Tag: Housing benefit

Council told me to submit an FoI for the details of my housing benefit award and alleged DHP ‘overpayments’

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Last year I fell into difficulties because my housing benefit was decreased. I struggled to make up the shortfall to pay my rent. I also had to pay council tax as my council tax benefit was reduced. I made an appointment with my local council welfare service, who advised me to claim Discretionary Housing Payments. They supported me in working out my monthly expenses and they found that I was over £200 a month short to meet my basic living costs, including rent. I was very ill at the time with a severe flare up of lupus and my mobility was extremely poor. 

The welfare service contacted occupational therapy on my behalf, and they organised an appointment for an assessment, and subsequently, for the provision of some aids and adaptations in my home because I often struggle getting about. The welfare service advised me to claim Personal Independent Payment (PIP) and supported me with my claim. I had such a distressing experience claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in 2011, having to appeal the decision, then almost immediately after winning at tribunal, I was sent for a re-assessment, that I had put off claiming PIP for six years, even though I needed the support very much. The distress and strain caused by each assessment, including the one for PIP, has exacerbated my illness.

The housing team decided that Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) would be awarded for a year. This is a fairly standard award length. The DHP was to help cover the extra cost I had because of the deductions being made to my housing benefit while my son was at home. He took six months out from university because in February 2017 I developed pneumonia and sepsis. I was very seriously ill and almost died because I developed severe sepsis and septic shock. My son supported me after I came home from hospital, while I recovered, which took several months.

When I was awarded PIP, my housing benefit was amended and an increase in my award was backdated to the date of my claim for PIP. Because my son was staying at home, deductions had been made – the bedroom tax – because he was classed as a ‘non dependent’, even though he had no income for that period, as he is a student. The council tax charge arose because of the same reason. Although my rented property is a private one, my local council nonetheless call the non dependent deduction a bedroom tax. 

Councils are not allowed to make deductions for non dependents from people who have a PIP award with the daily living component. I came across this rule on the government site. I notified the council and explained the rule, as they didn’t seem to know about it. I was then reassessed and awarded the money that was deducted from my housing benefit for the bedroom tax, and the council backdated the amount they repaid to when I first made my PIP claim, which was from late July to April, 2017.

I received a letter explaining how my housing benefit had been worked out again. I then received a letter from the Discretionary Housing Payments section of the council, saying I had been overpaid DHP from April to July. This is because my housing benefit had increased and the increase was backpaid.

I was told I had to repay the DHP. It was deducted from my housing benefit without further discussion – leaving me short again for my rent and defeating the objective of DHP. I had claimed DHP early last year because of the bedroom tax shortfall. 

I was not informed about the rule that councils cannot make deductions for non dependents if someone is awarded the daily living component of PIP, I had to find that out myself. Nor did the council indicate that if my housing benefit was increased by the housing benefit section retrospectively, that would mean I may have to repay my DHP. I was not informed that if the housing benefit sector had made an error, I may be expected to repay the DHP awarded. However, the error occured through no fault on my part, so I ought to have challenged the claim of overpayment, but I did not know the rules about this at the time.

I was not informed at the time I made my claim for DHP that if I got my PIP award, my housing benefit would increase and that the increase would be backdated to the date of my PIP claim. It’s also reasonable to assume that the housing benefit office would have taken into account that I had a DHP award when they paid me the money for the  deductions they had made over that period. 

Money was taken from my housing benefit to recover the DHP, which left me in hardship again every month. This defeats the whole stated purpose of DHP awards.

However, I have since learned that DHP ‘overpayments’ are only deemed as such in certain circumstances, which are not applicable in my case. I should not have been asked to repay my DHP.

I also learned that deductions for overpayments CANNOT be made from ongoing housing benefit awards, Universal Credit awards or any other benefit. Housing benefit and DHP are seperate awards.

The council have violated rules that are clearly stated on the council’s own website as well as those set out in the government guidance for DHP

In a document called Discretionary Housing Payments Guidance Manual on the government website, it says: “A DHP cannot be recovered from on-going HB or UC. This is unlike HB overpayments where there is a regulatory provision to allow recovery from on-going HB. There are also no provisions for the recovery of overpaid DHPs from other prescribed benefits.”

It also says:  “You can only recover a DHP if you decide that payment has been made
as a result of:

 a misrepresentation or failure to disclose a material fact by the claimant (either fraudulently or otherwise), or
 an error made when the application was determined.”

Neither of those criteria apply. When the application was determined, I was not in receipt of PIP. The bedroom tax and council tax deductions were being made, and that  predated my application for DHP and was not through any fault of my own. The non dependent deductions continued until after I had notified the council of my PIP award, and I had to inform them of the rule about PIP daily living component and non dependent deductions myself before they reassessed my claim, because I read the rules about this on the government PIP website last year. 

I was then awarded the total amount that had been deducted for a ‘non dependent.’ I had to ring several times before the council tax I had paid was given back. The council had not even considered repaying me those deductions. I was not informed at any time that I may be asked to repay any of the DHP award, and I think it is fair to assume that the housing benefit department took the DHP award into account when they made their decision to pay me the deductions they had taken, and when they calculated the amount I was owed. 

The DHP section claimed I was overpaid despite the fact that this doesn’t tally with government guidelines, which outline what circumstances may be defined as an overpayment. None of the criteria applied to the circumstances of my claim. The guidance states that if the claimant has not contributed to an error, then they should not be asked to repay any DHP. 

The money was deducted from my housing benefit award from towards the end of last year, and throughout most of this year – I had to ring and ask for the weekly deductions to be reduced early this year as they were causing me hardship. The minimum deduction the DHP section said they could make was £10 per week, and they had been taking £20 per week.

It seems the council are not aware of the rules that apply to non deductions and PIP, or to DHP awards and the rule that says ‘recovery’ cannot be made by making deductions to ongoing housing benefit/Universal Credit. But it is too late for me to query or challenge the recovery as all of that DHP award period has now been taken from my housing benefit. I only found the government DHP guidelines this year, because another problem has arisen.

It seems that people who claim any support have to become welfare specialists in order to understand the rules and guidelines because many administrative authorities don’t seem to know them. Or perhaps they know about them but are reluctant to apply them until they have to.

Yet today I checked the council’s website and found a section on DHP administration, and the rules I have cited here are clearly written in their own guidlelines. 

It gets worse: another error

From April this year, the council had been making more ‘non dependent’ deductions for my other son who, they now tell me, was assumed to have left home because he was in university. That, they told me, left me with a ‘spare room’. The council did not tell me they had reduced my payments, or provide any explanation. The DHP section were also making deductions from my housing benefit, though my award from DHP was ended at the time. That is not supposed to happen according to the government and my local council’s rules.

