Friday, 31 October 2014

Why the proposed ESA reduction is an attack on the disabled, and an attack on the poor.

Sigh. This is primarily a response to this [] BBC article, but also tackles some misconceptions about disability and so on. This is a long one and, for some of you, might be an uncomfortable read - sorry. I ask that you stick with it unless you meet the criteria at the end of this paragraph. This is my second edit. I've lost a lot of the more intense anger as I've been writing and have reached a state of calm rage. The gist of it is: If you even instinctually think this could be a good idea, then get out of my life. I deserve better people in my life than you.

Let us start with the factual inaccuracies (a generosity - I'm more inclined to call them 'lies') first, because good lord there are big ones here. This is one of the most factually inaccurate things I've seen from the BBC in quite some time, but at least some of it comes from uncritical parroting. At best, it shows the BBC just parrots the Government line. At worst, it shows the Government is filled with people who haven't got a bloody clue.

1: "judged to be capable of work with appropriate support ". 

NOPE. If you are "capable of work" (with or without any qualifier) then you are, by actual definition, not eligible for Employment & Support Allowance.

2: "They also revealed concerns about claimants moving off jobseekers allowance onto ESA.".

Nope. This is not actually a thing that can even happen. By definition, to claim JSA you must be capable of work and to claim ESA you must not be capable of working. Your circumstances can change such that you become incapable of work when you previously were (and vice versa), but this is not just people 'people noticing they can have an easier time on ESA'. Jog on.

3: "ESA recipients in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) - individuals who have to prepare for employment".

Nope. Some people in the WRAG - those with prognoses under 6 months, usually - can be compelled by sanction to undertake activity 'intended' to get them ready for work. I am in the WRAG. I do not "have to prepare for unemployment" - in fact, during my last WCA they said they "do not foresee a return to the workforce in the longer term". I have a feeling Auntie doesn't know what the fuck she's on about.

4:  " Claimants have to undergo a work capability assessment to determine whether they are eligible and at what level."

Nope. The WCA tests eligibility for ESA full stop. The level is determined by the "Limited Capability for Work Related Activity Assessment".

5 (from the OBR, which shows.. worrying ignorance in Government):"the backlog of applications encourages claimants previously not found eligible for ESA simply to reapply".

Even getting into the starting phase of ESA (financially identical to JSA, but with different conditionality) requires signed letters from a physician responsible for your medical care confirming that you are not medically capable of work, and you cannot be paid ESA for a reapplication within 6 months of being found fit for work by either WCA or appeals tribunal (unless your condition has changed or for a new condition, in which case a WCA should be immediately arranged and payments restarted if the 6 month time limit passes).

Now onto the politics and, y'know, basic fucking morality.

Jobseeker's Allowance is (supposedly; but that's for another time) a 'subsistence' benefit. It is there to keep you alive until you get a job. It is nowhere near enough to enable the 'cushy life' people on it (and other benefits) are so often accused of having. ESA is not a subsistence benefit. It is not higher than JSA to account for the added financial costs of disability - that is what DLA/PIP is for. ESA is higher than JSA to allow some basic fucking quality of life. The change would be moving from an annual income of £5000 to £3500.  By  proposing or supporting this change, you are sending a very clear message: you do not think disabled people deserve a decent life.  ESA at its current rate isn't enough to provide a good life, but it can provide a decent life if you have support and know what you're doing. By supporting this, you're telling me you don't think I deserve a decent life.

A few of you might say "oh, but it's not about you". It is. I do not think I have ever actually said "I am disabled" on Facebook. I am a disabled ESA claimant in the Work-Related Activity Group but with an 'indefinite' prognosis. This is targeting me.

A few more of you might say "well, we know YOU are real and deserving, but what about Jim down the street with the 'bad back'?" and I have a reply that might upset you. Policies like this are your fucking fault. There are endless fucking hoops to jump through to even get ESA and it is constant stress and pressure. Living with illness itself is constant stress and pressure.

Has a vindictive shitlord told the DWP you're claiming fraudulently  [yes this happened] because they took a disliking to you? Did a brown envelope come through your door and reduce you to a panicked wreck because you don't know if the DWP are coming for you now? Did you - because of your illness - miss a DWP appointment and now can't pay your bills for 3 months? I hope you've never owned or bought anything nice because you're about to be told by a complete stranger to justify your continued existence. Is your social category the centre of a witch hunt being supported by your own Government?

