disabilities. Their stories reveal not only the serious flaws in the assessments, but also the personal impacts and enormous obstacles people face in challenging the assessment decision.
The research findings come in the wake of the recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which says the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has underpaid benefits to the tune of £1.7bn over the last year, while official errors have also seen a significant rise in over-payments.
Underpayments now account for £1.7 billion of government welfare expenditure, while over-payments have soared to a record £3.7 billion.
The report exposes the shocking extent of departmental errors and layers of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, with the chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee describing the current welfare system as “a pinball machine”.
Frank Field, told the Press Association: “It’s like a pinball machine, the payments system – you might get an overpayment, you might get an underpayment.
“Lots of people are not being paid Universal Credit when they should be, causing hardship, and the same department is overpaying others – what is going on?”
But the data shows that while Universal Credit has the highest level of over-payments, at 7.2%, has the greatest amount of underpayments at 3.7%. That figure does not include those denied PIP and who are forced to ask for Mandatory Review and then appeal.
The research also comes as Sarah Newton belligerently denied in parliament that disabled people claiming support face a politically designed hostile environment, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, faces mounting calls to resign, after falsely claiming that an NAO report suggested that the roll-out of Universal Credit should be “accelerated.”
The UK government’s treatment of disabled people has been extremely controversial for many years, with the United Nations accusing ministers of “grave and systematic” violations of disabled people’s human rights following their extensive inquiry.
But despite the many concerns, challenges, presented empirical evidence and official rebukes of the government’s prejudiced and discriminatory welfare policies, the cruel treatment of sick and disabled people in the UK continues, with ministers dogmatically denying their punitive policies cause any harm and distress, indicating that the government has no intention of making positive changes any time soon.
I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. I co-run a group that supports disabled and ill people going through ESA and PIP claims, assessments and appeals.
Any donation is very much appreciated – thank you.
A man who has an inoperable brain tumour has condemned the government after his benefit support was stopped, leaving both his partner and himself with just £5 a week to feed themselves.
Karl Riley says that he’s been living below the bread line since his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and housing benefit were taken away three months ago when he moved in with his partner, whose income is just a few hundred pounds a month.
Karl, who is 32, says that he has a tumour that is embedded in his brain stem. This has caused him to suffer severe neurological symptoms, such as permanent limited mobility, double vision, memory loss, confusion, extreme anxiety, depression, nausea, insomnia, tinnitus and facial paralysis.
Despite his health problems, Karl manages a few hours of self-employed work each week. He manages a band part-time, but isn’t capable of working full-time. He says he risks losing his house now that his benefits have been stopped.
Karl has also been waiting seven months for NHS physiotherapy treatment.
He told i News: “I feel like I’m getting no help from either the government or the NHS. My partner and I can’t feed ourselves and pay other living expenses on just £5 a week. Who can survive on that? I understand now why so many people are going to food banks. This government leaves people to starve.”
Karl found out by accident about his non-cancerous tumour when he had a brain scan as part of a medical trial in 2012. At the time he had no symptoms and he was told that doctors would take a ‘wait and see’ approach.
He continued to work for nearly five years but early last year took a turn for the worse, becoming symptomatic. A scan showed the lump had grown to four times its original size. “I was fine at first. They said it wasn’t appearing to grow much and I carried on managing my five bands.” he explained. “But then the neurological symptoms started.”
Karl had emergency brain surgery last March to drain a build up of fluid, followed by a second operation in July, when doctors told him the tumour was too embedded in his brain, making it inoperable.
Karl said: “I was bad after the second operation. It caused me a lot more problems and I had to relearn how to walk.” He then had to undergo six weeks of radiotherapy in a bid to reduce the mass, and says he was vomiting every day and continues to feel the side-effects.
Karl, who then lived with his partner Samantha Neale, 27, had some savings to fall back on at the time, but when they ran out of money, each of them were forced to move back with their parents.