The government guidelines say that if there is a deemed overpayment of DHP, it cannot be deducted from an ongoing housing benefit or universal credit award. I did not know this at the time, and the deductions continued until September, when I rang the council to ask why my housing benefit payments were so low, leaving me with a huge shortfall to find for my rent. I did know about the DHP deductions, but had assumed that the council were acting according to the rules. They told me that my son had left home and gone to university. I explained that he had not. Again. 

My youngest son left university last September. While he was at university, he returned home out of term times, and was therefore legally classed as living at home. 

The council had previously assumed my older son had left home too when he first went to university, but I found the rule on the government website that says if students return home – out of term times, for example – then they are legally classed as living at home and non dependent deductions cannot be made in these circumstances.

I challenged the decision to reduce my housing benefit at that time, because the council benefit office notified me of their intention. They ended the deductions for the ‘spare room’, because I provided evidence that my son returned home outside of term times.

However, I had NO notification about the decision to deduct money from my housing benefit for my younger son – a ‘bedroom tax’ – or any explanation why my benefit was reduced. He returned home out of term times (so was legally classed as living at home) and anyway, the dates that the housing benefit office applied the bedroom tax, my son had already left university and returned home permanently. As I am in receipt of PIP daily care component, they cannot make deductions for a ‘non dependent’ from my housing benefit. 

I challenged the underpayments and was paid the money that was deducted, again, as it was the councils’ mistake because they did not notify me about why they were making deductions, and gave me no opportunity to challenge the decision.

With the recent letter explaining how the reimbursment had been worked out from the housing benefit section, there was a notification from DHP section dated 25 September this year, thanking me for a claim I never made this year – they had retrospectively made an award and backdated it to last year, which I thought was very odd at the time I got the bundle of documents in the post.

Now, low and behold DHP section are claiming once again that I have been ‘overpaid’ for the period they retrospectively made the award (my rent allowance was more than £60 a month short at the time leaving me with more than £80 per month to find for my rent. DHP administrators now say they want more than half of what I was reimbursed by the housing benefit section back. However, as far as I was aware, that reimbursement was my shortfall in housing benefit, FROM the housing benefit office, which is not the same thing as DHP. The council can’t tell me what deductions had been made by DHP section and what deductions were made for the bedroom tax from the beginning of April to September this year

Going through my bank statements, I can see something isn’t right with what the DHP section are claiming because it doesn’t seem that I was paid the DHP for the most recent period. The amounts I received for housing costs were way too low, even accounting for the deductions for my son, made in error on the housing benefit sections’ part. And the housing benefit section would surely not reimburse DHP payments as they are seperate thing. Yet DHP section claim I have been ‘paid twice’. To complicate things further, DHP were making deductions from my housing benefit over some of this period too for the previous ‘overpayment’. 

I went through the housing benefit amounts I was originally paid on my bank statement over the last year and a half. The amounts I got over the period varied. Up until late September, 2017, it was clear that I was getting DHP, as the shortfall between my housing benefit and rent was £50. Then my overall housing benefit amount dropped by a further £20 fortnightly. This is the period that DHP now claim I was ‘overpaid’, yet I can’t see any evidence they actually paid me my award over this time span on my bank statement.

It’s very confusing and the lack of transparency regarding payment details means that I am struggling to work out exactly what was deducted for bedroom tax, what DHP were deducting at the time, and what they were actually paying me, since they claim they were making payments.

I asked the council yesterday for a breakdown of information regarding this matter yesterday and I was advised, unbelievably, to submit a Freedom of Information (FoI) request.

I’m not sure that people can submit FoIs about themselves. I think he probably meant meant a Data Subject Access Request (SAR), on reflection. However it should not be down to me to have to inform the council of the rules they ought to be following and to have to interpret badly worded advice. It’s reasonable to expect that council advisors give correct information and advice. 

In any event, bearing in mind that I have a month to submit my request for a review, and SARs often take quite a bit of time (and there’s no guarantee that the information will be provided), I think this was absolutely appalling advice. I asked for a precise breakdown of my payments and deductions – something you would expect a council to provide as a matter of transparency and as reasonable practice, and was subsequently presented with bureaucratic barriers to accessing that information.

The advisor I spoke to seemed as confused as me. I told him that DHP section are not permitted to make deductions from my ongoing housing benefit award, and he asked me where I got that information from. He then claimed that DHP can be deducted from a DHP award, implying that is what has happened. However, I pointed out that my DHP award had ended in April 2018 (it was awarded for one year) and DHP had been making deductions since then until October this year. He fell silent at that point. 

On my local council’s website, it says: “Where a DHP is found to have been overpaid the Benefit Service will consider whether it is appropriate to recover it in full, in part or not at all. As a general rule overpayments caused by official error will not be recovered, unless the customer caused or contributed to the error or was aware that too much was being paid.”

I did not cause or contribute to the error, nor was I aware if too much was paid or not.

It also says: “Notifications to the customer on overpaid DHP’s shall offer the opportunity
to seek a re-consideration.

63. Under no circumstances will recovery be sought for DHP from housing
benefit payments or universal credit payments due to the customer.”

So the advisor was claiming to be unaware of the council’s own rules, and furthermore, the council HAVE made deductions from my housing benefit award for DHP ‘overpayment’ from April to September this year when the council’s own rules state clearly that DHP administrators should not do so. 

It also says on the council’s website: “DHP overpayments can be written off in accordance with the authority’s current write off policy.”

If the council don’t consider that is an option in my case, as a disabled person who has been deemed ‘vulnerable’, it is highly unlikely they will for others in similar circumstances. 

I have now received an invoice for the amount DHP claims I was overpaid. However, the invoice has defined the overpayment as ‘housing benefit’, which is of course incorrect. I have been given 7 days to pay the amount. 

DHPs are discretionary and not subject to the statutory appeals mechanism, but they are subject to mandatory review.

Reading the government guidelines, the options available to DHP administrators are to a involve a debt collection agency and/or to take me to court if I don’t/can’t pay. I can’t pay. 

The council have told me to write a ‘complaint’. I was not informed of any further options.

However, reading the government guidlelines, my options are to ask for a review. If the matter is unresolved after that, I may then refer this matter to an independent council ombudsman. I can also ask for a judicial review. 

I shall be pursuing each of those options as necessary, if the situation remains unresolved.

I’m an ill and disabled person in receipt of PIP and the ESA support component. The council health and adult care section have assessed me and provided aids and adaptions in my home. The support I received from the council’s welfare service and occupational therapy has been excellent.

The housing benefit and DHP offices, however, have let me down very badly. My claim for DHP has actually increased my hardship in the longer term, and rather than mitigating the effects of government welfare reform and alleviating consequential hardships that affect vulnerable people, as intended, it has made my situation worse and caused me a significant amount of confusion, anxiety and distress.

