Monday, April 07, 2014

Journey to Work Part 5 - How can I claim expenses like Maria?

Today marks the start of my fifth week in work. I think. To be honest it's all a bit tiring and I'm no longer sure. I love my job, but will that be enough? And did I mention the tired?

What I do know for sure is that my benefits stopped on March 10th the day I formally started work. Since then I've applied for tax credits, housing benefit and council tax benefit. There is a four week run on of Local Housing Allowance so that has continued to go into my bank account. But that's it. No tax credits. No letter acknowledging tax credits claim has been received. No wages til later this month. Oh, and no way of talking to anyone at tax credits to check they have got my application, just a recorded message explaining they are taking a minimum of five weeks to process claims and won't talk to claimants until after that time is up.

This is why people end up with payday loans or go to foodbanks. There isn't another way.*

If I make a genuine mistake filling out a benefits application I get fined £50

But if I were a Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Disabled People, who had pushed through these cuts affecting disabled people and working people...

*Please don't worry - I have friends who are in a position to lend me money until wages and tax credits start properly, I won't have to go to a food bank or payday loan company. But how many people have friends willing and able to lend them hundreds of pounds for an undefined amount of time? 


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Journey to Work Part 4 - I'm finally off ESA!

After more hours on hold to various DWP departments than I care to think about and several discussions with concerned, expert DWP advisors about whether it would be better for me to do permitted work than full on employment....

I've managed to sign off ESA! Quite why it is such a difficult process is beyond me, the automated systems the DWP are using reduced me to tears, but all the staff I actually spoke to were excellent. This doesn't bode well for the 'digital by default' futureproof benefits planning the DWP are hanging everything on currently.

So having decided I can only face dealing with one benefit department per day, today's task is to try and sort out housing and council tax benefits.

And to try and squash the panic triggered by yesterday's DWP advisor asking me if moving into work was a change of circumstances for DLA. I don't see why it should be given I'm working part time from home in my pyjamas*. But, if that question does trigger the system as a change of circumstances it will also trigger an application for PIP.

There's simply no way I can remain in employment without DLA. There's also no way I can manage to juggle coming off several benefits, applying for several different benefits, deal with the social care implications, actually do my job AND apply for PIP.

So, should this be treated as a change of circumstances and the PIP forms arrive I'll have no choice but go to straight back onto ESA and stop working.

I'd really like to congratulate the government on having spent obscene sums of money on 'welfare reform', terrified disabled people and somehow managed to make it MORE difficult to move into work. As achievements go...that's quite an impressive one..

*frequently smelling of sick, so it's a good job I'm avoiding face to face meetings! 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Journey to Work Part 3 - My First Day - I seem to still be on ESA..

Monday, February 24, 2014

Brown Envelopes & Bureaucratic Bullshit (Journey to work, Part 2)

Two DWP envelopes in the past two days. Nearly gave me a heart attack when I spotted them. The first was what used to be a standard 'rates of benefits will change' letter - but the language and order of information is both intimidating and confusing. It wasn't until I got to page 3 that I realised I didn't have to follow the 'mandatory reconsideration' process outlined on page 1; in fact I don't have to do anything. Good job I've got an LLB/Hons, its only three years training in how to read legalese nonsense that has equipped me to occasionally be able to translate DWP speak.

The second letter was better news - my equipment will be funded by Access to Work. Which is great. Even the expensive bits of it I explained I was highly likely to be unable to use. 'Just try it out' is good advice, apart from the bit where what you're trying out costs hundreds of pounds, isn't the answer and is really being imposed instead of providing support worker support.

As for when I'll know about support worker hours, your guess is as good as mine. The battle over the 20% limit continues. All the guidance read by myself and other disabled people leads us to the same conclusion - the 20% limit is being applied incorrectly. The consistency in the incorrect application by advisors in different locations leads me to speculate that the advisors have been trained to provide the incorrect application, perhaps to limit the costs of Access to Work despite its financial return for the Treasury. Oh, and that small matter of 3.5 years of 'work is always best' rhetoric..