Karl had been struggling with his mobility. So in December, he made a claim for ESA. He was awarded £73.10 a week, which is the Support Group level of award, for those who cannot work because of illness or disability, plus he was awarded a basic award of £54 a week when he claimed Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which replaces Disability Living Allowance. Then in March, Karl and Samantha decided to live together again, renting the cheapest place they could find for £425 a month. However, Samantha became ill herself and was unable to work. She currently receives statutory sick pay.
Karl said: “We wanted to live together again, I was stuck in my parents’ tiny box room which wasn’t ideal for me with mobility problems. My partner is essentially my carer, and she’s had a lot of problems in the past, then there was my illness on top of them and she just couldn’t cope anymore.”
Karl had declared the move as a change of circumstances, and says the that government asked to look at Samantha’s payslips and took one that showed a higher than normal payment to be their regular income.
Karl explained: “Samantha is getting £380 a month in sick pay, but for one month in May she was paid nearly £600 because her April payment was under at £280 due to a processing problem.
“But despite explaining this the benefits people decided her regular income is £600. Our council tax reduction has stopped too and we can’t claim housing benefit.” So Samantha’s back payment – money she was owed – was taken as her income as well.
Once Karl’s ESA was stopped, he was told to claim working tax credits, but his award didn’t include the disability element.
This means that he now has to pay for his rent in full and has no council tax reduction. Karlsays that after paying their rent and bills, there’s now so little left that he’s had to resort to setting up a GoFundMe appeal, because he feels so desperate.
“It’s disgraceful, it feels like begging, but I had no other option or we will lose the roof over our heads,” he said.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, and I can’t help having a brain tumour. The government also make it all so complicated with form after form to fill in, which is hard because I suffer short-term memory problems. It feels like a slap in the face.
He added: “I would love to be able to work more but I desperately need physiotherapy and occupational therapy. I don’t blame Breightmet Health Centre for that, I blame the government for the cuts and leaving NHS resources so stretched.” (Breightmet is an area of Bolton.)
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We’re committed to ensuring that people with health conditions get the support they’re entitled to. Decisions for ESA are made following consideration of all the information provided by the claimant, including supporting evidence from their GP or medical specialist. Anyone who is unhappy with a decision can appeal.
“People with long-term health conditions may also be eligible for support through other benefits such as PIP.”
It takes months to get a tribunal date, and before people can appeal, they have to go through a mandatory review first, where the government decides whether their original decision was correct. The mandatory review has no time limit, and an average of six weeks is usual for people to wait for the second decision.
Meanwhile, people are left without an adequate income to meet their basic living needs, and an average of nine months wait for their appeal to be heard.
I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. I co-run a group that supports disabled and ill people going through ESA and PIP claims, assessments and appeals.
Any donation is very much appreciated – thank you.
Last yearI wrote an articleabout how the social security system in the UK has been re-structured around “ordeals”, which were introduced by the Conservative government in order to discipline and “disincentivise” citizens from claiming welfare support. The government’s aim is to ‘deter’ a ‘culture of dependency’ (a debunked myth) by undermining any sense of security people may have of fulfilling their most basic needs. Welfare support is extremely conditional, precarious and punitive, because it is founded on traditional and appalling Conservative prejudices about poor people.
Ordeals are intrinsic to a system of punishment that the draconian Conservatives claim will “change the behaviours” of underpaid, unemployed and disabled people. By creating a hostile environment, the government are somehow claiming that it’s possible to simply punish people out of having basic needs. If employment were genuinely ‘the route out of poverty’, as the government claim, why is it that most people who need social security support are in work?
Then there are the additional concerns about how the government treats those citizens who are too ill to work. The Conservatives simply refuse to believe them or their doctors.
The Labour MP added yesterday in parliament: “This government’s policies have created a hostile environment causing grave violations on disabled people.”
The entire assessment process has established a system marked by assuming disabled people are somehow faking their disability or illness. It’s a case of “remove people’s support first, they can appeal later”. Once they have got through mandatory review and struggling without any income, that is. (To date, two-thirds of appeals are won by claimants. This is despite the legal aid cuts, which mean disabled people appealing their rejection for support are denied any legal support in a staggering 99% of cases.)
