Reduced income: Lesson 5 the horror of the benefits system

I realise that the capitalist ideal is that individuals stay in work and live within their means. I would not have imagined myself being unable to do this, until I couldn’t. I couldn’t because my mental health reached the point where I was forcibly sectioned. I couldn’t because even though I believed I would be able just to return to my old life, I couldn’t. I couldn’t because starting my own business while still in recovery was harder than I thought, partly due to the Coronavirus lockdown.

On emerging from hospital, initially I was in denial and did not immediately claim any benefits. My pride overrode my common sense at this time and I wanted to be independent as before. I soon had to acknowledge my real circumstances and set about filling in forms. Various benefits advisors at the hospital had told me about Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but I felt I would simply return to work and would not need their help to claim. Previously my mental health had not prevented me from working for any lengthy period, so it felt reasonable to assume this would once more be the case.

Eventually I surrendered to reality but only after re-entering hospital, voluntarily this time, asking my parents for help and realising my situation may last longer than anticipated. The first benefit I applied for was Personal Independence Payment (PIP). After calling the enrolment phone number (Tel: 0800 917 2222), you’re sent a form to describe your condition, which is not appropriate for mental conditions only physical ones. So I shoe-horned my symptoms and their impact in response to the questions on the very long form. After posting the form, you are supposed to be invited to an interview as soon as possible, in my case six months later. Six months is a long time when you’re ill, have a reduced income, and still need to eat!! I was interviewed by a third party sub-contractor asking questions again only appropriate to physical conditions, who then submit this information for review centrally. It takes ages to hear whether it will be awarded and fortunately for me I received a monthly payment, reviewed every two years.

I then applied for Universal Credit albeit reluctantly. Fortunately I had internet access at this time, otherwise Universal Credit would have quickly proved impossible to claim and maintain. Every month you are required to enter income and expenditure, so they can calculate your pro rata amount for the month. It assumes internet access and the job centre does not enable you to do this in their office, to my knowledge. Perhaps they should. The process involves the submission of an application, then booking an interview at the local job centre so the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) advisor can assess you and explain the monthly process. Make sure you keep the pieces of paper with all the reference numbers on, you’ll need it. It takes are around three weeks for the assessment to be scheduled. They ask about your circumstances, plans for obtaining work, and explain the ‘commitments’ you undertake in order to continue to receive this benefit. It’s not horrendous, but is quite complicated and you need to be computer literate to sustain your commitments in order to continue receiving any payments. This part is completely reasonable.

ESA does not apply if you claim Universal Credit. Mortgage Interest Relief does, but does not kick in until 39 weeks after application which would likely prove way to late for anyone needing it! I’m guessing most people do not claim it as like me they assume they’ll be back in work by that time. My experience is that the mortgage company only offers interest only for around six months, after which it’s difficult to extend this concession. So by the time Mortgage Interest Relief kicks in, it’ll no longer cover the mortgage anyway as it’ll have returned to the full monthly payment. It just does not make sense to me. Surely, offering Mortgage Interest Relief for the initial six months as a cushion would be more useful. On expiry of the Interest Relief payments and assuming the individual is still not working, they’d have to move and lower their expenditure anyway. At least the other way round the family unit would be housed in the first few months while coming to terms with their reduced financial circumstances. It is a massive mental shift.

Now to what happens if things start to be withdrawn. For me this happened when the DWP realised I had a second property. I had disclosed this in the beginning and reported my monthly rental income religiously (I did not have to do this as there was no question relating to income received from non-work based income on the monthly commitments submission). I just popped my rental income into the comments every month (I was unnecessarily honest). After six months, someone reviewing the comments started to question it and therein followed an exhausting and exasperating series of messages. I finally gave up asking for information as there was no explanation for the change. I phoned but every person said they only had partial access to my file, therefore I had to speak to someone else. However, when I asked to speak to someone with a complete view of my situation there was no-one available. No manager, no senior person, no-one had a comprehensive view. Had I been less intelligent and persistent or still suffering with mental health issues, I would certainly have become more depressed and desperate. In the end I was offered an appointment in the job centre, where the advisor told me removing £600 a month from my income was not personal. I pointed out the missing money would have fed and housed my child, and was faced with a completely blank expression, utterly devoid of any compassion or understanding. I still do not know how they justified this sudden change, I just survived on less which I suspect happens to many others. I’ll say that again, I just survived on less and raised my daughter on less. Apparently I did not warrant any justification for the removal of money I was reliant on.

Subsequently I was advised to claim Child Tax Credits and discovered that unless you’re on Working Tax Credit already, it goes through Universal Credit only. As I mentioned, I no longer qualified for Universal Credit so I resigned myself again to just surviving on less. This involved many creative ways to eat as described in my previous blog, The Reality of Being Poor: Lesson 1 Food Provision. I do receive Child Benefit every four weeks that has proved a life saver. I wanted to use it to pay my daughter a monthly allowance and have finally reached a point where I am able to transfer this money to her. Yippee! Please do remember to claim Pupil Premium status from you child’s school if you’re strapped as this hidden benefit can help alot.

Overall, our Benefits System is horribly complicated and I’ve had much benefit advice to ensure I’m claiming what I’m entitled to claim. This need for advice employs many and must use up additional government funds that could be spent elsewhere. The utter lack of humanity involved, the limitations of the advisors by the DWP to actually advise, and the stupidity of not having a central system drove me mad. We have kept legacy benefits with a new associated organisation repeatedly. PIP is not under the DWP umbrella, neither is Child Benefit or Child Tax Credits. As a result, the DWP have such a restricted view of each person’s real circumstances that their guidance is near to pointless. We are also funding multiple government organisations to assess and award benefits, which must be inefficient. Tax-payers are also funding third parties to assess benefit claimants on the government’s behalf. Such a waste of resources. Surely aligning the systems to be able to assess an individual from all angles and award relevant benefits would massively reduce the ‘paper-pushing’ and bureaucracy! Surely this would minimise stress for each individual and ensure they are awarded what’s really available in the simplest way. I’m visualising a vector diagram for each situation and pathway through the benefits system, Lean Six-Sigma style to look at the sticking points and the real and desired end-user experience.

At least we have a benefits system in the UK to support those out of work for whatever reason, but it could definitely do with substantial streamlining. It could also do with being reminded that every person is a real person, claiming benefits or not. Being poor is not contagious. The Customer Service I received was sporadic, disparate, and lacked empathy (apart from the first DWP advisor I had who was actually pretty decent). It’s a lottery and seems somewhat random.

All the best to those going through this process right now. I wish you minimal hassle.

Love Ruth x

Header photo by micheile dot com on Unsplash

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