I suffer with cognitive difficulties because of my illness, and trying to sort out mistakes made by the council and research the rules that the council ought to know about and apply has been both extremely stressful and difficult. I lost a night of sleep going through my bank statements yesterday. All of these events have seriously undermined my trust in the housing benefit and DHP offices, as these mistakes span over 2 years.

All of this very clearly highlights just how unfit for purpose government provision for ‘those most in need’ actually is.

I have two children, one still at university, both still live at home. I think that the political term ‘non dependents’ is a particularly nasty and authoritarian redefinition of adult children in poorer families, that undermines family bonds and attempts to redefine family relationships in terms of financial arrangements.

Neither of my younger sons can be defined as ‘non dependent’ because they still need a lot of financial and other kinds of support from me. I have a modestly sized 3 bedroomed house which has been adapted to meet my needs. There are no ‘spare rooms’, and my rent is actually relatively low. That said, the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) has been frozen for some years now, which means people like me have a large shortfall between the amount of housing benefit they can claim and the rent costs. 

The bedroom tax was a particularly spiteful Conservative policy aimed at the poorest citizens, and it has disproportionately affected disabled people. It’s a very authoritarian government that feels comfortable dictating the precise amount of living space some citizens are permitted, but then does not make any further provision to ensure that people can actually meet those mean spirited specifications. 

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Related

Discretionary Housing Payments Guidance Manual

 


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A disabled man with an inoperable brain tumour has been left without social security support

Karl Riley, who is recovering from double brain surgery, says he's been struggling to pay bills after his benefits were suspended three months (Photo: Karl Riley)

Karl Riley, who is recovering from double brain surgery, says he’s been struggling to pay bills after his benefits were suspended three months (Photo: Karl Riley) 

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. Karl says 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.

To donate to Karl Riley’s fund, click here.


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.

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A word of caution about Esther McVey’s ‘u-turn’ on housing benefit for young people

youth obligationThanks to Joe Halewood for the screenshot

A little background on the “Youth Obligation”.

Thenational living wage(which is actually an inadequate rise in the minimum wage) was one of the centrepieces of the Osborne budget back in 2015 – which does not apply to those people under 25. Osborne exhorted young people to “earn or learn” in a budget speech that also cut their entitlement to receiving benefits and student grants, prompting serious complaints that young people had been unfairly targeted.  

The policy to end automatic entitlement for the housing element of Universal Credit was announced by David Cameron and Osborne in 2014 and was introduced last April. Housing and homeless organisations warned last year that it will cause grave hardship and force cash-strapped councils to meet higher costs for emergency accommodation. The plans of a review, and potential for a government u-turn on the housing element payment for young people were actually announced last year.

The controversial policy has now been dropped to “reassure young people” they will “receive the help with housing costs that they need.”

McVey said: “The change I am announcing today means that young people on benefits will be assured that if they secure a tenancy, they will have support towards their housing costs in the normal way.”

Matt Hancock released details of ‘radical plans’ in August 2015 “to end long-term youth unemployment and decades of welfare dependency.” He “pledged that the cross-government Earn or Learn Taskforce he chairs will create a ‘no excuses’ culture to support youth employment. ” 

However, we know by now that ‘targeted support’ is a euphemism for draconian welfare conditionality and sanctions. Of course the Conservatives’ ideas were not original. They were imported from the neoliberal Tony Abbott led coalition government in Australia, who announced their ‘earn or learn’ programme back in 2014. Like our own Conservative government, the neoliberal Abbott administration framed welfare as a “trap”, claiming the existence of a ‘culture of dependency’, a radical New Right myth extended from the likes of Charles Murray, which has been thoroughly debunked over the last few decades.

To sustain an ideological commitment to ‘small state’ antiwelfarism, neoliberal welfare narratives are reduced to a language about creating ‘incentives’ and discipline as opposed the traditional established narratives that portray a safety net provision to support people in meeting their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter). 

The traditional justification for paying citizens social security in order to ensure they can meet their fundamental needs has been ludicrously turned on its head and presented as a ‘malfunction’ of welfare – apparently it ‘creates poverty’ instead of alleviating it – by neoliberals.

In addition, welfare dependency arguments are based on a number of false assumptions and prejudices, because of the ‘small state’ ideological commitments of neoliberals.  There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Poor Law Amendment act of the 1830s, of political capitalists trying to use welfare to ‘improve’ the poor. Conservatives and some of the economic liberals (as opposed to social liberals) tend to present ‘problems’ with welfare in a moralistic way – they say it systemises “perverse incentives”, or that it it rewards “immoral behaviour”. The goal of welfare reform from this perspective is therefore justified as being about paternalism: administering and imposing discipline, instilling the “right attitude” and coercing behavioural change, rather than alleviating absolute poverty.

The “Youth Obligation” is simply an extension of that approach.

Reservations’ have been expressed about the Youth Obligation’s mandatory requirement that young jobseekers apply for a training opportunity or work placement after six months of claiming support. 

The Youth Obligation programme, in areas where full universal credit is running, requires claimants aged between 18 and 21 to undergo ‘intensive job-support training, including work experience, skills workshops, mentoring, help with job applications and interviews, and training in maths, English and IT.’

Those young people still unemployed after six months are given compulsory vocational training and work experience in a sector with a high number of vacancies or encouraged to take up a traineeship.

The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint commissioned the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to seek the views of vulnerable young people, as well as training providers and charitable organisations who work with them, to further explore the possible implications of the Youth Obligation for the most disadvantaged young people.

Young people surveyed, who had experience of unemployment and/or were living in supported accommodation, consistently stressed that they would only be encouraged to engage in a training opportunity or work placement if it was linked to their career aspirations, or if it did not present other barriers such as being too far to travel or not providing sufficient pay. If Jobcentre Plus were unable to provide access to high-quality opportunities they could see value in, many felt that they would simply disengage and stop claiming benefit.

Previous research has shown how homeless young people find it difficult to meet the conditionality terms of their benefit claim, and are disproportionately affected by benefit sanctions compared to the wider claimant population.

However, it is inexcusable that the state considers it is justified in withdrawing financial support that is meant to ensure people can meet their basic living requirements, if young people, living in a wide range of circumstances, cannot meet the inflexible, behaviourist conditionality requirements, including those of the work fare scheme.  

The ‘U-turn’ on housing costs for young people

 The UK government has announced today that it will amend social security regulations so that all 18 to 21-year-olds will be entitled to claim support for housing costs within the scope of Universal Credit provision. The announcement has been timed for the upcoming local elections in May.

The government says its ‘rethink’ is in line with their Homelessness Reduction aims, which comes into force next month, ‘reiterating its commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027’.

Young people will also be given “comprehensive and intensive work-focussed support”, whether they are ‘learning’ or ‘earning’, as part of the ‘Youth Obligation’. Young people will need to sign up to this commitment to be eligible for housing support.