Outrageously, Newton said it’s “not true” that disabled people face a hostile environment.” She also asked the opposition not to say “things” that they “know are not true”.
But disabled people in the UK know that it IS true.
Basically Newton was inviting the Labour party to collaborate in gaslighting disabled people, as well as attempting to stifle genuine concerns, democratic dialogue and avoid any democratic accountability whatsoever. Absolutely shameful, authoritarian behaviour.
The United Nations (UN) and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission have already verified the truth of these statements, presented by Labour shadow ministers, disability charities and disabled people.
However, the Conservatives have a track record of denying empirical findings that don’t match their ideological expectations. They simply deny and dismiss any criticism of their prejudiced and discriminatory policies. Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary at the time of the UN inquiry report, famously claimed that cuts to support for disabled people did “not necessarily mean worse outcomes.”
If the Conservatives genuinely believed that were true, they wouldn’t have such a problem in ensuring very wealthy people paid a fair amount of tax more generally. Apparently, money matters only to the rich. Cuts to their income must be avoided at all costs. And it does cost some of society’s most marginalised citizens, leaving us vulnerable.
Those in the work-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) group have already seen their support brutally cut to fund tax cuts for the wealthy. Personal Independent Payment (PIP) was introduced to cut costs, too.
The fact that disabled people are alsodying after losing their benefits is continually ignored, often dismissed by the government as ‘anecdotal evidence’, which does not ‘demonstrate a ‘causal link’ between increased, preventable mortality and government policy”.
My own experiences of the Conservatives hostile environment
As a disabled person who has gone through three ESA assessments, and more recently, a PIP assessment, a mandatory review and tribunal, I can verify that the Conservatives’ policies have created a hostile and harmful environment for disabled people. When I went through the ESA assessment in 2011, I was already gravely ill with a severe lupus flare. I was forced to leave a job I loved in 2010.
By then I had worked with the illness as long as I possibly could. I became ill with lupus in 1998. The illness is chronic, progressive and is characterised by periods of acute illness, followed by periods of relative remission. Each flare generally imposes an increasing amount of damage to joints, nerves, tendons, organs and blood cells, as the disease progresses, causing myriad symptoms that vary over time, and from person to person.
Unbelievably, despite being so ill, I scored zero points at the assessment and the stress of having to fight for a means to live exacerbated my illness. I won an appeal nine months later. In the meantime I was placed on a work programme that I couldn’t possibly undertake. The disability advisor I saw at the job centre told me she could see I was unfit for work.
Just three months following the appeal, I was told I must attend another assessment. By this time I was so poorly that I collapsed at the interview. The Atos doctor told me I should never have been sent for another assessment. I was on chemotherapy treatment at the time, which ought to have exempted me, as should the tribunal outcome just a couple of months previously. The initial Atos report, presented to the court, was clearly about someone else’s life and conditions. The tribunal said that working would place me at unacceptable risk.
I also ensured the assessment was recorded the second time, so little was my trust of the fairness and rationality of the process. Or the honesty and integrity of Atos’s ‘health care professionals’. At the second assessment, I saw a doctor, who sent me home in a taxi, Atos actually paid for it. He also recommended that I was placed in the Support Group.
It was two years before my treatment stopped the aggressive advance of my illness, which also leaves a wake of progressive damage to bones, joints, tendons, nerves, blood cells, major organs and my immune system – causing further disability. My rheumatologist is sure the severe stress of assessment and appeal, coupled with the financial hardship I experienced, exacerbated my flare. By 2013 I was still very frail, and weighed less than seven stones, despite feeling less acutely ill.
The experience was so distressing for me that I could not face going through a PIP assessment, despite the fact that I needed the additional support. I put off claiming until last year, when I needed aids and appliances in my home just to manage day-to-day tasks like taking a shower and cooking. The occupational therapist from my local council helped me with my claim. By this time I desperately needed the additional support.