Ah well, my employer and I have only been waiting for this since early January. What's another few weeks when you're waiting to come off benefits and start work?!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The 'Scrounging Scum' to 'hard working, tax credit claiming, socially acceptable scrounging' journey

First published on Disability Now - AtW: Denying Access to Work

With government rhetoric stressing their keenness to get more disabled people into work you might think that their scheme to support disabled people in employment would be an example of well-oiled machinery.
But when, having got a job, Kaliya Franklin set about getting the support she needs, what she encountered was a confused tangle of red tape and bureaucracy.
I’m very, very lucky to have a potential job with an employer who is willing to bend over backwards to accommodate my fluctuating and unstable condition. Work from home? No problem. Work from bed? No problem either. it’s like the holy grail for people with a fluctuating condition.
Naively we thought that Access To work (ATW) would be a rapid, streamlined process providing all the support we would need to make this unusual employment situation workable.
Access to work is one of the few major success stories in relation to government spending – for each £1 spent by ATW, the treasury gets back £1.48 in income tax and national insurance. It has also been described as the DWP’s best kept secret. Employees and employers like the scheme, but given that the number of ‘new starts’ has been falling since 2010, is Access to work actually helping people to access work?
ATW is intended to provide the support an individual needs to carry out their job, whether that support be in the form of equipment, accessible transport or a support worker. Recently there have been various changes to the provisions ATW can make and in what circumstances. With classic timing, I applied for support just as these changes were taking effect. I wanted to be sure my  package was in place and would provide the support I needed before starting work.
That was a wiser decision than I realised – it took 4 weeks for the ‘equipment assessment’ to happen and now, some 5 weeks on from applying  I have yet to hear what equipment I’ll be granted and whether I have managed to fit within the strange and complex flow chart now used by ATW staff to decide whether someone is allowed support worker hours. Funnily enough, I’ve also yet to start work. Oh, and I can’t tell my employer when I might be starting because I don’t know when ATW will be set up…the best I have is a vague ‘if you haven’t heard in another 10 days call us’.
So far my experience has been disheartening and stressful as well as confusing. ATW is working to updated DWP guidance which limits both the equipment they now provide and introduces a 20% limit to the amount of support worker hours permitted. Each advisor I’ve spoken to at Atw has been consistent in their advice – I can only have a maximum allowance of 20% of my hours worked in support worker hours. However, when I finally managed to track down that official guidance I found the advice given to me by multiple staff members to be wrong. The support I need falls into the category of ‘life skills’ – this means access skills to enable me to carry out a whole task – things like someone to scan documents for me, take me to the post office, or support me when I have to attend meetings elsewhere. The support worker won’t be doing my job, I will, but without that support I may not be able to carry out the job. The official guidance is clear – ‘life skills’ are an enabling support which is a conduit to being able to do the job, and the funding is supposed to be available for as much of this support as an employee needs.
So, not only am I still waiting to hear what equipment I may receive, but also to find out if I can have the 20% proportion of hours worked in support worker hours, even though this is in direct contradiction to the official written guidance.
I mentioned I was lucky to have an understanding employer committed to making the adjustments I need. With a 5 week delay in starting work, and no idea when the actual support offered might be in place, let alone whether that support will be sufficient, it really is fortunate. I can’t imagine a supermarket waiting for someone to start a shelf stacking role would be quite so flexible. Why would they be when there are hundreds of candidates for every job who are able to start immediately?
As for me, I’m 5 weeks into the process and far more disheartened than when I started. It’s impossible to plan properly without knowing what and how much support I’m entitled to. It’s impossible to start work without that entitlement. So, I’m still on benefits. Not in the job that’s mine. I’m far less confident about succeeding in employment than I was to begin with. Access to work should be the stable part of my support, not an additional challenge and barrier to employment.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Politics, Policy and Persecution - The People's Review of the WCA - Further Evidence

It is clear that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) has been a source of great misery and distress to many sick and disabled people, but there has never been an entirely satisfactory explanation for why this is happening. The finger of blame has been pointed at the outsourcing contractor Atos Healthcare, the influence of the insurance industry on the development of the test, the frontline assessors, the claimants - if you can think of it, at some point someone's blamed it.

Whilst the existence of targets are vehemently denied by politician's, civil servants, the DWP and Atos, the misuse of statistical norms as outlined in my latest report 'Investigating the real reason for the misery of fit for work assessments', published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, means there is a de facto target system in place which limits the overall proportion of successful claims.

Statistical norms are somewhat dry and dull, especially to someone like me who runs out of numbers when they run out of fingers and toes, but I have spent the best part of the last three years obsessed by this misuse of norms, researching and investigating how such a system could operate and why it would be denied by politicians of all parties.