Work and Pensions Secretary of State, Esther McVey, said: “We want every young person to have the confidence to strive to fulfil their ambitions.

“For those young people who are vulnerable or face extra barriers, Universal Credit provides them with intensive, personalised support to move into employment, training or work experience; so no young person is left behind as they could be under the old benefits system.

“As we rollout Universal Credit, we have always been clear we will make any necessary changes along the way. This announcement today will reassure all young people that housing support is in place if they need it.”.

Denise Hatton, Chief Executive for YMCA England & Wales, said: “YMCA welcomes today’s announcement by the Government but we have long argued that the policy was flawed from the outlet and would not deliver what the Government said it would.

“Our 2015 research showed that scrapping housing benefit for young people wouldn’t drive them to ‘earn or learn’ as the majority would find it impossible to find training and employment without having a stable and safe home.

“By removing automatic entitlement to housing support, the Government took away a vital safety net from some of the country’s most vulnerable young people, who have no choice but to rely on it during their times of crisis and need.

“Reinstating housing benefit allows thousands of young people across the country to get the helping hand their need and support them to get their lives back on track.”

Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “Labour welcomes this major U-turn and the fact that the Government have enacted another policy from our popular manifesto.

“However, housing support has been frozen until 2020 and young people still face major problems in finding affordable housing.

“The sight of young people sleeping on our streets has become all too common under this Conservative Government. Behind the homelessness figures, there are many young adults having to sofa surf or remain living with their parents.

“Labour will invest in genuinely affordable housing, regulate the private rented sector and ensure that all young people have a secure home.”

SNP’s Social Justice spokesperson Neil Gray said: “This major u turn from the Tories shows they have finally realised that penalising young people – as they had done until now – is simply callous and could only lead to a rise in homelessness for young people.

“Any change of policy in the shambolic and damaging roll out of UC is welcome – but we need to see detail from the DWP on what they mean by saying young people will need to sign up to a ‘youth obligation‘ before accessing this much-needed benefit – how that will work.

“We also need clarification on whether or not these changes will be linked in any way with sanctions. Our young people need support into work and into homes and not to be penalised as they start their life by having vital financial support removed from them.

“The SNP Scottish Government has always mitigated this callous policy and provided support to under 21s through the Scottish Welfare Fund, and the social security bill ensured this support would be in legislation – at an estimated cost of up to £6.5 million by 2020.

“It is shameful that it’s taken the UK Government till now before realising this policy was just wrong from the start.

“The Tories think they make any cuts in welfare and get away with it – £4bn in annual cuts to Scotland by the end of the decade. now they have u-turned on this, they can reverse all these cuts and realise people need a helping hand up not pushed into poverty.”

The other catch

As Joe Halewood scathingly points out, the amount of housing costs payable under Universal Credit to young people may be limited to the shared accommodation rate (SAR) for 18 – 21 year olds in private sector housing. There are limited exemptions from SAR, but some only apply to people of certain ages. The outcome of these changes to young people’s housing support is that the majority of single young people aged under 35 who are unable to work, looking for work or on a low income will be living in houses that have multiple occupation. 

Today’s announcement neglected to include the information regarding the reduced rate of housing benefit under the Local Housing Allowance rules. Social housing more generally is difficult to access, but young people are even more constrained. This is, in part due to  a decrease in the number of social housing completions. There is currently little political support for social housing from the government.

During the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, Osborne announced an intention to restrict the level of Housing Benefit, or the housing element of Universal Credit, claimed by tenants in social housing (council and housing association ‘stock’) to the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate. LHA rates currently apply to most Housing Benefit claimants living in the private rented sector and entitlement is related to household size. A delay in applying the LHA caps and an extension to all Universal Credit claimants was announced during the Autumn Statement 2016, after many charities and academics raised concerns regarding the likely negative impacts. 

Housing Benefit restrictions based on the size of the property occupied have applied to tenants in the private rented sector since 1989. However further changes to legislation were made in 2011, which restricted the number of rooms permitted per child under the age of 18 if they were same sex, and under 16 if they weren’t. Children under those ages are expected to share a bedroom. 

Theresa May dropped the plans to cap housing benefit for social housing and supported accommodation, which had been blamed for an 85% decline in new homes being built for vulnerable people last October.

The prime minister told MPs in the Commons that it would no longer roll out welfare changes that would have resulted in people living in sheltered accommodation having their housing benefit capped in line with private sector rents. The changes were set to save the Treasury £520m by 2020.

May said it was important to “ensure the funding model is right so all providers of supported housing are able to access funding effectively”.

Several schemes for new housing for vulnerable people have either been postponed, cancelled or face closure, a drop from 8,800 to just 1,350 homes, a survey for the National Housing Federation found last year . Uncertainty over the proposed changes to housing benefit have been blamed by many for the decline.

Critics said the LHA rates would have created a postcode lottery and had no relationship to the cost of providing specialist housing in supported accommodation, which include homes for war veterans, disabled people and women fleeing domestic violence.

The shadow housing minister, John Healey, said his party was “winning the arguments and making the running on government policy” but said it would look closely at the detail. 

Labour was due to call on the government to rule out cuts to supported housing during an opposition day debate, but following the climbdown, Healey said the prime minister now needed to commit to a system “which safeguards the long-term future and funding of supported housing”.

The Conservatives’ had originally planned the move to apply LHA rates to Housing Benefit claimants living in the social rented sector, which would have meant that the SAR would also apply to council and housing association tenants under the age of 35 from April 2019 if they are in receipt of Universal Credit, or if their tenancy began or was renewed after April 2016 and they are not living in supported accommodation. (Source: House of Commons Library research briefing, 13 November 2017).

I can’t help but wonder what caveat Esther McVey was referring to in her dissembling use of the vague phrase “in the normal way”. 

‘Securing a tenancy’ isn’t an easy task for young people who need to on very low incomes. Young people tend to have low eligibility for social housing, with priority being given to families. There is a lack of social housing that is suitable for young people, also. Furthermore, The traditional presumption that younger people have recourse to the parental home has been challenged by the introduction of the ‘spare room subsidy’, which finacially penalises parents in social housing for keeping a room free in case their adult children may need to return.

The Conservatives have tended to place an emphasis on home ownership and the private sector in particular, for example: “We want to support the private rented sector to grow, to meet continuing demand for rented homes” (HM Government, 2011; Cameron, 2014).

It has always been the case, historically, that younger people are most strongly represented in the private rented sector,because this sector is the most readily accessible to this group.  A survey (Shelter, 2014) found that less than a quarter (23 per cent) of working adults aged 20-34 living in the parental home wanted to be there, and that the lack of affordable housing was the main stated reason for still living at home. At the same time, wider changes in the economy and labour market have made it harder for young people to enter, remain and progress in employment. 

