I've written before about the arbitrary and cruel judgments made by DWP frontline staff in relation to ESA claimants, particularly the mentally ill. And Guy Standing, in his excellent books about the precarious lives of the "new underclass", describes how the process of claiming benefits creates huge amounts of unproductive "work". Benefit claimants have to "earn" their benefits by what amounts to jumping through hoops. But I confess that - not being a claimant myself - I lacked real understanding of just how insane and tortuous the JSA & ESA system is.
Today, I read a powerful blogpost by Lizzie Cornish, a 61-year old woman who has found herself without a job and - because of women's rising state pension age - also without a pension. She describes her personal experience of claiming JSA and ESA. The story she tells is worthy of Kafka.
Lizzie (who is involved with the WASPI campaign) blocked me on Twitter long ago, so I have not been able to obtain her permission to quote from her post. But I think her story needs a wider audience, and maybe I can help in some small way to amplify her voice. So I make no apology for telling it here - in her own words.
This is a lightly edited excerpt. The whole post can be found here.
I have been a Carer to Nanny, my now ex-mother-in-law, (who is 101 years old) for the past 15 years, she moving here to live with me after our divorce. My time as her Carer ended a few months ago..and thus, I suddenly found myself thrown into the gutter, spat on by my once Beloved Country, turned from Carer to Scrounger within weeks.
I was given the normal 8 weeks 'grace' period after you stop being a Carer, when you are given Income Support which includes the amount given as Carer's Allowance. During this time, I searched frantically for a job, filled in SO many applications online, endless forms, endless questions, endless (ridiculous) psychology tests, sending so much information about myself off to total strangers, not hearing a WORD back from most. I sent out DOZENS of applications....
The ONLY job I was offered was a Zero Hours one which legally gave me NO protection at all, for I could have been phoned up in the morning to find I was not needed for that day, for that week, even, were times quiet. This would have meant that any Working Tax Credit would be thrown awry too, along with Council Tax Rebate. Thus, endless phone calls, more forms to fill in, more and more confusion and stress.
When my Income Support ran out, I applied for JSA. THIS is what some of the Pensions Ministers have said we should go on, feeling that this is RIGHT for us to endure for SIX YEARS until we reach their new pension age given to us! (You can only claim JSA for 6 months anyway)
*I* did NOT fit into their boxes, for you have to have had a 'real' job within the previous 6 months. I was a Carer, thus, I had no boss, no address, nothing that fitted their boxes...and my last 'real' job was in 2011, which would have ruled me out of getting JSA. Nanny needed me at home full time by then. She's registered blind (macula degeneration) and just could not be left for whole days or many hours.
So, I rang them up and we did the form over the phone....it took AGES..and it also took AGES to get THROUGH in the first place, having to talk to a bloody ROBOT who kept asking questions and giving examples of the answers I could come out with!
Well, I finally reached a REAL person and the form was filled in, they too finding difficulty in where to put me, but they sorted it eventually. God alone knows how many questions I answered...dozens and dozens...my life going into boxes yet again, tick, cross, cross, tick, yes, no, no, yes, no, no, no.........
Then, I was given an appointment for an interview at my local Jobcentre. This was on a Friday. I went. Whilst waiting, I sat next to a lady who had just had her ESA stopped. She was in a terrible state. She was registered partially sighted, had a very bad leg, making it so hard for her to walk and countless other illnesses. She looked really poorly....
My name was called. I went to talk to the lady who called me. She was kind, The System was not. I HAD to attend a training course for 2 days, 6 hours each day, on the following Monday & Tuesday, elsewhere in town, at a course called 'Eat That Frog' (GEEZUS!!)...this was, apparently, an 'employability' course, where I'd learn how to do Interviews, etc.....
I took a deep breath, resisted the urge to say "You CANNOT be SERIOUS?!" and explained that I was almost 61 years old (I now am) and thus, I KNEW how to do interviews. MY problem was GETTING an interview in the first place, as my age meant I couldn't even make it past the internet version of the 'paper sift'...and there are many jobs I simply CANNOT do now either, due to age/health, etc.
I then asked how much this course was costing. The lady told me I'd probably self-combust if I knew...and she diverted my attention to my signature, asking me sign on a small screen so the computer would 'recognize' me next time, when I had to 'sign on'. My signing on day was the day after the course days...Wednesday.
