I’ve been spending one day a week at Brixton Advice Centre (BAC) since the beginning of the year, getting to know the team and learning about the work they do in more detail – as well as meeting clients and hearing their stories. When I arrive on a Monday morning, there’s usually a queue of people outside waiting for the centre to open.
Nathan Scott has worked at the Centre for three-and-a-half years and is the specialist advisor for welfare benefits. He told me how he’s seen things change in that time, and in particular how changes to the benefits system introduced in 2013 have affected claimants.
“People with severe mental health conditions, musculoskeletal conditions, incontinence… are being treated as regular job seekers”
Before October 2013, if your Employment and Support Allowance (ESA – a benefit intended for ill or disabled people) was cut, you could appeal immediately. While you were appealing, you would continue to receive benefit payments. Now, income is stopped at the point of the initial decision and any objection you might make is held in a review phase lasting several months called a mandatory reconsideration, during which time people have to sign on as normal job seekers.
“This is crucial to understand,” says Nathan. “People are now required to claim a benefit which is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to what they should be claiming. People with severe mental health conditions, musculoskeletal conditions, incontinence – to name but a few – are being treated as regular job seekers; signing on is a problem if, for example, you’re unable to walk.”
Once the appeal officially begins, payment resumes and is backdated – but there is often a period of several months, with no idea of when it will be resolved, when suddenly, overnight, there is no longer any income at all. The problem is not just the gap in income, however – there is a knock-on effect.
“When you’re receiving means-tested benefits like JSA (Jobseekers’ Allowance) or ESA, you will normally automatically receive housing benefit,” Nathan says. “So the domino effect is that if the ESA or JSA is cut off, your housing benefit is cut off also. After a few months of your rent not being paid, your landlord may begin to issue possession proceedings. So one small change in these social security regulations can lead to debt and homelessness. It’s entirely possible that people can end up on the street as a result.”
Nathan believes that the psychological impact of this combination can be profound, especially for people who are already vulnerable: “For example, if someone receiving this benefit is suffering from mental health conditions – severe anxiety, psychosis, depression, none of which are uncommon – their sole source of income being cut is bad enough. But being informed two months later that they could lose their home as a result of rent arrears is terrible”.
Prior to 2013, because you could appeal immediately and your benefits payments didn’t stop, your housing benefit would also continue while the process was ongoing.
There is more, however. At the same time as changing the benefits system, also in 2013, Civil Legal Aid was severely cut back so that it could no longer cover welfare benefits law. This means that people’s ability to challenge decisions is now much harder as a result. Appealing is a very complex process, as I’m starting to learn – not just in terms of understanding the forms you need to fill out and when you need to fill them out by, but also knowing the wording you need to use. For those suffering from mental health issues, for whom English is not their first language, or who are simply not highly educated, it is pretty much impenetrable.
“Luckily, there are law centres and advice centres that are still able to do this type of specialist work,” says Nathan, “but two years ago there were seven such centres in Lambeth. I believe now we have four.” Posts like Nathan’s that help people with benefits claims and appeals, and so can’t be funded by Legal Aid, have to be independently funded, by local authorities or through private fundraising. But as local authority budgets continue to be cut back as a result of central government cuts, this funding route is under serious threat.
“More and more people are failing medical assessments, with some very questionable decisions being made”
What’s more, since the changes have been introduced, Nathan has seen a marked increase in the number of failed medical assessments for those receiving ESA, sometimes directly contradicting evidence supplied by GPs and hospitals.
“More and more people are failing medical assessments, with some very questionable decisions being made,” he says. He’s cynical about the reasons behind this. “A person who fails a medical assessment is required to make a temporary claim for JSA. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that that person may be offered a job in that time. My personal belief is that this counts towards national statistics. So, every quarter, the Government can announce that unemployment is down. But of course it’s only for a very short amount of time.” Claimants with medical conditions who are clearly not fit for work are then unable to fulfil the job and, after months of appeals, end up back on ESA until the next assessment date – at which point, the cycle begins again. But in the meantime, the stats appear to have improved.
Since the 2013 changes, and with the closure of the other advice centres in the borough, Nathan has seen the number of people he helps rise significantly. “People have a very small and dwindling pool of help that’s available. And that’s where we come to the fore, because the need is still there; proportionally the need is now greater. The volume is relentless.”
It’s bleak – and what infuriates him is the way benefits claimants are represented in newspapers and on TV, as it differs so drastically from what he experiences every day. “The portrayal in some sections of the media is so false,” he says. “It whips people into a frenzy. The need is real. It is very, very real. You have people choosing between hunger or homelessness. For how developed a nation we are, that is unacceptable.”