The PIP assessment was dehumanising and degrading and the ‘examination’ included movements that left me in a lot of severe pain, reducing my mobility further, substantially. Some of my joints were badly swollen by the evening, following my appointment, including both shoulders and knees. I was asked to do movements I wasn’t familiar with, and it isn’t until you try them that you find you cannot actually bend or reach that way. The movements were also done in quick succession. I was trembling with the effort and complained I was in pain. When I refused to do a squat, I was asked why. I explained that I simply couldn’t do it. I have arthritis in both hips and lower spine, both of my wrists and shoulders won’t take any weight and had I fallen backwards, I risked breaking a wrist, as I also have early onset osteoporosis because of my illness.
People should not be leaving assessments in a worse condition than when they arrived for them.
I made a formal complaint, but was fobbed off by the person carrying out the investigation, who simply concluded that as he ‘wasn’t in the room at the time’ of the assessment and so could neither verify nor negate my ‘allegations’. It took him four pages to say that.
I was just one point short of an enhanced PIP award. The reasoning on the assessment report for denying me a point for cognitive difficulties was that I had a degree (1996, Master’s in 2007), worked as a social worker (until 2010, when I became too ill to work) and a driving licence in 2003. I have been unable to drive since 2005 because of flicker induced seizures. Clearly the idea that an illness that prevents me from continuing in work, which is also well-known for causing neurological illness, has led to increasing cognitive difficulties since 2009 isn’t acceptable to PIP assessors, who wanted to keep my award as low as possible.
The DWP didn’t even bother writing to let me know the outcome of my mandatory review. Throughout the process, from the first ESA assessment to the last PIP assessment, I was treated as though I was somehow a burden, rather than being supported.
Newton claimed yesterday that the opposition’s comments are “dangerous”and “deter” people who need support from claiming it. What utter tosh. It is government policies that are dangerous, and that have created a series of ordeals in the assessment process, designed to weight the assessments towards permitting the DWP to refuse people support.
I needed PIP in 2011, but my experience of ESA assessment was so devastating that I was deterred from claiming PIP until I was absolutely desperate, last year. I simply could not face risking my health even further with another assessment, unless I absolutely had no choice. That last assessment also caused an exacerbation of my illness and injury to my already damaged joints and tendons.
How dare Newton tell such hard faced, deplorable lies.
She went on to say: “We have very strong protections for people with disabilities in our country.”
Newton even had the cheek to cite Labour’s Equality Act as a ‘protection’ for disabled people, as if it was the Conservatives who designed this policy. This is the same Act that this government has violated over and over because of their welfare ‘reforms’ and austerity programme.
Those protections were brought about by the last Labour government, which also included the Human Rights Act, as well as Labour signing the UK up to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) – an international human rights treaty intended to protect the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities.
The established human rights and equality frameworks have been methodically ignored by this government, who decided to target disabled people with a significantly disproportionate burden of their ideological austerity programme. The UN found that the Conservatives’ treatment of disabled people gravely and systematically violates our human rights. The evidence gathered by the UN came from disabled people’s accounts (including mine) and those of disability organisations and charities.
This is a government that has systematically marginalised disabled people economically socially and politically, sidestepping human rights and equality legal frameworks. Apparently the government doesn’t regard democratic accountability to disabled people as particularly important. Instead, ministers simply lie and deny other people’s experiences and accounts.
Newton also shamefully suggested people losing their motability cars should complain to the Motability charity – not the government. It’s not the charity that are creating a hostile environmen for disabled people, carrying out assessments that are absolutely unfit for purpose. This government simply refuse to accept any responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. History has taught us that such right wing authoritarian governments are very, very dangerous.
How dare this minister deny and dismiss the accounts of disabled people – those directly affected by her government’s draconian policies. How dare she call other people ‘liars’ while she stood there lying in parliament. She seems to have forgotten that disabled people have the same democratic right as other groups to hold a dialogue with the government, but instead we have patronising and vindictive ministers telling us their punitive and authoritarian policies aren’t causing us any harm or distress. We say they are and we are told by this manipulative, gaslighting liar that it is we that are ‘lying’.