She told me it took about 4 signatures for the machine to recognize me. TWELVE signatures later, it still didn't know who the fuck I was! It took TWENTY signatures, by which time I had smoke coming out of my ears over the idiocy of this madness! I'm left-handed, thus I have to write backwards, every single day, to fit into a right-handed world, meaning that my writing is very untidy and my signature is barely EVER the same, each time I write it, because the stress of writing backwards, even 60 years later, is enormous as it messes up my natural brain pattern..
But, I digress.........
I mentioned that with that day's visit to the Jobcentre, plus these 3 new visits to courses and to sign on, meant I'd have to spend almost £20 on bus fares and I didn't have the money! You can't claim bus fares back from Jobcentre visits...so, tough. I could for the course, but that would probably have involved many more forms, signatures, computers exploding over my writing and having to prove who I was via my birth certificate, or passport, driver's licence (don't have either of the last two) or whatever else insane documentation is required on the day the moon is blocking out the sun!
Yes, I'm getting MORE stressed as I write this..........
Well, by the time I got home, I was in A Right State of nerves, anxiety, depression and ANGER, bloody FUMING ANGER, the sort where you can't sit down, because, damn It, I SHOULD have my PENSION not this Feckingly AWFUL STRESS being laid out before me!
This state of mind, of being Out of My Mind, continued through the entire weekend and on Monday Morning, I CANCELLED learning how to Eat A Frog and went back to my GP instead, sobbing all over her (AGAIN!) and she gave me a sick note...because I've been under her for depression for a few months now, after I began to realize that NO WAY was I going to get a job in my 60s!
I rang The ESA folks up.
By now, I HATED Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons', the music The Robot lets you listen to whilst telling you how to phone in the early morning when it's less busy!
It WAS THE FECKING EARLY MORNING and STILL I had to wait and wait and wait!
Eventually, someone answered. We filled in ANOTHER FECKING FORM!
I sent off my Sick Note the same day...
Days passed.....Nothing happened........ I rang them back..........
Shut the FUCK UP, Vivaldi!!!!!!!!!
"Why not ring us early in the morning when we're less busy!"
It's Springtime in VivaldiLand...and all is FAR FROM WELL!
"For example, you can tell us you're phoning us because you have a problem with your form, or you've been overpaid, or you have another question to ask us...."
FINALLY, I get through, to a lovely lass...her MUM is one of us, one of The 1950s women, so I tell her about The WASPI Campaign, of the five lovely lassies who came together to give us a voice to shout and scream with, to demand something is done about the shocking way we've been treated and to get our STOLEN pensions given BACK to us. She said she'd be sure to tell her Mum....and told me my claim was almost ready, but it was being dealt with by Caerphilly....odd, as I live in Devon, but apparently, they move things round the country when busy, so Plymouth was now sending things to Caerphilly.....and...........................
We ended the phone call....
By now it was around the 11th of April. I'd had NO MONEY coming in since 30th March.
So, I contacted my local council, applied for a 'Crisis Grant' to help with food, etc.
Guess what? Yes, ANOTHER FECKING FORM!!
EVERY sordid detail of my decline into ScroungerHood was required, every inch of my life written out before me.....before I could press 'send'.
Next day, I got a phone call from them. They could not help, for I had the audacity to have £109.00 in my bank account. I sighed, told them that £100 of this was for Direct Debits and it was about to start coming out any day now. She said that didn't matter, I had money there that could be used for food and thus, they could do nothing. She suggested I apply for a loan from other sources. I asked how I'd pay back a loan with barely any money coming in. She avoided that. She also avoided explaining why the head of the council, our Tory Mayor, spent £20,000 on ONE FECKING PALM TREE not so long ago, having it shipped over from Spain! THEN, not bothered by the outpouring of RAGE from The People, he went and ordered another 12, at a cost of £12,000 this time, for them all, (far smaller ones) sticking them in the dual carriageway into town where they remain to this day, choking on traffic fumes.....This man owns 15 houses, 2 fields and a couple of garages...but *I* had £109 in my bank account, and even though I was shortly to have only £9 of that left, I had to GET A LOAN !!!!!!!!
So, I had to go back to ESA again, to ask for an emergency donation of my claim......
Yes, you guessed it... Vivaldi, I'm sorry about this, but FFS, I now HATE your music!
Robot Woman greeted me...I resisted the urge to tell her to just FUCK THE FUCK OFF, for my BP was OFF the scale by now, as was my Sugar Level...and being diabetic, this is, of course, lethal !!
FINALLY, yet again, I got through and asked for help....
