Friday, October 09, 2009

No Special Treatment-The Practical Response

First posted 13th March 2008

Rather than answer comments individually, for the sake of ease (and my hands) I decided to put it in the form of follow up posts.

I'll start by saying I'm incredibly grateful for everything I receive. If ever I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself I only have to consider how phenomenally lucky I am to be living in a country that considers the financial and social protection of it's most vulnerable citizens to be a duty of the state.

I am ashamed to tell people I'm in receipt of state benefits though. It didn't used to be this way, but
the perception that those of us forced to rely upon such help are all lazy, scrounging scumbags has slowly but inexorably become near all pervasive.The main two political parties are almost falling over themselves in their eagerness to ensure the public know they are determined to deal with the problem of idle scroungers with nothing better to do than sit around and watch daytime tv, paid for by decent, honest, hard working tax payer's money. I started this blog largely to try and combat that myth.

Realistically, just like the vast majority of those receiving health related benefits, if I could go out to work I would, after all I didn't go to university to then decide that being on benefits would bring in a far better living than I could ever earn for myself.

So what does the welfare state give me, or you, should you end up in a similar situation? Trust me, I never thought I would.

I receive Income Support. Income Support, not Incapacity Benefit. Important as they are different benefits worth different sums of money and equally importantly different passported benefits. Different benefits, recorded in different ways with different numbers of people in receipt of them. All those people so resoundingly and publicly decried as workshy scroungers, look to Income Support rather than Incapacity Benefit. Why? Simple really. To receive Incapacity Benefit you have to either have been paying National Insurance contributions, or
be aged between 16 and 20 (or under 25 if you were in education or training at least three months immediately before turning 20). That's in addition to meeting the various incapacity thresholds themselves. Income Support however is paid to anyone who can't be available for full time work and who doesn't have enough money to live on, typically lone parents, those sick or disabled (who don't qualify for incapacity benefit or do and are lucky enough to be entitled to income support as a top up), students who are also lone parents or disabled, and those in caring roles. Unlike incapacity benefit, if your partner works on average more than 24 hours a week you won't be entitled to any income support.

In addition to the base rate for an adult over 25 which is approximately £59.15, I also receive various premiums because I am considered to be sick and severely disabled thus approximately doubling the basic rate.

I also receive Disability Living Allowance. High rate for mobility, middle rate for care. Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is tax free and non means tested. This is important because it can, perfectly legitimately be claimed by those meeting the criteria who are also working. Its also important because Incapacity Benefit is taxable and those in receipt of it are liable to pay their council tax, whereas Income Support is not taxed and those in receipt of it receive council tax benefit.

The higher rate of the mobility component can, if the recipient chooses, be used to lease (or hire purchase) a car by way of the Motability scheme. I have over the years realised that there is a widespread public misconception that disabled people receive a car from Motability and then the Mobility allowance in addition to that, perhaps to pay for petrol, taxis, or a powered wheelchair. This is not the case, there is one payment in the form of Mobility allowance which can, if the individual chooses be used to lease a car, or purchase a power chair via Motability. It is not enough money to do both. Many disabled people entirely reliant on benefits like myself opt not to use the Motability scheme. This is for various reasons, but speaking for myself I use the money from my mobility allowance to live on, and almost more importantly I am so frightened of the possibility of losing my Mobility allowance on review that I do not dare use the Motability scheme. If that were to happen, I would doubtless be reawarded High rate mobility upon appeal, but as is all too common, I might have to wait up to a year for that to happen, and I could not afford to do that either financially or practically.

High Rate Mobility Allowance means I am exempt from paying vehicle tax. If I used the Motability scheme this would be automatic, but as I don't I have to apply each year. To qualify for free car tax the car must only be used by or for the disabled person, so a married couple could not use one partner's road tax exemption if the other partner was not exempt and for example used the car to commute. In that example they would have to tax the car fully like anyone else.

