A few Fridays ago (fortunately not on Easter Friday) I got up early and caught the train to Cambridge, where I needed to attend the County Court. This was so that I could be present whilst a close relative went through a tribunal to appeal the withdrawal of her Disability Living Allowance and the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) element of the benefits that replaced it. I am writing this post is to give an insight into the effect of the current (and last) government’s policies on disability benefits both on a recipient from whom they have been (partially) withdrawn and, much less importantly, on someone who’s not a recipient (i.e. me).
To give some context, my relative has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and has been signed off work by her GP for the last seven years. For those of you who wish to know more about the condition, you can read about it here, here, or here. My experience of having a relative with BPD is that she is fine most of the time but experiences episodes of acute depression or anxiety and self-harm. These can be more predictable, for instance when they are associated with a time of year, or less predictable, for instance when they are triggered by a negative experience, but there is always the possibility that such an episode is just around the corner. The likelihood of such an episode is reducing as my relative gets better at dealing with the patterns and triggers that affect her, as those around her improve their understanding of BPD, and also as the health service gets better at supporting people with such conditions. Still, the risk of an episode is ever-present, and is heightened when the government’s squeeze on spending threatens provision of things like the Complex Cases Service, which provides excellent support to those with personality disorders. The threat of closing such services is a threat to remove a safety net from those who demonstrably need it. It is worth noting that the government’s approach to limiting spending not only means that benefits are withdrawn from recipients but also that support services are closed or reduced at the same time, thus doubly impacting on users.
The last time my relative had a severe mental health episode was on the day that she received notification that her PIP was to be withdrawn by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP, still headed at the time by Iain Duncan Smith). It is clear that receipt of the letter from the DWP played an important part in triggering the episode. That was in October 2015, and my relative has had periods of acute anxiety and depression since then due to the fact that she has had her income notably reduced and has spent the entire period with an approaching tribunal hanging over her. It is testament to her resilience that she has borne the brunt of preparing for the tribunal and sought appropriate advice and support from Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB, one of the first services to be cut as a result of the last (and now the current) government’s austerity agenda), from Complex Cases, and from a friend who works for Unite the Union.
The particularly unpleasant twist in the above is that her very capacity to appeal the withdrawal of her PIP might be seen by some as evidence that she could get a job and cease receipt of benefits. Such a view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of my relative’s condition, and this is a problem with the government’s assessment system that is being implemented by ATOS. By that assessment system’s reckoning my relative can make a cup of tea, cook for herself, and clean herself so she should not be entitled to PIP. It doesn’t matter that she has periodic and, at times, severe mental health episodes (which can be triggered, for instance, by the stress associated with a full-time job), the fact that she is physically able most of the time means that she doesn’t qualify. My relative’s capacity to live her life is mostly due to her own abilities but it is also, in part, to do with the support available to her from family, from friends, and from the state. All of those things are needed and they complement each other; the state can’t replace family or friends but neither can family and friends provide the financial support and mental health services that the state offers. The withdrawal of any one of those sources of support creates a more precarious situation for my relative.
When I arrived at the court on that Friday a few weeks ago my relative seemed fine (she can be good at hiding inner turmoil from those around her). As the time passed, however, it became increasingly apparent that the stress of being assessed (having already been assessed once by ATOS) was hard to bear. She was impatient for the tribunal to start and desperate for it to be over and to know the result. After the hour of the tribunal itself, during which I waited outside and my relative was supported by a lawyer from Citizens’ Advice Bureau, she emerged in tears. This was not because the tribunal panel itself had been horrible (indeed they approached the situation with admirable humanity) but because my relative had to prove that she deserved to receive the financial support that enables her to live her life. In some way, even despite the decency of the panel members, my relative was on trial, being asked to prove that she had a condition that justifies the support she receives. Never mind that her relatives and friends, her GP, and the staff who support her at Complex Cases had no doubts that she needed PIP. Never mind what the people who know her best think, a series of tick-boxes on an ATOS assessment form meant that my relative had to bear the burden of proving her right to receive support from the state.
The good news is that, after a short but tense period of deliberation (during which we waited outside), the tribunal panel ruled in favour of my relative, awarding her the standard payment from the DWP (including back-payment). This affirmed my broad faith in the British justice system, and I’m thankful to the panel members (who I will probably never meet) and the lawyer from CAB who supported my relative. Still, she had to live through five months with her PIP withdrawn and a tribunal approaching. Thus, this government’s policies on disability benefits (even before the recent budget, resignation of Iain Duncan Smith, and subsequent capitulation on the part of the government) have had a direct negative impact on my relative and an indirect negative impact on me. I don’t for a moment resent or regret offering support to my relative, but I do oppose a government policy that places stresses and demands on those in receipt of benefits and also their families and friends. I had to balance attendance at the tribunal alongside my research, my teaching, and completing job applications, which was a psychologically exhausting experience. Whilst I don’t think this is the most important impact of the government’s benefits policies I do think that we should assess policies on all of the impacts that they have, and we can’t ignore the possibility that placing stress on recipients of benefits has a ripple effect that impacts on those around them as well.
I have tried to avoid hyperbole and generalisation in what I’ve written here, and provide insight into this particular case. However, I think we can safely say that the experience of my relative is not unique. Indeed, I also have a friend who has had to go through a tribunal to prove his chronic health condition warrants PIP payments (which, of course, it does, as his tribunal ruled). Further, I imagine that there are many who do not necessarily have the knowledge or skills to challenge the withdrawal of their benefits (my relative has resolved to used her experience to help such people). So, the cases that I know are not necessarily examples of the people who are most in need of help and support, and this puts me in mind of a conversation that I had with a friend before the 2010 general election. He was arguing that it will make little difference which party is elected because the country will largely continue to run regardless (e.g. bins will be collected, schools will stay open, and trains will keep running). I pointed out that it was very unlikely to be privileged people like us (we’re both educated, financially secure, white, heterosexual men with no disabilities or chronic health conditions) who would be significantly affected by a change in government. Rather, it is the less privileged who are most vulnerable to changes in government policy, and it seems clear to me that this has been the case since 2010. Indeed, I now have personal experience of the negative impact that the austerity agenda can have on someone who receives support from the state.
 On the basis of its capacity to make evidence-based decisions that challenge the unjust consequences of government policy, and thus to provide recourse for those who might not otherwise have it. In that light, let’s not even get started on cuts to legal aid.