Over that time period I have asked everyone I've met about norms - politicians, private sector employess, Atos assessors, GP's, everyone. I'd ask people I bumped into in corridors at conferences, I'd randomly phone up people I thought might hold other pieces of the puzzle and ask them to talk to me. The more I asked and the more I understood, it became clear that those denying the existence of targets often didn't understand what norms were, didn't know they existed or just didn't understand. There was one consistency though - everytime I explained how I thought the norms were being abused to cap the overall number of claims - the colour would drain from the face of the listener, they'd become very quiet, and some would mumble things like 'oh shit'. Once explained, it was obvious to them how statistical norms were being abused to drive the overall proportion of successful claims.

On paper, this seems quite a simple process, with only one consistent figure involved in the process throughout it's five years - Lord Freud. So determined was he to remove two thirds of incapacity benefit claimants, Lord Freud only needed three weeks to write his report recommending just that. In that time the government has changed, all three political parties have had a taste of power, and the misery caused by the WCA has continued. But only Lord Freud has remained consistent - civil servants have changed, staff at Atos have changed, yet Freud continues, so determined to push through his scheme, and complete the transfer of the human beings he refers to as 'stock', that he even changed political party.

The misuse of statistical norms is dry, technical stuff. It's vital to understand because it acts as the driver of the whole system, the cause of all that human pain and misery. Today, a new report is released by an anonymous author, too sick and too scared of the consequences to be identified. Despite all that, this author has also dedicated years to understanding the misery of the WCA - for them the focus was on the human stories of suffering.

The People's Review of the WCA - Further Evidence gives the people who have suffered as a result of Freud's scheme to cap the overall number of claims the opportunity to speak in their own voices of the damage such a blunt system has done to them and their families.

There are many people I need to thank for their assistance whilst I was researching 'norms', and many of those people cannot be named due to the vulnerable position they put themselves into by whistleblowing. So, this is a mass thank you - to everyone who had to endure my 'norms' related questioning and also to the anonymous author of The People's Review who has been determined to give the voiceless a voice.

The evidence is clear - 'norms' are misused to drive the system to the desired result, ie limiting the overall number of claims. The impact is also clear, the media regularly feature accounts of terrible WCA decisions, and politicians scrabble to justify the worst cases as 'mistakes'.

And there is the true horror of the WCA - none of this was a mistake. All the pain, fear and stress experienced by people like Karen Sherlock, and the many, many examples in The People's Review are written off by polticians as 'mistakes'. But this is no mistake, the contractual terms for the operation of the WCA are clear - all solutions MUST be based around an imposed 'norm' for the Support Group of just 11%, rejecting claims for Employment and Support Allowance was exactly what Freud intended to happen.

All that pain, all that fear, all that waste - not mistakes at all, but the exact result desired by Freud and achieved by the artificial imposition of 'norms'.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Leaked Evidence Shows DWP Set Quotas For 'Fit For Work' Assessments

Why are so many sick and disabled people being failed by the Work Capability Assessment and who is to blame?

1. The contract between DWP and Atos Healthcare specifies all costs and solutions MUST be based around an artificially imposed ‘statistical norm’ for the Support Group of 11% (which has since been allowed to rise slightly). This ‘gears’ the whole WCA system to deliver that ‘desired result’.
2. The manner in which the audit system is used within Atos Healthcare, including whistle-blower evidence of ‘punitive auditing’, means there is insufficient latitude for assessors to freely use their professional judgement about an individual’s true fitness for work.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA), used to determine eligibility for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaces Incapacity Benefit, has been dogged with problems since its inception. Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers and Atos have always denied the existence of ‘targets’ for the WCA. Now, for the first time, evidence is presented that the WCA operates to a norm-referenced system. This is a de facto target system, since when ‘statistical norms’ are applied to a process such as the WCA they deliver the same outcome as targets. As Lord Boswell predicted in 2007, this use of statistical norms means "the test will, in effect, be geared to deliver that [desired] result”. Being able to consistently deny the existence of any targets has been crucial both for the Labour government who introduced the WCA, and the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government who have continued with its use despite evidence of significant faults in the process.

The media regularly feature stories of people even the Daily Mail would consider deserving of ESA who have been refused the benefit – people with sickness or disabilities as diverse as Huntington’s Disease, uncontrolled epilepsy, kidney failure or brittle bone disease - but until now there has been no completely satisfactory explanation for this misery and hardship.

Ministers, MPs, the DWP and campaigners point the finger at Atos, the company contracted to carry out these tests on behalf of the DWP. The DWP say Atos are at fault and that they will improve the system by breaking their monopoly and allowing other companies to bid for the contract.  Labour have also announced that they will “sack Atos”. DWP ministers blame the civil servants and the civil servants seethe. It is a classic case of political, “it wasn’t me Miss, it was them”.