I receive the Middle rate Care Component of DLA. It is this (or the high rate mobility component) which entitles me to the severe disability premium which is paid onto my income support. Are you all keeping up at the back? DLA is a completely different benefit to incapacity benefit, it is assessed in much greater detail and only awarded to those who meet very tight criteria. My GP was disgusted when he found out I had not been awarded the High rate Care Component. I wasn't surprised. It is worth approximately £20 more per week in DLA and adds another premium to the income support. In a decision typical of the DWP (sorry faceless) I was awarded Middle rate care for the needs they accepted I had during the daytime, but I did not get High rate care because they did not accept those same needs existed during the night. I wish!

David Freud may think it 'ludicrous' that checks are carried out by the individual's GP, but I rather suspect there are a great many GP's out there who would love to have that kind of ability to help their patients instead of being stuck impotently raging against the system, the only power they have to help being a few lines on a form, or perhaps a supporting letter.

In addition to Income Support and DLA I also receive both Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit.

Council Tax benefit first because its easier. In my case I receive the full benefit and so do not have to pay any council tax. This is because I am in receipt of Income Support. Were I to be in receipt of Incapacity Benefit like neighbour was, then I would only have part of my council tax paid and have to pay the rest myself. This was one of the reasons neighbour had to move away.

Housing Benefit. I live in privately rented accommodation. Social, or council housing is in crisis throughout the UK. It's simple, after the right to buy introduced by introduced by the Thatcher government people quite understandably took up that right so moving the vast majority of social housing into the private sector. There has never been adequate planning to ensure that the sold housing stock was replenished for the social housing sector so now we have a chronic and desperate shortage of suitable, affordable housing. Everyone in need goes into the same pile, so that nice little bungalow suggested by Vi (and many others in the real world) that the government could provide to help simply doesn't exist. I could, as was suggested by a social worker, move into sheltered housing, but I neither need nor want to live in sheltered accommodation, and certainly have never been able to see why at the age of 28 to be forced into such an environment was in any way in my interests. Even if the social worker did assure me she would do all she could to have the age restriction removed so I would potentially be able to apply to live with the over 65's. That social worker never did understand my lack of gratitude for her most generous offer.

Housing Benefit
is of course set at a level considered appropriate to the local area for an average single person, couple, family etc. As far as I have ever been able to work out this level bears no relationship to the true cost of renting, particularly as it factors social rents into its average, regardless of the availability of such properties. My housing benefit is currently paid at approximately £100 per month below the market rent for my home, which in my experience seems about average. I do live in a nice area, but the cost of rent has risen so sharply that I would seriously struggle to find anywhere at a similar cost. I could also perhaps live in a council high rise and hope the lift worked on a regular basis, or perhaps try to negotiate the nightmare of needing a ground floor property, but being under 65, or 55, not having children, having a pet etc. Having previously fought battles with social services and the local authority over care provision and housing I have long since realised that the only result to that is a steep decline in my physical health, and stress levels I am unable to cope with. It is simply easier and more practical to stay where I am.

There is much talk of replacing Housing Benefit with a Local Housing Allowance. This is currently being trialled in a sample of councils and from what I could find, this is an example of the amounts likely to be paid. LHA has been much hyped as a 'good thing' because those in receipt of it who are in cheaper accommodation are entitled to keep the difference without it affecting their other benefits, and those who 'want' more expensive accommodation will have to make up the difference themselves. On a quick calculation to work out the average 4 weekly allowance provided to those in need of a two room property (ie 2 bedrooms) in St Helens (picked randomly from those running the LHA pilot), the total comes to just over £336. A quick search shows an average 2 bed rental property in that area to be around the £395 mark. Never let it be said that I'm cynical, but it seems fairly apparent to me that LHA is just a way to keep paying housing benefits at well below the market rates for rental properties whilst not addressing the real problem of lack of social housing.

Winter Fuel Allowance. Hahahaha, sorry, I need to go away and laugh some more. Right. This is only paid to the over 60's, and by the look of the budget, despite campaigns from various charities there is no change there. In the budget WFA will rise to £250 for over 60's, £400 for the over 80's. Except. If you are in a couple and receive the much hyped Pension Credit you only receive one allowance between you. Ditto for income based jobseekers allowance.
As anyone in receipt of a state pension is eligible, I can only assume that in households where couples are not in receipt of pension credit because they have too high an income that both people receive a winter fuel allowance in what would be a prime example of the injustice and insanity of the benefits system.