This time, I got a SourPuss, but I managed to keep relatively calm, explained I had NOTHING to live on and could they please HELP! I could sense her pursing her lips, doodling the word 'bloody scrounger!' on her notebook. She told me I'd be sent £39 by 6pm that evening...and we left it at that, but not before she also told me that this would be deducted from my £73 a week in 4 stages, of just over £9 a time. (!!!!)
Well, the money came through! I threw caution to the wind and bought fishcake and chips!
Then, yesterday I found over £40 had gone into my account...and I had NO IDEA why, but it was from the DWP!
You guessed it......
I phoned them back..........
It was STILL SPRINGTIME In FECKING VIVALDI LAND and Madame Robot was STILL Robotting, but EVENTUALLY I got through, this time to a very nice young man in Norfolk....He hummed and haaaed and finally tracked this payment being for JSA, the tiny bit I was owed before I'd gone on to ESA...and he told me there was another £20 or so due to go in today from ESA, or possibly JSA, to make up this, or that...and that tomorrow my FULL ESA of £73 and a few pennies, times 2 weeks, would be going in, seemingly without the £9 odd being clawed back for the emergency funding bit....at this moment in time, although it will undoubtedly happen later....
Well, slap my buttocks with a wet, depressed fish, because everything's depressed around me at this moment in time....
Today, I woke up ALMOST feeling that today I could COPE, just a fraction, for a few hours...BUT....then...the POSTMAN arrived and he brought with him another FECKING FORM!
Oh, but this was no ORDINARY Fecking Form! No! THIS is a 'Capability For Work Questionnaire', you see.
It has TWENTY PAGES of QUESTIONS! Of BOXES to fit yourself into, for YOU have had THE BLOODY CHEEK to be SICK, you see, to be DEPRESSED, to be SUICIDAL, to have ended up being Pensionless Pensioners made so ILL by having their pensions STOLEN that they can't even THINK STRAIGHT any longer....and therefore you will now be Weighed, Measured and Undoubtedly found to be WANTING!
You see, Mr. Postman brought me a form which asks me if I can walk, climb stairs, use my hands, raise my arms above my head, deliver orders, warn of dangers, etc.etc.etc.......
So far, I can't find the section marked "Are You Fecking Off Your Trolley With STRESS Yet?" but I'm SURE it's here somewhere!
WHEN I've finally Filled In THIS FECKING FORM they will ASSESS it to see if I need Further Assessing by Health Professionals (Hold on, my GP KNOWS I'm NOT fit for work, as does my depression counsellor!)..whereupon I'll have to find my way to where The Assessors Live and Be Bloody Assessed, from the moment I arrive, my movements, my attitude, my appearance, my answers, my eye contact, my EVERYTHING!
After THIS, no doubt, they'll deem that I AM Fit for work..and...thus...just like that poor lady in the Jobcentre, way back up this War & Peace Epic of The Pensionless Pensioner, I'll have my ESA stopped and THAT will mean I'll have to RE-APPLY for JSA..
And we all know what THIS will mean, don't we?
Yes, that's right, back to the phone...to Vivaldi, to Phoning Early, or Late, or Mid-Day or Mid-Way, to explain who I am all over again, in case some Poor SOD is trying to PRETEND that THEY are ME and I'm not ME AT ALL!!
Vivaldi's Springtime all over again....Springtime For Hitler In Paradise.....___________________________________________________________________________________
Lizzie's tale is no doubt all too familiar not only to women in their early 60s, but also to men and younger women who have been forced into the JSA & ESA mincer.
Lizzie believes that the solution is for the Government to reverse the women's state pension age rises legislated in 1995 and 2011 so that she can have her state pension. If it did, she would never need to listen to Vivaldi again. But thousands of others, too young to qualify for the state pension, will still be condemned to spending hours on the phone, filling in badly designed and repetitive forms, and trying to make their case for support to overstretched and poorly trained DWP assessors. What a waste of time. What a waste of energy. What a waste of human life.
But what Lizzie really wants is an income. And she doesn't want to have to beg for it. Nor should she have to. It should be hers by right. Not a pension - because after all, others are suffering too - but a Basic Income.
I despair at those who dismiss Universal Basic Income because it wouldn't fix all the problems with the current benefit system. True, it would not. Other measures would be needed as well. But it would fix Lizzie's problem, and the problem of all those experiencing the uncertainty and despair of the JSA & ESA system, not to mention all those who are in poverty despite being in work. Isn't that enough?
Here I stand, I can do no other
An experiment with Basic Income - Pieria
A neoliberal case for a Basic Income, or something like it - Adam Smith Institute