Under the Localism Act, 2011, local authorities are now empowered to discharge their homelessness duty to households deemed statutorily homeless through the offer of a twelve-month private rented sector assured shorthold tenancy. Younger single
people, who as ‘non-priority’ cases have largely been excluded from social housing provision as a consequence of their perceived lower level of need, are now increasingly in competition for property with ‘priority’ households that have in the past been offered a social housing tenancy.

The failure to meet the housing needs of young people is predicated on a presumption that the parental home will always be available if affordable privately rented property is not available. However as I have stated, the bedroom tax prevents parents from keeping a room for their adult children, in the event of them returning home. The government has consistently failed to respond to the housing option constraints place on young people.

To date we have seen every indication that the implementation of Universal Credit is about cutting the level of support that people received under the old system, to the point where even some of its proponents have feared it has become too mean and inadequate to work for those it is meant to help.

Disabled people, for example, are set to lose the disability premiums under Universal Credit that are currently payable under the employment and support (ESA) benefit. The disability income guarantee is set to be abolished for new claimants who are disabled, and the cut will affect many of those who have a change of circumstances, too, such as moving to an area with full Universal Credit roll-out while they are still claiming ESA.

Crisis and other charities have campaigned against the SAR, saying that the modest single room rate would exclude people from housing and increase the risk of homelessness for people in the under-35 age group. (The definition of ‘young person’ was also changed by the government, from under 25  to under 35).

Charities were also concerned that there was not enough accommodation to cater for people under the age of 35 who would require rooms in shared accommodation. There were also concerns that people would be pushed into unsuitable housing or into sharing accommodation inappropriately.

In January, government statistics revealed it would not make the savings ministers had originally thought because most young people claiming housing costs fell within the exemptions that were published alongside the legislation. This indicates that young people claim housing costs because they need to, rather than just because of a ‘lifestyle choice,’ as the government had previously implied.

David Orr, chief executive at the National Housing Federation, said: “It’s very good news the government are restoring housing benefit to 18-21 year olds.

“This benefit cut has been creating great confusion over whether young people were eligible for these vital funds. Housing associations have told us that as a result they have seen more young, vulnerable people sleeping rough, or forced to depend on unscrupulous private landlords and dangerous accommodation. This was a policy that made no sense and today’s decision is a positive sign they are listening on welfare reform.”

It’s only taken the government five years and immense amounts of pressure from the opposition, charities and academics to see the damage and harm that these policies are causing. The small concession has just restored provision for young citizens to meet a basic survival need, which should never have been removed in the first place, in a wealthy, so-called civilised society.

However, any support provided under Universal Credit is precarious, and constantly under threat from the extended, draconian sanction regime, which includes punitive financial penalties and the withdrawal of lifeline support to people in work but on low pay or working part-time hours. Even if young people manage to navigate the series of ordeals built into the rigid and old school behaviourist conditionality of the Youth Obligation, there are further ordeals awaiting, even if they find work.

Young people are very likely to be low earners who require additional Universal Credit support to meet living costs, and because the ‘national living wage’ is paid only to those aged 25 and over, this simply adds to the problems experienced by this social group. The government welfare ‘reforms (a euphemism for cuts) were never about “making work pay”. They were about dismantling our social security system, a cut at a time.

Now the government have perhaps realised that those social groups that have been disproportionately targeted for affected by their austerity programme are actually comprised of voters too. The Conservatives are currently attempting to engage with young people to persuade them vote for them. 

There is still a long way to go before we may celebrate such a small concession on the part of a government that has demonstrated over and over just how much it despises our vital social security safety net. The same government that introduced the bedroom tax and two welfare caps, cuts to disabled people’s vital lifeline support and has presided over a deregulated job market offering increasingly insecure, poor quality and low paid employment for the past eight years, whilst steadily dismantling our essential social safety net.

Image result for housing benefit claim


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Conditionality and discretionary housing payments: when paying rent is more important than buying food

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The government’s behavioural change agenda, which targets the poorest citizens, is being delivered via the increasing conditionality of social security and public service support provision. The underpinning rhetoric is that individual behaviours cause poverty, rather than government policies, which are causing a systemic unequal distribution of wealth.

Councils who are facing shortfalls in government funding to meet their statutory obligations have recently introduced behavioural conditionality to applications for awards of Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). Most local authorities are now saying they will only help those who will have a “positive outcome” as a result of the support. Yet they claim that this is to ensure limited funds go to only those “most in need”.

The reasoning provided by councils for only supporting those “nearest to the labour market” to encourage “financial independence” is at odds with the aim of ensuring support goes to “those most in need”. Surely those unable to work through illness and disability, who are furthest away from the labour market, actually have more need, yet will be less likely to meet conditionaility requirements and so won’t receive the support that the government tells us is supposed to be in place for us.

DHP is now much less likely to be awarded for those in greatest need precisely because of the new conditionality criteria. It specifically supports people who are more able to find work. Those who can’t are expected to go without food and fuel to meet their housing costs and potentially face destitution.

Disabled people paying for disabled people’s support

On Thursday I went to apply for DHP as I no longer have enough money to live on, partly because of now having to pay council tax and bedroom tax. Like many people, my essential outgoings are considerably greater than my income. The government have claimed that disabled people like me can claim DHP as a safeguard from the financially damaging impact of the bedroom tax, which disproportionately affects disabled people.

However, my own council have warned me in advance that they have little funding left for providing DHP support.

ESA and other benefits were originally calculated to meet the costs of food and fuel, and other essential living costs, based on an assumption that you would also get FULL housing and council tax benefit. There hasn’t been full housing benefit provision for some years now, but previously, people who are disabled were exempt from paying council tax, until recent years.  

This is leaving some people without enough money to meet the costs of their basic survival needs – food and fuel. One reason I now have to pay more council tax, according to the statement from my local authority on my bill, is to raise money to meet the costs for the government’s pledged funds for improving adult social care – the adult social care precept. That is being taken from every household, including the poorest, many of which have people with serious medical conditions and disabilities in them.

My local authority says: “The introduction of the National Living Wage and increase in population means this is an area where we have seen significant financial pressures. The 2% increase will help us to maintain our current services.”

There’s a certain horrible irony here, too.

My local authority inform me that I now have to pay council tax to fund support for:

  • older people
  • people with a learning disability
  • people with a physical disability
  • people with sensory loss
  • people with mental health needs

The never-ending need to justify need: facing the bureaucratic wall around support provision

I am a person with physical disabilities because of an illness, and my only income is my ESA, at the support group rate. I ought to have claimed Personal Independence Payment (PIP) before now. However my experiences claiming ESA were pretty distressing and extremely anxiety provoking, that has deterred me. The enormous stress and anxiety of the assessments, facing a tribunal and then the reassessment almost immediately after I won my case in court exacerbated my already serious illness, and left me acutely and desperately ill for at least two years.

