There is nothing like a case study, based on the lived experiences of real people, to bring home the impact of heartless government policies on some of the most vulnerable in our society. Neil Carpenter, in his latest book ‘Benefits on Trial‘, has achieved this with remarkable clarity. He has done this by highlighting the experiences of six people with learning disabilities trying to negotiate their way through the complexity of a benefits system designed and implemented with only one objective, that of saving money.

In 2014 the benefit rules were changed by the Tory/Liberal Democrat Coalition Government so that those in receipt of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) were required to transfer to a new form of benefit, with different criteria for eligibility, called the  Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The Government didn’t even attempt to hide the fact that the aim of these changes was to save 20% on the budget. The DWP’s own figures for the award rates for the period from April 2013 to October 2019 show that 57% of new claims and 29% of DLA reassessment claims were unsuccessful.

Neil Carpenter, who is a volunteer advocate in Cornwall, points out that “the benefits system run by the DWP has many failings, the consequences of which are often horrific but remain under-reported in the mainstream media”. Perhaps the starkest of these consequences is the National Audit Office finding in early 2020 that at least 69 suicides could have been linked to problems with benefit claims of the previous 6 years.

The pain, stress, and resultant poverty suffered by Danny, Thomas, Ben, Jon, Tony and Denise, directly as a result of the interpretation and implementation of these policies, makes for very difficult reading. It is not only the cruel and dismissive way that the six people, all of whom have long-term learning disabilities, were treated that is shocking, but it is the sloppiness of decision-making and the complexity and time taken to correct the resultant errors that are unforgivable.

For example, Thomas who was born in 1973 with Down’s Syndrome, moved from a special school to residential care and then into supported living in a flat. However, in 2018 the DWP decided to move him from Income Support to the Work Related Activity Group resulting in a loss of £30 a week. The absurdity of this decision was compounded by the vacancies he was encouraged to apply for, including a heavy goods vehicle driver, a night security officer and a crime scene investigator.  

Ben had complex learning and mental health problems, which had been exacerbated by the tragedy of five members of a family he knew being killed when he was still in school. He had been referred to the care of the Child and Mental Health Team, who had recommended that he should not be allowed to wear a tie to school because of the risk of self-harm. He found the PIP assessment almost unbearable. The subsequent decision left him £140 per week worse off, plunging him into extreme poverty. Ben himself later described that stress: ‘afekt ov limitid tyme ot fill form in lfet me ​pissde ov ​stress​worn out​edgy ​teasy​​pain​ovreloadid had afekt on bov fizkal hlef dna mental helf dna les toloreace ot peapal’.

The book explores the strain, not just on their finances but also, inevitably, on their mental health. Denise suffers panic attacks and Jon’s mother is reduced to saying, “There were times when I was so low that I started to wish that Jon and I weren’t here”.

‘Benefits on Trial’ examines what happens when the six appeal to an independent tribunal. The injustice at the heart of the DWP decision-making is reversed, with its decisions overturned by a massive margin, either at a tribunal or through an out-of-court settlement. All the people in the book were refused PIP after their assessment. At the tribunal stage, all received either a standard or an enhanced award.

Neil Carpenter concludes: “The DWP stands exposed by the evidence of this book. Only one conclusion is possible: the current benefits system, with its distortions and dirty tricks, does not need minor tinkering; it instead needs to be replaced by one that takes fair assessment as its guiding principle.”

Of course, the real problem lies with a government that for the last 13 years has ensured that the poorest and most vulnerable in our society should carry the cost of its austerity programme.  The DWP and local authorities are merely the enforcers of this key plank of Tory dogma.

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