The thing is; pretty much every ESA claimant is someone else's 'Jim down the street'. You might think I'm 'obviously' 'real' but very few people would agree with you. A few of you have spoken of 'disabled people' forgetting - or not believing - that I am one. There is a very pervasive belief in our culture that 'disability' only applies to very few things - cancer, loss of limbs (primarily if you're from a military background, and in that case your ability to work is often irrelevant), things that affect cute children (see There is the assumption that you can judge a level of someone's disability by your often inconsequential interactions with them, or simply by looking at them. A "bad back" simply cannot be as much a disability or worse than an amputation of a non-dominant hand and deserve the same, or more, financial support.

What you don't understand is that disability is a SOCIAL thing. In the same way that a phenotype is genetic expression in a particular environment, disability is illness in a social context.  A person with an amputated hand has an objective medical 'event' but can have their disability significantly reduced by prosthetics. In medical terms, my condition is largely an irrelevance - a minor hormonal curiosity, but 98% of us have "a history of severely disrupted social functioning" []. People are disabled by their society. 24-hour public transport would reduce my level of disability, but society does not deem it necessary. Wheelchair users are disabled by a society that sees accessible buildings as an afterthought. Jim's 'bad back' might cause him very severe pain when he sits down, like ankylosing spondylitis can, but a potential employer won't pay for properly supportive furniture or allow him enough rest breaks. That guy with one hand? He got a prosthetic on the NHS.

The point is that disability is a complex interaction between medicine, bodies and society and you cannot judge a person's level of disability by glancing in from the outside. It is not fun and it is not an 'easy way out of work'. It is not a choice and it certainly isn't a "luxury lifestyle filled with iPhones and flat-screen TVs".

A lot of people talk about benefits being too high because people own items they see as luxury that they "have to work for". The "flat screen TV" is the prototypical example (but really, try finding a non-flat screen TV for sale these days). This argument has been the same for decades. At one time in the not-too-distance past, people on benefits shouldn't have been allowed to own 'luxury' washing machines. What you are simply saying - but couching in language that allows you a sense of victimisation coz remember, an annual gross income of £5000 is luxury - is that disabled people who cannot work do not deserve good lives. If that is your view, then I think you are a disgusting person.

Aside from an obvious attack on the lives of disabled people, this is also an attack on the poorest areas of the UK, and an attempt to stop the redistribution of wealth that happens because of social security. I've shown before that, despite overall poorer health, people in poorer areas of England are not only more likely to be to be found fit for work than people  richer, healthier areas, but also that they are less likely to get a Support Group judgement [].

Income received as benefits, like any financial income, has to be spent before it can become goods and services. You cannot withdraw an ESA payment from your bank and have it magically turn into the mythical flat-screen TV. It has to be spent in shops. It has to be paid to other people. It has to be paid to a bus driver. This money is then taxed as income, or taxed as VAT, or goes to staff as wages. A portion of your wages, dear Taxpayer, come from people in the WRAG of ESA spending their income. As does a portion of the local tax income spent on the schools, hospitals, roads.. whatever else you claim to cherish. By attacking this income differential as an unwarranted, undeserved luxury, the Conservatives are trying to stop of the flow of money into poor areas. The North East of England, my home region, gets £5 per person from central government for public transport funding [] - 0.18% of the per-person spend of London. Using 2014 data, total spending power in the North East would be reduced by £12.61 per person per year, compared to £9.44 in the South East and £8.63 in London.

There is a significant and strong correlation (r = .068, p = .044, N = 7) between the percentage of households earning below 60% of the median income and the value-per-year of the proposed ESA cut. In the 3 lowest-poverty areas, the average reduction in spending per person is £9.65, while in the 3 highest poverty areas the average is higher than £14.

My data, with sources, is here if you want to take a look yourself:

There have been a few interpretations of this story. One is that this file was 'leaked' as a way of expressing annoyance about having to change WCA provider companies. Frankly, this is not the view to which I subscribe, but if it is the case and this idea was never seriously considered, then it simply shows disdain for disabled people. The Government is willing to terrify us (and yes, we are terrified by this idea) as a means-to-an-end and use us as tools.

There's also the view that the leak was arranged as a way of the Tory party 'taste-testing' potential manifesto policies for the coming election. My view of the Tories ("No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin." Aneurin Bevan.) is such that this is the more likely and much more terrifying alternative. It doesn't matter that the combined error and fraud (separate statistics are not available) rate for ESA is less than 4% (and about 2% of the total ESA spend is unclaimed).

It's almost inevitable that I'll get a comment along the lines of "but what can I do????". If you've read this far, then you've already done something. Listening to disabled people is the start. Go forth and learn ( Challenge people spouting verifiable untruths (like spiralling fraud - the error and fraud rate is statistically stable). Tell your politicians when they're talking shite. Just... do SOMETHING. Don't sit back and think "oh, I'm safe" because it is very likely that, one day, you won't be. And fight it because fighting it is the right fucking thing to do.

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