As explained here, disabled people under 60 do not receive a winter fuel allowance because they already get disability benefits and premiums on their Income Support. Except if you happen to be on Incapacity Benefit you aren't eligible for those premiums anyway. Oh, and those benefits are worked out, literally to the penny on how much it (supposedly) costs to live, and the additional costs of disability. So that's Mobility Allowance ruled out because that is 'ring fenced' for transport, so long as you don't need to lease both a car and wheelchair. Things like food that doesn't have to be prepared (social services tend to advise a diet of ready meals), any small equipment that your local authority won't cover the cost of, care costs you may have to pay to the local authority or privately because the local authority are rationing care, and many more things I've not listed. That's before (or after) average monthly heating costs higher than a week's benefit for many people.

Hmm. Here comes my cynical side again, but means testing a winter fuel payment is seen as politically unacceptable. Means testing could perhaps provide for those currently said not to need such payments though.

That's the extent of the help provided (to me anyway) by the state. As I said at the start, I am extremely grateful for everything I receive, but, to quote many of my friends "we're not paying so much tax so you can be refused help".

Social Care. Most councils are now rationing this and three quarters only provide support to those whose needs are classed as 'critical' or substantial'. My needs are classed as 'moderate' therefore in my local authority I am no longer entitled to any support. Having said that some of the support is so appalling people are better off without. Cases like this one happen because of the way private companies are paid by social services departments. In the interests of fairness there are many, many superb carers out there who work difficult, demanding jobs for extremely low wages, kept on temporary contracts despite having worked for the same agency for many years. Its cheaper that way. This calculator is a quick way of assessing what help you might receive in certain situations, it's well worth looking at as you may be surprised (or not if you're a regular reader) just how severely disabled people have to be before they qualify for meagre amounts of help.

Equipment. I've previously addressed this in the form of wheelchair provision, but equipment for the home is assessed for and provided by social services Occupational Therapists (OT) rather than OT's employed by the NHS. My experiences are probably quite typical with social services OT's having told me they wouldn't provide a bath lift as I'm too disabled to use it. This is in case of a fall or injury using the equipment which might lead to the local authority being liable. Seemingly denying care and equipment leading to a fall or injury does not incur liability. I can't work out why.

What this does all illustrate quite clearly is just how complex and difficult to navigate the benefits system really is. This morning, whilst a BBC news presenter was interviewing a representative from one of the disability charities about the latest proposed changes to incapacity benefit I heard him describe some of the current tests as 'not much of a a test really, how hard can it be to walk a few hundred yards' Anyone who reads this blog will know that for many people with all manner of different conditions 'walking a few hundred yards' is as big a battle as running a full marathon, but it shows just how all pervasive this attitude of 'how hard can it be' has become.

If I could give just one piece of advice to those politicians who claim they are so determined to sort out the problems of the benefits system it would be this. Until such time you take advice from the true experts, those with a wide range of disabilities and health conditions living day to day within the benefits system, you will continue to fail. Spectacularly.


Marjorie said...

Thank you for setting out such a detailed (and restrained!) post. I didn't know about the motability ruels - it seems insane that having a healthy partner would bar you from claims.

With the winter fuel payments it seems to me that it would be much more logical to make payments to those in receipt of pension credit and DLA. That would avoid the need for separate means testing and would taget the pyment at people whio are already known to be vulnerable. The idea that my parents (not by any means wealthy, but comfortable) should get a winter fuel payment each,but that someone in your postionmay not be eligable. For them, it is a welcome but non-essential payment. For someone such as you it could make the difference to being able to afford both heat and food, or not.

I have been saddened and surprised at how pervasive the idea that people living on (any kind of) benefits are 'living in luxury' or 'sponging off the state' has become.

