The reality of the benefits system

Phoebe Williams reflects on personal and public experiences to offer a scathing criticism of Britain's benefit system
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Getting financial help when you are disabled should not cause you to become more ill or even die, but unfortunately, this is the current reality in the United Kingdom. Every day disabled people are rejected for PIP and other disability benefits even when they are entitled to them. Current statistics show that less than half (48%) of people who had an assessment were given Personal Independence Payments (PIP). I am one of the people who were denied benefits after my assessment, and after 2 years of tribunals and back and forth, I won my appeal. But not before I attempted to take my life twice due to the stress and humiliation.

I am lucky to be a survivor of the benefits system. But many others have not been so lucky. Philippa Day was a 27 year old mother who ended her life in August 2019 after having her benefits removed. Quoting from a Guardian article on her death, “She was discovered unconscious by her sister and father in August 2019. A letter from the DWP was found next to her rejecting her request for a benefits assessment to be carried out at her home – a decision the family believes triggered the overdose.”

In June 2018, 57 year old Errol Graham was found dead in his flat due to starvation after his benefits were cut. In an unsent letter Graham wrote to welfare officials, he said “I’m afraid to put my heating on and sit with a quilt around me to keep me warm. I dread any mail coming, frightened of what it might be because I don’t have the means to pay and this is very distressing. Most days I go to bed hungry and I feel I’m not even surviving how I should be. Little things that people brush off are big things to me…Please judge me fairly. I am a good person but overshadowed by depression. All I want in life is to live normally. That would be the answer to my prayers.”

Jodey Whiting was a 42 year old mother of 9 who took her life after her benefits were stopped because she missed her fit-for-work assessment. She had missed this assessment due to being ill with pneumonia and being in hospital for a brain cyst, causing her to miss the letter calling her in for an assessment. She was not believed when she explained why she missed this assessment, and had her ESA, housing benefit and council tax benefit stopped. Jodey’s local Citizens Advice wrote to the DWP on her behalf explaining the situation, but they claimed they never received this. Six days later, her mother discovered her body. The coroner on her case wrote: “problems in the handling of her benefits claim was, in my finding, the predominant factor and the only acute factor, which led to her decision to take an overdose.”

Phillip Herron was a 34 year old father of 3 who ended his life after waiting for his Universal Credit payment for 5 weeks. He had quit his job to take care of his children but ended up in serious debt. When he passed away, he had £4.61 in his account. 

In 2019, the DWP was accused that 17,000 people had died while waiting for their benefits decision since 2013. 1 in 4 people who died were suffering from cancer, and at least 270 people were suffering from anxiety or depression disorders.

There are so many documented cases of suicide and death resulting from interactions with the benefits system that you could likely write multiple books. In 2020 the official figure was at least 69 suicides over 6 years. The National Audit Office report said that the true figure was likely much higher. It also said that “until recently the DWP had failed to actively seek information from coroners and families, or investigate all of the cases that were reported to it.” This reflects my own experience. When I was being taken to the hospital after my second overdose in a week, largely due to the fight I was in to get my benefits back, my family said the paramedic was angry, claiming that the rise in suicides was due to how the DWP treat mentally ill claimants. He said he was willing to testify to that fact if I passed away.

It is hard to get accurate statistics for this, largely due to the reluctance of the DWP to release essential data that would help gain a true view of the issue. Glasgow University conducted a study to “examine whether the controversial practice of stopping benefit payments to claimants deemed to be in breach of benefit rules has a negative effect on their health – and creates mounting costs for the NHS.” Ministers claimed in 2019 that they fully supported this research, but after the research came to halt when the DWP requested new security protocols regarding data, ministers made researchers apply for the data once again, causing further delays. Ministers have already shown themselves to be completely out of touch regarding benefits and benefits sanctions. As Patrick Butler, the Guardian’s Social policy editor writes: “Ministers claim benefit sanctions incentivise jobless claimants to move into work. However, critics say the policy is unsupported by robust evidence. There is a growing body of research indicating benefit sanctions are linked to poverty, food bank use, depression and other illness.” 

The DWP has repeatedly attempted to hide the devastating effects the benefits process has on claimants. In 2022, MPs had to force the publication of a government-commissioned report that exposed the truth about living on disability benefits. This report was kept quiet for a year after Theresa Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, repeatedly refused to release it, claiming it was, quote “necessary to ‘protect the private space’ in which ministers develop policy.” In 2021, a whistle blower close to the research team on this report claimed: “After being shown the first draft of the report, DWP told NatCen (The National Centre for Social Research) to reduce the number of references to “unmet needs” and to delete some of its analysis…It was obvious to me that the findings about unmet needs and adequacy of benefits were not what the government wanted to hear.” 

In 2020, the DWP was accused of a cover up, after it came to light that around 50 reviews into deaths following the loss of benefits pre 2015 were shredded, with the DWP blaming data protection laws. The data watchdog clarified that there was no requirement to destroy these reports by any specific date, and that an exemption could have been used.