I’m a reasonably robust person ordinarily. I have worked most of my life, and I enjoyed my work, particularly the youth and community posts I undertook. I did a vocational part-time Master’s whilst I worked full time, and later went on to do mental health social work with young people at risk.

I was very unprepared for what followed when I suddenly became very ill with lupus. I was used to being fit, healthy and very active. I also had a good salary and a relatively comfortable standard of living. Though I was never very affluent, I had enough to cover my family’s needs, and to provide enough for my children to have stability.

I was forced to give up work as I was much too ill to fulfil my role competently and there were significant risks to my health in the workplace. My illness and some of the treatments I have also mean that I am very susceptible to infection. I caught a cold from a colleague in work and ended up with pneumonia and pleurisy more than once, for example. My illness impacted on my capacity to work for many reasons, such as an autoimmune bleeding disorder, widespread joint and tendon damage affecting my mobility, severe nerve pain, deteriorating eyesight, neurological problems and cognitive difficulties and so on. The tribunal panel (regarding my ESA eligibility) concluded that I had made the right decision to leave work because of the further serious risks to my health, after reading my medical reports from my specialists. 

My house was repossessed because my modest mortgage payments became unmanageable as I had no way of making the payments. I did approach my local housing office for help, who told me they could only offer support once I was actually homeless. That would have meant having all my family’s possessions left on the street, too.

I found a house to rent just down the street for a very reasonable amount. In fact initially there was very little shortfall between my housing benefit and actual rent. I had two boys at school, they didn’t want to leave the area as they were in their final years, and we have other family in this area. I was informed by the council that I would be eligible for housing benefit for a three bedroom house at that time. I took out a small loan for my deposit, as by then my last wage had long gone. The council were pleased I had managed to find cheap accommodation that suited my family’s needs.

I moved into the property, but I was very ill and struggled coping. My disability advisor at the job centre advised me to claim ESA at this time. By then I was having weekly chemotherapy treatment (Methotrexate) at the hospital and was considered unavailable for work, I didn’t (and couldn’t) meet thhe jobseeker’s allowance conditionality requirements, and my advisor recognised this.

Within two months of moving into the property, the law changed, and I had to pay bedroom tax for my older son’s room, as he was suddenly expected to share a room with his younger brother. There are no smaller houses locally, none with lower rents, and all of the limited number of two bedroom council flats here are inhabited. Not that moving again would have been easy for me as I was so poorly at this time. The first move down the street had affected my health, and exhausted me for months.

However, after almost a year of struggling to pay the bedroom tax, my oldest son reached 18 and my housing benefit went back up not long before he left for university.  I got almost a year of backpay when I won my ESA tribunal and that helped me get on top of my increasing debt, after months of really struggling. I also got a tax rebate from when I worked, also helped enormously. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decided that they would take back an overpayment they made in 2007, whilst I was struggling on basic rate ESA, awaiting tribunal in 2011. I was also paying bedroom tax then. I had claimed income support briefly when I changed jobs, whilst I waited for social services to complete background checks that were necessary for my post. I couldn’t start the post until the checks were done. Meanwhile we had nothing to live on. The checks took three months.

I was entitled to a month of run-on benefit as a lone parent once I took up the post. However, despite the fact I had signed off, the income support payments continued another two months. I had phoned a couple of times and then written twice to inform the job centre again that I had taken up my post.

I don’t mind paying back the money I was overpaid. I did mind that the DWP also took back the run-on benefit that I was actually entitled to for the first month, and told me it was far too late to appeal that decision. The hefty deductions from my reduced ESA did cause me a lot of hardship, but at least I didn’t owe anything by the time I won the tribunal. It was claimed I did still owe money at one point and I had a letter saying my ESA back dated payment wasn’t going to be released as I owed money. I didn’t.

It’s almost as if the DWP want to keep you in a state of constant anxiety, despair and precarity, and to make sure that your life is never remotely acceptably comfortable, secure and safe. Social security is no longer a safety net, it seems to have been transformed into a bureacratic wall that exists simply to discipline poor people and ensure as few people as possible have access to any lifeline support. The letters are written in a way that intends to cause anxiety, I am sure.

I managed financially for a couple of years, though budgeting on such a limited income is difficult. But having worked for a long time, I had furniture and household items, enough clothing and when things got very bad, I had a few personal items to sell if need be. 

Of course over time, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, fridges, kettles and cookers break down.  Children grow and need clothes and shoes. I went a whole year without a washing machine when mine broke, but saved a little every month until I had enough for a second hand one. I don’t know how I managed to get by because much of the time I could barely walk or use my wrists/hands, but I had to wash clothes and bedding in the bath. It took up a lot of my time and effort. Poverty is cumulative, too. It gets much worse and more wearying as time goes by. If you are ill and disabled, the impacts of poverty are considerably greater.

Both my youngest sons are at university now. They come home out of term times. I feed them and support them as best I can, though we don’t have any money to cover their living costs. Both are at universities out of the region, they have student finance for term times, but both have struggled to meet living costs. When they come home, it’s for a couple of weeks, though considerably longer at christmas. They have never managed to find work locally to tide them over out of term time, despite trying. No-one wants to hire people for a couple of weeks.

My oldest son found a part time job in his first year at university. He didn’t have regular hours and his employer simply called him when he needed him. However, my son’s travel costs to and from work exceeded what he earned, and more than once his allocated hours coincided with his lectures, which are compulsory.

Both boys are considered as living at home as they return home out of term times and are expected to return home once they complete their studies. 

In the new year, I caught ‘flu and within a couple of days I ended up with pneumonia and sepsis. At the time I was far too ill to know I was so poorly. It was my son who realised how serious my condition was and rang the ambulance, just in time.

I was already in a critical condition with septic shock when the ambulance arrived. My illness means my immunity to infection is very low, so I’m always at risk from pneumonia, kidney infections, random abscesses and so on, but this was the first time I have ever had life-threatening and severe sepsis. I was very ill in hospital and spent a couple of days drifting in and out of a bottomless sleep and hallucinating, whilst on the lifesaving IV treatments and fluids. I needed oxygen support for five days afterwards, anticoagulant injections, and continued taking combined oral antibiotics, steroids and a course of Tamiflu for a couple of weeks after I came home. 

When I got home from hospital in late Jaunary, we had no hot water or heating as my boiler had broken. But we used fan heaters, and I managed to keep warm in my room, I focused on recovery, until the electric went off because of a fault on a circuit. My landlord lives in the US currently and I had difficulty in contacting him. I had no choice but to find somewhere else to stay as the house was so cold it was uninhabitable, and we couldn’t cook food. I was still very weak and very slowly recovering. By this time my youngest son had returned to university. My oldest son and I had to stay with a friend.