I'm fortunate that I am not (currently) in that position myself, but many of my clients are.

I can't help but feel that a requirement for evey MP and senior advisor to spend a month living on benefits in their own constinuancy upon elecetion would perhaps be a good idea, and would allow them to take a more realistic view of the situation.

I think one of the main difficulties are that benefit claimants, live public sector workers, make easy targets.

I don't have any answers, jsut wanted to say that not everyone sees you as a scrounger or someone living in the lap of luxury at taxpayers expence.

Fire Byrd said...

This post needs sending to Brown, Cameron et al with possibly some words about what your disability allows you to actually do.
Trouble is, the country is so fucked financially I only fear it's going to get ever more punitive as 'belts are tightened'
take care

cogidubnus said...

What else needs spelling out to Messrs Cameron, Brown et al, is that the average taxpayer (whoopee my ego says I'm above average, but there you go) really, really, really, DOESN'T mind coughing up extra taxes to help out those genuinely less fortunate...

Of course there are some scroungers and fakers among us ... how could there not be with any system?

Surely though, the sensible way to weed those out is via the GP (with perhaps some sort of penalty applied to GP remuneration where it's proved that they've either been negligent in checking, or too soft a touch in too many cases?)...

Where it's definitely NOT sensible is via costly, un-necessary and totally unqualified panels of bureaucrats hired for their ability to shuffle paper or their political correctness...

At heart, the trouble is, most politicians are so fundamentally corrupt (in mind even if not in the wallet) that they suspect everyone else of the same moral turpitude...and, (whilst in some cases they may be correct), they totally fail to see that an entire (and totally wasteful) industry has grown up on the back of their suspicions.

You've only to look at the tribulations of Mary (sounds like a film off Father Ted!) to see how divorced from reality some of these overpaid, over-promoted and over-cushioned pillocks can be...yet they truly don't see that it is THEY and NOT genuinely folk, who are the true parasites in todays society...

There is much concern in the media over our economic future...under the circumstances, it is ironic that any incoming government could easily save billions by simply trimming unnecessary quangoes, bureaucracy and form-filling...but won't...these places are generally a corrupt reward for electoral support...

Many, many, (nearly 40), years ago I was a civil servant and truly proud to be so...we were genuinely politically neutral and monetarily as efficient as we could possibly I'd be ashamed, if only by association...says it all, eh?

Scribbler said...

A fine post. Really should be read by all MPs and civil servants with responsibility in this area.

And as well as catching the cheats, means testing should be used wherever possible - the family allowance and winter fuel allowance, for example, are seen as no more than bonuses for millions of people. Direct it where it's needed.

SadGimp said...

What gets me is that old people have the 'minimum income guarantee' of 10k, yet we younger disabled types are literally left in the cold.

It really upsets me. My father-in-law has savings, 2 pensions, and yet receives full council tax benefit and pays £12 rent a month and £6 a week gas & electric and gets WFA, free public transport, free prescriptions, TV license, dental and eye care.

I have no savings, no property, and no choice in my circumstances, yet my £404 a month is considered to be 'high income' because it's IB and not means tested. Choosing between food and prescriptions is a right bastard. Especially as you can only get the £9 a month prescription prepayment scheme if you have a bank account with direct debit. I can't pull out £30 or £109 in one. So frustrating, I hate my life, I didn't choose to become neurologically disabled at 20.

Pat said...

Wow! and just how many hours/days/weeks did it take to master that convoluted system?
It seems to me that you need to be pretty switched on to actually get benefits out of a system that is supposed to be geared to help the less able.

BenefitScroungingScum said...

Pat: That's years of personal experience of having to rely on the welfare state, coupled with the skills a law degree brings to try and translate it!
You're absolutely right though, many people are losing out on benefits they are entitled to because the system is too complex for most to understand.
The one's who really do understand how the system works and how to play it to their advantage are the fraudsters who have the time and energy as healthy people to battle with the authorities. Most sick or disabled people are not able to fight for the right benefits as they tend to be too busy being sick or disabled.