To explain what all this really means education analogies are helpful. Exams can be either ‘norm-referenced’, ‘criterion-referenced’ or a mix of both. A criterion-referenced exam system means students receive an objective grade based on their performance against a pre-defined marking scheme. A norm-referenced exam system sets ‘quotas’ which limit the overall proportion of students able to achieve each grade.

Originally ‘A’ levels were simply pass or fail, but in 1963 guidance was issued which limited the overall proportion of students allowed to receive each grade. This was a norm-referenced system which ensured that only a small proportion of students could achieve ‘A’ grades. This was widely perceived as unfair to students and during the 1980’s ‘A’ level marking systems were changed to remove quotas.

The audit system as controlled by the DWP can be seen as a teacher, and Atos the poorly performing pupil. The teacher punishes the pupil, focusing on reprimanding him when he smudges his ink (deviates from the ‘norms’ imposed in the contract) whilst ignoring the content of his answers or his behaviour. The teacher blames the pupil for not learning and the pupil blames the teacher for everything. Before anyone should feel too sorry for the pupil, it’s important to note, this pupil is more Harry Flashman than Harry Potter; the real victims are those affected by their combined bad behaviour.

The test for the old Incapacity Benefit - the Personal Capability Assessment - was a criterion-based system. People were awarded points based upon how they scored against certain criteria – for example, those who could walk less than 50 metres were awarded more points than those who could walk less than 200 metres. If the person scored the number of points, across all the criteria, necessary for benefit receipt, they would be entitled to the benefit.

However, the WCA is a norm-referenced system. People must both score the number of points required for benefit receipt and fall within the proportion of people the norms system will allow to receive the benefit. In practice this means there is a finite number of claimants the assessment system will allow to be awarded the benefit, regardless of the number of people who objectively meet the criteria for benefit eligibility.

New evidence gleaned from the original contract between Atos and DWP, testimony from Atos employees and Freedom of Information requests, clearly indicates that the outcomes for individual sick and disabled ESA claimants are not driven solely by the severity of their condition or the nature of their disability. On the contrary, as Lord Boswell warned in 2007, the imposition of statistical norms onto the WCA gears the outcome of the whole system to achieve the desired result: in effect a cap on the overall number of people the system will permit to be granted eligibility for ESA.

Evidence shows that Atos uses a ‘management information tool’,  based on the ‘statistical norms’, to ‘manage’  the behaviour of individual assessors. Although officially the audit of assessments is not supposed to be punitive, it’s clear from whistle-blowers that in many regions there are negative consequences for assessors if they do not restrict the number of points they award to claimants to comply with the norms. This makes it difficult, for example, for them to award a high point score to every claimant who, in their clinical judgement, has a serious condition affecting their ability to work.
There is therefore a serious risk that the overall outcome for the claimant  – whether they are placed in the Support Group and given unconditional support because they are unable to work, placed in the Work Related Activity Group on the basis that they are likely to be able to return to work in the future, or denied ESA altogether and expected to actively seek employment – may be driven as much by the severity of other claimants’ conditions as their own, particularly those claimants assessed on the same day by the same assessor!

So is removing Atos actually a solution to the problems with the WCA? The answer is no. As long as the WCA remains a norm-referenced system of assessment, removing Atos is the political equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

It is clear, and in the light of this evidence totally unsurprising, that this iniquitous system is causing immense distress, hardship and increased ill-health for the very people who most need support, whilst at the same time costing the taxpayer many millions of pounds in unnecessary assessments and appeals.

This evidence and analysis must be understood by politicians of all parties, since only a cross party solution can fix this cruel, wasteful, immoral system and prevent more unnecessary suffering. If sick and disabled people are to receive the support they need - and which a civilised, compassionate Western society is expected to provide - this new report, published by The Centre for Welfare Reform, "Investigating the real reason for the misery of 'fit for work' assessments", is essential reading for both Parliamentarians and the public alike.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Meeting Michael

We sat facing each other, loosely holding hands, cocooned by the strange aucoustics in the room. The buzz of noise wrapped around us, creating the kind of privacy those who lived their lives in full view of the Dilke's* were used to grabbing wherever they could. We sheltered what we said from those further away, words difficult to hear, harder still to speak, with meaning so very clear.

The postcard written from the heart upon arrival told just the basics of decades of pain;

"They locked me away. There was no-one to tell. They tied us to beds. I fought and fought. 4 people went to prison. Now I have a job, I'm an advocate and I'm happy" 

But in our bubble we talked more. I listened to a story told many times before. I witnessed the strength gained each time as the words let out the pain trapped inside.

