Welfare changes aren’t working: CABs and the new benefits system

Yesterday afternoon I spent an interesting couple of hours following the #CABlive hashtag on Twitter. This hashtag aimed to give the reader an insight into the day-to-day workings of Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country and, it must be said, made for fascinating and eye-opening reading.

Having had cause to use the services offered by the CAB myself a few years back, I was already aware of how busy many bureaux are and the wide range of issues they deal with – but I was genuinely taken aback by the large number of tweets referencing clients who were having problems with the new benefits system; particularly with ESA applications or Work Capability Assessment appeals.

There is already a huge amount of anecdotal and more statistical evidence that shows how badly these benefits and the tests for them are failing, and how they are causing great distress (and sometimes physical or mental health problems) for many of those being forced onto them.

As I read the tweets yesterday, I wondered if these changes to the benefits system were already having an impact on the number and type of client that CABs were seeing, so I asked this question:

The Twitter team from the CAB in Bolton, Lancashire responded, telling me that they’d had a “massive” increase in their workload since the benefit changes went live. They also very kindly forwarded some extremely revealing statistics to me, which I examined with great interest.

The Bolton stats show that, comparing January 2011 and January 2012, the staff at that CAB dealt with more clients overall during this January just gone – but by far the biggest increase (approximately a third more than in January 2011 by my reading) was in the number of clients who had problems which related to benefits.

The reason for such a large change in the figures? Simple. The implementation of changes to the benefits system began in earnest in the months between the two sample figures.

Admittedly, this is only one comparison over a brief period of time (although the rise in the number of clients seeking advice on employment, immigration, debt, housing, and community care were only slight compared to the benefits figures) and these results are only from one CAB (although, anecdotally, I am sure the figures will be similar elsewhere) – but it shows that the new system is already having negative effects.

However, CABs across the country are actually facing a government double whammy. Not only have the numbers of clients gone up as a result of economic downturn and changes to the benefits system, but many bureaux are also facing crippling financial cuts as a result of upcoming major reductions in legal aid funding.

Maybe I’m a little angry about all this, but, to me, all this smacks of a spiteful, nasty attempt by the rich and powerful to create an underclass of poor, deprived and vulnerable people, who are in the situation they are in through no fault of their own – yet who are also being demonised, vilified and made to suffer by having hope snatched away from them because the government doesn’t care.

And they don’t.

So, when the economic system rips you apart by creating debt, joblessness and homelessness, you are failed by the DWP even when you can’t physically work, and a lack of legal aid and other funding means there’s no more CABs or other community legal resources, what are you going to do?

You may think I’m scaremongering here, that it’ll never happen to you – but don’t be so sure of that. It could happen to anyone. A combination of economic downturn and the policies of the last two governments have produced what is well on its way to being a perfect storm of poverty and deprivation of almost Victorian proportions in this country.

And we’re rapidly reaching the point where there’s no safety net for ordinary people any more.

It’s happening. It’s happening here and now. And changes to the legal aid and benefit systems mean that more people are suffering and organisations like the CAB are under threat. When the worst happens and we lose these crucial community resources, when there’s no-one left to help the vulnerable and deprived pick up the pieces, what then?

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7 comments

  1. Ben

    What really gets my goat is the fact that, under the rules for re-assessment for incapacity benefits, GPs are no longer allowed to sign people off – the government does not trust GPs to assess patients presenting as “incapacitated” any more. Instead, existing claimants must be re-assessed by government approved health care proffessionals, rather than the doctors who know them best and have often been treating them for years. Apparently GPs can’t be trusted to assess disability honestly any longer.

    And yet this government wants to hand vast chunks of the NHS budget to consortia of these same, apparently untrustworthy, GPs. Joined up government?

    Incidentally, the actual forms you need to fill in prior to re-assessment are as labyrinthine and obtuse as anything that came out of the bureaucracies of the old DHSS/Jobcentres. If your disability affects your cognitive functions you’ll be lucky to complete one without help.

    • trickygirl

      Thanks for your comment Ben. You’re right – this isn’t joined up government by any stretch of the imagination. I recently had to help a friend fill in the forms for reassessment, and we were both appalled by them. They’re hard enough to understand if you’re fit and healthy, but for anyone with a physical disability or mental health difficulties they’re impossible and very upsetting to complete. This government’s lack of understanding of what it’s like to be unable to work or to need extra help due to ill health or a disability is really quite disturbing.

  2. allyouneedisyourmind

    A disaster in progress, uncaring people that have just cut all safety nets away from society, and the most vulnerable in one vicious swoop. Good to see a blog, with a calm but important message.

      • allyouneedisyourmind

        I’m sure it wasn’t. The whole thing is a complete mess, mainly because it won’t uplift those in poverty, out of poverty. The Whole process is ideologically designed to punish the sick. Those that are, just lazy, and avoided work over past 20-30 years, will just carry-on being lazy, I listened to radio 4 earlier, and they debated The Channel 4 series, about disabled and dating. …. But one thing was mentioned about being unable to wash feet, not counting in the new points system. I thought, what if you are, like me diabetic?

        I know there is a lot of hysteria on twitter, from some very questionable self promoting individuals. But I thought your blog, offered something, the others, seem to miss.

        People need clarity, a clear voice, with a clear vision; this is like a three-legged horse race; set by the government, they’ll get you at the last fence, and break ‘our legs’.

        I’m against the cruel, and pointless attack on those that are disabled. The Autistic, learning disabilities, and those with all physical disability, and digestive problems.

        Now cut free, to drift in an ocean of poverty.

        • trickygirl

          I absolutely agree with you that the whole thing is a complete mess, and what doesn’t help is the way that the government and the media both lie about the extent of the problem, particularly when it comes down to benefit fraud – I recently looked into whether the numbers being bandied around by Cameron and Co. (and thus, by extension, the news media) were actually accurate, and I found that the hysteria they are provoking about huge numbers of people defrauding the benefit system is, quite frankly, bullshit. The official DWP benefit fraud stats show that the number of dodgy claims is actually miniscule (see here for more info: https://trickygirl.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/benefit-fraud-the-facts/).

          All that simply goes to show that this government sees the poor, the sick and the disabled as easy targets, and if they hype up enough hysteria about how all those on sickness benefits are ripping off the hard-working taxpayer, no-one will notice that the government’s rich buddies aren’t paying tax and are exploiting the poor (I wrote about this some time ago: https://trickygirl.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/one-rule-for-the-rich-another-for-the-poor/).

          You are so right when you say this is a cruel and pointless attack on the sick and disabled – but we will fight back and we will not stop fighting. The Spartacus Report and other campaigns show that there are people who will keep on battling and we will not let them bring us down!

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