Despite all of the evidence showing how the DWP hides important research, destroys relevant data, exacerbates existing health problems with humiliating assessments, ruins lives by taking away benefits, leaves people with no support etc, they still have claimed: “We’re providing extensive support to millions of disabled people and those with a health condition to help them live independent lives. As the research shows, health and disability benefits, alongside other income streams, helped to meet almost all identified areas of additional need.” This statement spits in the face of the millions of disabled people suffering daily or dying due to inadequate support, as their own research has shown! In all honesty, researching this article became difficult, due to the fact that there are so many scandals within the DWP, that it was hard to differentiate each occasion! 

Many who have not had to rely on benefits, or do not have a loved one who has, may find it hard to understand why so many claimants end their lives. Of course, the financial hardships resulting from having benefits denied and cut is devastating enough, but the trauma of assessments and tribunals cannot be ignored as a contributing factor. It is hard to grasp just how humiliating it is when you have not been through it yourself, but I cannot even begin to describe how the battle for benefits affects you. It worsens your conditions, it makes you feel worthless, it’s embarrassing, it’s humiliating. Even the first step of applying for benefits is exhausting, you have to complete a giant form, detailing all of your conditions and struggles. You then have to attend an assessment, where someone who has never met you and knows nothing about your life judges whether you are ‘sick enough’ for benefits. They then write a report, often completely lying about things you said or did in the assessment.

In one of my assessment reports, they noted that I walked 500 yards unaided. In reality, I walked down a short hallway with a walking stick, holding onto my partner. They claimed I lifted a heavy chair without assistance when I actually just pushed a chair to the side slightly. They claimed I did not take any prescribed pain medication, but I was on strong prescribed painkillers, and even brought them with me to the assessment! In my report, they lied about my abilities constantly and even referred to me as ‘he’ and ‘she’ interchangeably throughout, telling me that they clearly copy and paste things into their assessments. I showed the report to friends and family, who all said it was like reading about a different person, a person that was not me! Claimants have even been marked down for looking too ‘put together’, and even for wearing makeup or having their hair done. Last year, almost 80,000 PIP decisions were overturned after an initial review. If you are still denied benefits after a review, you then have to go to a tribunal hearing, which is a traumatic experience, to say the least. 

I had to have 2 tribunals, and each one felt like that nightmare where you’re giving a speech naked in front of your school, but worse. Having to sit in front of 3 strangers, detailing how you need help dressing, toileting, eating. Having to fight to prove you struggle daily. Having to justify why you use mobility aids. Sitting there crying your eyes out, in pain, whilst 3 strangers decide if you are allowed to have a tiny shred of independence. When I won my appeal, I cried for the rest of the day in complete disbelief. I couldn’t even feel happy that I was going to get a back payment. I just felt exhausted, and terrified, because I knew that if I did not win my appeal, I was going to try to take my life again, and this time I was going to succeed. My life was in the hands of 3 strangers, and they decided I would live. 

The current statistics as reported by the disability charity Scope are that 66% of Work Capability Assessment decisions were overturned on appeal. 72% of people who go to tribunal over their PIP decisions are given benefits. These statistics show that the majority of people who apply for benefits ARE in fact eligible and in need of help, but they also show that the DWP is actively causing real harm to claimants by making them jump through hoops to get help! It is hard to understand WHY this is happening, especially since, as reported by Scope, “between 2017 and 2019 the Government spent more than £120 million fighting benefits appeals.” I believe it is important to remember that the UK government is concerned with capital. They want to make as much profit out of workers as they can, and disabled people who are unable to work at all, or unable to work typical hours, do not factor into that, therefore we are seen as a nuisance, a problem to ignore, an unproductive community. A community they do not expect to fight back! The government often talks about encouraging people into work, especially via inhumane benefits sanctions, but the reality is that disabled people are almost 2x as likely to be unemployed! This is not because we are lazy, but because we experience hiring discrimination and accessibility barriers!

A powerful report by Rethink Mental Illness showed that the DWP is not doing enough to prevent or investigate death or serious harm caused by the benefits process. The overwhelming opinion of claimants was that “we’re just numbers to them.” I want to remind anyone reading this, disabled or not, that disabled people are worthy of support, financial aid, love, respect, and care, no matter what our employment situation is! Your worth as a human being is not based on how much profit you produce. Your worth is based on who you are as a person, and you are enough as you are! To all non-disabled comrades, please actively support your disabled comrades in our fight against the ableist benefits system, and in our fight for equal employment opportunities!

There are some things we can do right now to try to improve these issues as best we can, so please if you are able to, help in any way possible!

Rethink Mental Illness are calling for Thérèse Coffey to meet with the families of those who have passed away and to commit to a public inquiry into deaths and serious harm linked to the benefit system. You can write to her via this webpage: 

Scope has created a webpage that you can use to find out information regarding benefits appeals in your area. You can use this information to write to your MP. 

The charity Mind always have ongoing campaigns you can get involved in, you can sign up here: 

Disabled People Against Cuts are a disabled led organisation who always have campaigns on, get involved here: 

Disability Rights UK are always updating their website with up to date benefits news: 

If you are currently facing struggles accessing benefits, the charity Scope has some excellent resources to help. Mental Health and Money Advice have mental health specific resources available. You can also contact your local citizens advice service for support.

Phoebe Williams, is a member of the YCL’s East of England branch

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