"They marched us in lines. Naked. Not just boys. Grown men too. Completely naked. All together"

Tears rolled down all our cheeks as we huddled together.

"Every day you got raped. There was no-one to tell. They didn't care. They raped you too so you couldn't tell."

We held a hand of his each, two of us, women with different disabilities, too young to have lived through the terror of institutions. Filled with awe by his strength, this intelligent, articulate man who had fought and fought. For himself but for us too. To ensure our futures would not be destroyed by the pains of his past.

Thank you Michael. We will never forget you or the battles you fought.

* Dilke is a derogatory word for those who staffed institutions used in the novel Skallagrigg  

Monday, October 07, 2013

Conference Diary - Conservative Conference Day 3 #cpc13

Tuesday morning dawned bright, early and with the traditional spoonie greeting of being run over by a bus in the night. The desire to flee home to a comfy memory foam bed and not have to sit on a scooter dislocating all day seemed overwhelming. As did the need to know who my 10am meeting was, as foolishy I forgot to write down anything but the time.

Despite phoning a taxi 3 times it did not arrive. Finally manage to flag down taxi in 'oh god I'm late for the meeting' panic. Taxi driver helps load scooter and off we go. Taxi driver gets stopped by the police.

Finally arrive late at conference to see huge mass of protesters and queue to get through security. Whimper pathetically about having to scoot through such a crowd at waist height. Decide only way to ask nice policemen to help. Fortunately nice policemen decide to escort me through security while I whimpered some more about the crowd. G4S appeared slightly non plussed by my appearing with a police escort who politely requested they look after me but me & the pink pliers made it through intact. Just.

The best random conference meetings always happen by chatting to random smokers. Had a good chat with nice chap from the big Christian media company in the UK. Compared notes - neither of us could remember the bit in the bible where Jesus urged blaming the poor for everything. Nice Christian smoking man went off looking very troubled.

More smoking with lovely lady who turned out to be Jake Berry MP's assistant. Lovely lady sorted us a quick chat with Jake about disability stuff and housing. Had a moan about the shortfall between Local Housing Allowance and actual rent. Concerned MP said 'but you should be getting a DHP, they're for people like you'. Pointed out applying for DHP's utterly degrading and short term. No answer to that beyond 'oh dear'.

Met very jolly posh Tory, just out of schoolboy who explained to us his role was to be able to talk to 'normal' people. What a poppet. Still being drunk at 11am probs a good start with the 'normals' but more likely to find those on a bus than inside secure zone. He'll probly be PM in 20 years.

Went back to try and find Conservative Disability Group man. Jacket in evidence, no sign of man but nice Conservative Friends of Sri Lanka man came over to chat. Went back to see Conservative Friends of Azherbijan. Got invited to very posh, very past bedtime party. They remembered me from last year so filled a bag with goodies for BendyNiece.

Got invited to unlisted fringe - George Osborne in conversation with Gary Gibbons. Quite interesting really and fortunately my jaw was glued together with the sweets the Wheelchair Evacuator people gave me so I couldn't make inappropriate comments. Fringe ended, scrum of people headed to try and meet the Chancellor. Took the 'sod it, they can only say no' option that has served all campaigners so well and headed into scrum. On scooter. At crotch height. Ick.

After being pushed in front of by another queuer I was rather surprised when the Chancellor looked over and made eye contact with me saying 'I've seen you, stay there, don't move I'll come over to you'. How can a man who's mother worked for amnesty and who can spot a distressed disabled behind a scrum of overexcited Tories not see what his government are doing to said disableds? These are the toughest moments at conference - how can these people who are so polite, so helpful and so friendly to our faces not understand what we're saying to them?

Chancellor George Osborne stands and talks to Kaliya Franklin sitting on her scooter

So, we shook hands and I asked if he could spare me some time to discuss welfare, disability and employment. The Chancellor said he would make time to meet and discuss it properly, so having had lots of photos taken his SpAd and I exchanged details and off we both went.

After that the plan was to go to head back to the JRF tent for a rest and then go to more fringes. The plan worked as far as the JRF tent and a lie down with a blankie. After about 10 minutes I realised if I didn't leave NOW I was going to throw up all over the JRF tent...which seemed no way to repay their hospitality.

Scooting and dizziness don't mix. Nice policemen will approach you to see if you're drunk. Slurred speech doesn't help this impression. Tears ensued. Finally managed to find a cab and get back to the hotel to become horizontal.

I wonder if I'll get that meeting the Chancellor promised...