Newton presented us with despicable and manipulative gaslighting tactics used by bullies, psychopaths and despots. When Newton claims that the opposition are telling ‘untruths’, she is also accusing those of us who have suffered because of her governments wretched and punitive policies. She then goes on with hard faced cheek to ‘condemn the condemners’*(see below for outline of techniques of neutralisation):
“I honestly ask all members opposite, please do not use this language of hostile environment. It is simply not the case.
“And the very people that need all of our support are put off from seeking it and coming forward.
“Really, I would ask them to stop saying things which they know are not true.”
The Conservatives talk a lot about “evidence-based policy”, but they don’t walk the talk. An overwhelming weight of evidence has highlighted the cruel, draconian effects of the Tories’ social polices to date. The government have simply chosen to deny and ignore it.
Clearly the government is committed to trying it on by paying people (from their OWN contributions) as little as they can possibly get away with from the public fund. Perish the thought that public paying taxes towards public services may actually want to use those public services at some point in their lives. Yet the government irrationally insists that the cuts are “to provide tax payers with value for money.”
There IS NO discrete group of tax payers that never use public services, who are simply paying for “other peoples'” support. Everyone pays tax, including those claiming welfare support. Most people claiming support have worked, many needing support are actually IN work. Furthermore, as employment has become increasingly precarious, many move in and out of employment, through no fault of their own.
The “value for the tax payer” spin is simply a divisive strategy – a political game of “us and them” that is used to justify punitive policies which target some groups, while the deliberate scapegoating of those groups serves to de-empathise the public to their loss of support, increasing vulnerability and distress.
Deliberately cutting money from disabled peoples’ crucial lifeline support can hardly be described as providing “value for money” nor is it “fair” and “supportive”. This consistent response and denial from a government of liars indicates quite clearly that the cuts were always intentional on the part of the government.
The gaslighting, denial and dismissal by Newton and her Conservative colleagues indicates a deliberately prejudiced, vicious attack on a significant minority of the population, which this Orwellian government clearly have absolutely no intention of stopping or putting right any time soon.
— * Techniques of neutralisation:
Used to switch off the conscience when someone plans or has done something to cause harm to others.
They identified the following psychological techniques by which, they believed, delinquents justified their illegitimate actions, and Alexander Alverez further identified these methods used at a socio-political level in Nazi Germany to“justify” the Holocaust:
1. Denial of responsibility. The offender(s) will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control.
2. Denial of harm and injury. The offender insists that their actions did not cause any harm or damage.
3. Denial of the victim. The offender believes that the victim deserved whatever action the offender committed. Or they may claim that there isn’t a victim.
4. Condemnation of the condemners. The offenders maintain that those who condemn their offence are doing so purely out of spite, ‘scaremongering’ or they are shifting the blame from themselves unfairly.
5. Appeal to higher loyalties. The offender suggests that his or her offence was for the ‘greater good’, with long term consequences that would justify their actions, such as protection of a social group/nation, or benefits to the economy/ social group/nation.
6. Disengagement and Denial of Humanity is a category that Alverez added to the techniques formulated by Sykes and Matza because of its special relevance to the Holocaust. Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews and other non-Aryans as subhuman. A process of social division, scapegoating and dehumanisation was explicitly orchestrated by the government. This also very clearly parallels Gordon Allport’s work on explaining how prejudice arises, how it escalates, often advancing by almost inscrutable degrees, pushing at normative and moral boundaries until the unthinkable becomes tenable. This stage on thescale of social prejudicemay ultimately result in genocide.
Any one of these six techniques may serve to encourage violence by neutralising thenorms against prejudice and aggression to the extent that when they are all implemented together, as they apparently were under the Nazi regime, a society can seemingly forget its normative rules, moral values and laws in order to engage in wholesale prejudice, discrimination, exclusion of citizens, hatred and ultimately, in genocide.
In accusing citizens and the opposition of ‘scaremongering’, the Conservatives are denying responsibility for the consequences of their policies, denying harm, denying distress; denying the victims and condemning the condemners.
Meanwhile, for many of us, the government’s approach to social security has become random, controlling and an unremitting, Orwellian trial.
Read some of the accounts of other disabled people who have also faced the Conservative’s hostile environment and social security ordeals:
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