The electrical fault was fixed and I got a new boiler fitted the following week. I remained weak and my pulmonary specialist told me it would likely be at least three months before I was fully recovered. I have been diagnosed with additional lung problems since, which showed up on a scan, following more tests showing my lung function is just 40% of what it is expected to be. Some of the problems are related to lupus, which has caused a lot of inflammation in both lungs.

My son decided I needed some additional support to recover and he has taken six months out from his degree to care for me. The alternative was for me to contact social services for support.

I now have to pay bedroom tax for his room, in addition to the council tax, as he is classed as a non-dependent adult. Having no boiler for several months has also meant I used a lot more eletricity, so my bill is much bigger than usual, so my direct debit has more than doubled every fortnight. I managed to negotiate it down a bit, but it is still more than twice my ususal payment. My new boiler is a lot more efficient than the old one, luckily, but I am nonetheless struggling to make ends meet.

So I applied for DHP.

I had an interview on Thursday at our local housing benefit office. 

Rent and council tax are more important than food and fuel, apparently

The interview went as follows:

Firstly, I was asked to give an account of my income and outgoings. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for work?

Me: I am in the Employment Support and Allowance Support Group (ESA). This is because I became too ill to work and it’s been agreed by my doctors, myself and the state that I can’t work “consistently, reliably and safely” due to the severity of my illness and the substantial risks I would face if I were to return to the workplace. I have tried to find a job writing from home that pays a wage to support myself, but had no luck so far. 

Housing Officer: What have you done to look for cheaper accommodation?

Me: I wasn’t aware I was expected to. However, there is no cheaper accommodation in the area, unless you have any two bedroom social housing to offer me. Then I would need considerable support in moving, as my illness means I have mobility problems, severe problems with profound fatigue, other health problems that make moving risky, and I also need to be organised to accommodate a strict routine for my health care.

Housing Officer: Have you considered taking in a lodger?

Me: I have no spare room to offer a lodger as my sons occupy them out of term time and are expected to return home once they graduate. However, I would not consider taking a stranger into my home because I am disabled and ill, therefore I am potentially vulnerable and feel that this may present an unacceptable risk to my wellbeing and safety. (See for example: Mother and son who ‘gave shelter to homeless man’ stabbed to death at family home.)

Housing Officer: Your weekly shopping average looks slightly high.

Me: Well at the moment it is for two of us. On Friday my youngest son is home for the Easter break, and I will then need to feed him too.

Housing Officer: I only want details of what you spend on yourself.

Me: Do the council expect that I leave my children without food?

(No response)

Me: My weekly shop includes essential items I can no longer get on prescription, such as eye drops, because my tear film is very poor, I don’t produce tears as I have Sjogren’s – painfully dry eyes – as part of my illness. I used to get moisturising drops on prescription from my opthalmologist but they have been discontinued. If I don’t use the eyedrops my cornea becomes scarred and I get eye infections.

I also have to buy sunblock, because I get a blistering and painful rash in the sunlight, even in winter – that’s also part of my illness.  

I have to buy detergents and toiletries that are very hypoallergenic and gentle because my skin is fragile, hypersensitive, prone to rashes and painful blistering in places because I have lupus and eczema, all of which leaves me prone to infection if I don’t treat the conditions with care. I also have to buy cleaning products and antibacterial items, to keep my home as clean as possible because my illness and treatments mean my immunity to infection is very poor. 

None of these items are available on prescription, but I do unfortunately need them. I have also included very modest clothing/footwear costs (I have to take care with footwear because I have severe Raynaud’s – a condition that causes very poor circulation that shuts down in my hands, feet and nose with even slight fluctuations in temperature – and so I need to keep my feet and hands warm.  I am prone to blisters from badly fitted shoes which then turn into serious infections and have developed sepsis at least once because of this. I also need shoes that are cushioned and support my Achilles tendons because of damage to them and my joints. 

I’ve also included modest costs for essential household items, which everybody needs sometimes due to wear and tear. I have a bleeding disorder, which affects me in a way that means I have to spend more on sanitary items than most people. I also have additional dietary needs because I am underweight, and I have IBS and acid reflux, which means I have to eat small meals frequently throughout the day. This is not a lifestyle choice: it’s because of my medical conditions.

Housing Officer: Don’t take any of the questions personally, everyone is asked the same.

Me: The problem with having the expectation of everyone having the same needs is that you then don’t have any opportunity to recognise the more vulnerable clients who need additional support because of their additional needs. Not everyone finds it easy to find suitable employment to support themselves.  Illness and disability can happen to anyone, it is sometimes a major barrier to working and I am not ill because of “lifestyle choices”: it’s not because of something I did or didn’t do. I have worked. Now I can’t. 

People are dying because of that built-in oversight and other government policies that don’t accommodate people’s circumstances and disregard their additional needs because of disability and illness. Many others are suffering unacceptable distress and harm to their health.

Housing Officer: I know.

She delivered that comment with complete and almost menacing detachment. I was so taken aback I couldn’t speak for a few moments. She didn’t even pause for breath, however.

The part that was by far the worst during the interview was this matter-of-fact agreement that people are dying as a result of the policies that she was calmly sat implementing.

It was delivered almost like a veiled threat: that if I didn’t or couldn’t comply with certain unstated behavioural requirements, which were not made explicit at any point during the interview or prior to it, I would also be left to die. 

I was then told I must “prioritise” my rent and council tax payments above everything else.

I explained that my rheumatology consultant has also told me I must prioritise eating well, putting weight on (I weighed less than 8 stones), and keeping warm. I don’t have enough income to do both of those things, as it is. I explained again that I could meet my husing costs before I had to pay council and bedroom tax, and have managed to do so until now, and this is why I had applied for DHP.

My comment was met with silence. 

Apparently, not falling into rent and council tax arrears is more considered more important than meeting basic survival needs such as eating and keeping warm.

I was also almost casually asked if I had any pets or Sky TV. Next I was asked if I had a TV, broadband and a mobile phone contract. I was asked how much I spend on my phone monthly (it’s a pay as you go). I felt I was being turned into a Daily Mail stereotype by bureaucratic questioning that was designed to find ways of dismissing me as ineligible for support in an arbitrary way, under the cover of mundane chit chat.

The more I responded the more demand was placed on me to justify my outgoings, the more information I presented, the bigger the scope for potentially finding reasons for refusing my application.

ESA and PIP assessments work in much the same way – assessors fish for as much information as possible about your everyday life so they can use it to try and claim you are more able to work and less disabled than you and your doctor are claiming.

For example, “Do you watch soaps on TV?” – a deceptively conversational and informal question – may translate your response on the report potentially, as “Can sit unaided and concentrate for at least half an hour”.  The aims and motives behind the questions are deliberately obscurred, so that you don’t have an opportunity to explain or clarify any details or challenge the assumptions being made to justify ending your lifeline support.

That gold locket and chain that was your mother’s, which you wear all the time because you can’t take it off, as the clasp is too difficult for your arthritic fingers, becomes a sign of finger and hand dexterity to an assessor, as it’s just assumed you take it off and put it on again. When I had a chest x-ray rencently, I had to ask the radiographer to take it off. The whole process is designed to search out ways to discredit your doctor’s and your own account by any means at all concerning the level of your disability and the impact it has on your day to day living and work capability.  

Agents of state control and “changing behaviours”

Behavioural conditionality has now been built into every aspect of social safety net provision, this is to save costs and ultimately, to justify the dismantling of social security, public services and healthcare provision. It is justified by an ideological narrative of the neoliberal “small state”, austerity and paying off the national deficit, the “unsustainability” of safety net provision and the state re-translation of competitive individualism into a rhetoric of self help, thrift and “personal responsibility”.

However, the behavioural change programme is being applied only to poor and vulnerable citizens. Against a backdrop of austerity and welfare “reforms” (cuts), millionaires were awarded a tax cut of £107,000 each per year, exempting them from the same obligation to practice personal responsibility, thrift and self help. The Conservatives’ low tax and low welfare society means that perversely, those who have a lot of money are not expected to contribute to our society, whereas those who are low earners or unemployed are expected to pay down the deficit and pull themselves up by invisible bootstraps.

If you suffer or die in the process, apparently that is okay because the government inform us there is no “causal link” between such “adverse” consequences and their adverse policies. However, a correlation has been well-established by independent research and the narratives of many of those affected by the draconian polcies, as well as campaigners.

What really struck me during my housing benefit interview was how the ordinary and seemingly reasonable woman in front of me seemed to suddenly shapeshift into a resentful, disapproving and prejudiced state drone who didn’t feel I deserved any support, about a third of the way into our interview.  I felt like Iain Duncan Smith was conducting the interview.

The government have built up almost impenetrable walls of authoritarian bureacracy around social security provision, and a hive mind army to deliver their distinctive and punitive approach to poverty, which is now all pervasive. All bullies seek the “behavioural change” of others to get their own way.  Conditionality is built upon a behavioural change agenda to prop up neoliberal policies aimed at removing social provisions that the poorest citizens need to survive. Work is no longer the panacea it is held to be, since labour market deregulation and intentionally low social security creates a reserve army of labour, which “incentivises” profiteering employers to keep wages low. 

Even a trip to your GP is likely to trigger the question “do you work” these days, as job coaches are co-located in surgeries to enforce the government’s “work cure” and suck you back into a supply side reserve army of desperate labour. However, sometimes people are simpy too ill to work. The state and its wall of bureaucracy, however, are absolutely refusing to accept this.

There is no end to intrusive state nudging and shoving, especially when you just want to be left to cope with being progressively ill in peace. The government believe that illness and disability are simply a set of “faulty” behaviours that need correcting, and that people will respond to a particularly punitive form of operant conditioning in order to change their behaviours to bring about a miraculous recovery. Work is considered a “health” outcome. However, work is a work outcome and has nothing whatsoever to do with a person’s health. In my own experience, work considerably contributed to the progression of my illness. Being constantly expected to work has also contributed significantly to the deterioration in my health.

Furthermore, I don’t recall giving consent for my taxes and national insurance to be used to pay rogue companies that cost the public billions to “save” relatively meagre amounts in welfare and public service spending just to punish, bully and coerce people who need support.

Nor did I give consent to a state experiment in value-laden, poorly designed and prejudice-determined operant conditioning on ill, disabled and unemployed citizens. 

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Cameron was surely mocking when he used this phrase as a slogan from Terry Gilliam’s darkly dystopic film, “Brazil”, which was coincidently about nightmarish totalitarian bureaucracy 

There were no innocent and random comments from the interviewing housing officer. Almost every question was geared towards making me feel guilty for being poor and not being in work, I was challenged over every single penny I spent, as if I have no right to food, items that I need to meet my complex health needs, and no right to extend an ordinary gesture of basic kindness and decency by taking in a stray cat that had no home and no-one. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked to sell everything I had bought and kept from when I worked.

I had no idea that disabled people could be refused support if they had a pet. Regardless of whether that pet was one you had when you were in better circumstances, working. How utterly callous to expect people to dispose of their cherished companions when they experience hard times, it’s cruel on the person and cruel on the poor and innocent animal.

Most pets cost very little to feed, too.

My cat is a great source of calm and comfort for me, at a time when I am struggling trying to constantly adapt to a progressive illness, and increasing absolute poverty.  I couldn’t bear to part with her.

I wonder what the decision-makers, who are gatekeeping funds that are meant to support disabled people rather than punish them, expect a person should actually do with a cherished family pet, which may have been a part of a family long before severe financial problems and illness came along.

It’s rather like financially penalising people by cutting off support for some children just because a parent has lost a job and encountered difficult times. It’s a Poor house mentality – we are all categorised as either “deserving” or “undeserving” based on our previous choices as well as our current ones. How very dare anyone have anything at all that gives them a little joy and comfort if they become too ill to work. Even if they worked for it prior to losing their job or becoming ill.

This said, those people who have never been able to work should be supported, unconditionally and without any resentment, to meet their living needs and to lead safe and secure lives. This is how a democratic, decent and civilised society should behave, after all.

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I don’t need a behavioural change agenda. My behaviour didn’t put me in a position of hardship: ill conceived state policies that disproportionately target ill and disabled people for austerity cuts are the root cause of my financial problems. I am not ill because of my behaviour, my medical condition arose because of a complex interplay between genetics (my mother and her father had a connective tissue disease, and both my maternal aunt and uncle do), hormonal events (pregnancy was probably the trigger in my case, as that is when I first became ill, 21 years ago) and possibly some environmental triggers too, such as an infection. It was not because I did or didn’t do something. No-one could have predicted a pregnancy would trigger a connective tissue disease. No-one knows how it will progress either, unfortunately. I managed to work for some years whilst being ill, and stopped only because I absolutely had too when I my symptoms became too severe.

Neoliberalism is founded on the principles of “market competition” and competitive individualism. In competition, a few people do very well and “win”, and many more don’t. That is the nature of competition. This is how it works.

Neoliberalism itself causes inequality and poverty, whilst rewarding most the people who are already very wealthy. Addressing the “behaviours” of poor people to punish them into not being poor won’t change the consequences of inequality because of our socioeconomic organisation one bit. Poverty, by it’s very nature, reduces behavioural choices and opportunity.

It’s really the government who need to change their policies and prejudiced behaviours, not poor, ill and disabled people.

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Related 

What do good Local Welfare Support and Conditionality Schemes look like? – The introduction of local welfare support and conditionality schemes are a side-effect of localisation.


I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. Successive Conservative chancellors have left me in increasing poverty. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you. 

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