Department for Snakes and Ladders?
Fionn critiques the benefits system's failure to support chronically ill, self-employed people
I’m exactly the same as anyone else who’s gathered up a lifetime of training and experience. I have a lot of skills. People come to me for advice. They offer me work. They offer me money to do that work.
And I can do the work, but it makes me ill. I don’t mind; I’ve always been ill, and I love my work. I just have to stop every now and again till I get better, then I can do some more.
Now that I’m older, those pauses have got longer. I might work for five months and have to stop for another four. The trouble is that when the income stops, the bills don’t. I live alone, so I have to claim benefits.
When I do get ill, it can be sudden and severe. One day I can be leading a seminar, the next I can’t fetch a bowl of cereal without help. What I need at this point is a benefit system that that can cushion me during those down times, and enable me to get back to work again as soon as my health allows. Instead I’m faced with a disability benefit system that appears to be based on bizarre assumptions:
“Disabled People Will Avoid Claiming If You Make It Inaccessible Enough” So, I have to scan a 50-odd page ESA booklet because I can’t write by hand, type 6,000 words, print it out, and then transport it a mile to a post box.
“Things Medicine Can’t See Are Likely Fake” So, I have to have to demonstrate the invisible, to someone who’s been told I’m probably lying.
“Ill People Can Stay In Work If You Just Make The Alternative Unpleasant Enough” So, the first 13 weeks of my claim are paid at such a low rate that I can’t afford to heat my home, fund my special diet, or keep on the business services that mean I can return to work easily in future. The stress of the mounting debt delays my recovery.
“Ill People Either Get Better Or Die” Because neither outcome has occurred I will have to repeat the whole miserable cycle over and over again, year after year, even though my conditions have not changed. And who does this benefit?
So why don’t I just use the Permitted Work Scheme? It allows me to work a few hours a week, and even to keep some of the money. I thought it was a great idea when I heard about it. Then I asked for the form.
What is your job title? “It depends. Every project I take on has a different title. I’ve been working since I was 15, and I can do quite a lot of things.”
How many hours per week do you work? “I’m self-employed. I can’t work consistently, so I can’t build my business up, and I never know how much work I’m going to be offered. I might go three weeks without a call, then get several offers at once.”
How much do you earn? “It depends who I’m working for. My average pay’s a bit low for someone with my experience, but I do sometimes get well-paid projects, especially if the client’s desperate for help. But I’m also keen to support new businesses that can’t offer much. So, anything from £15 to £45 per hour.”
I was warned against saying I that can earn more than minimum wage by a welfare benefits officer, who told me it may lead to questions about why I’m in the Support Group.
It’s deeply depressing that DWP still hasn’t realised that severe disability doesn’t preclude academic achievement or good business skills, but I saw his point. Trouble is, I can’t lie about my earnings, yet clients would think I was mad if I asked them to pay less. And there are now no specially trained Jobcentre disability advisors to build relationships with individuals and gain an understanding that they’re chronically ill, not trying to play the system.
If I can’t return to my Employment & Support Allowance claim when I get ill – without a financial punishment for trying to go back to work, without having to write the same 6,000 words on the same form about the same conditions, and without another stressful and humiliating assessment – then it’d be lunacy to keep going back to work.
Why did I spend years doing it? Truthfully, I don’t know.
But I’ve had enough now. My talent, my determination, my courage, and my optimism are no match for public policy that confuses equality with treating everyone the same, and where my disabilities are regarded as excuses put forward by work-shy scroungers (and where a 40-year continuous work history evidently doesn’t suggest otherwise). It’s beyond the realms of possibility that either the welfare system or employers will begin properly supporting disabled people before I retire, so I’m taking the safe option now.
I’m giving up trying.
Guest edited by Fran Halsall.
Fionn is 60 and has two long-term conditions, for which there are no effective treatments. He wanted to be able to call on a social safety net; the best thing on offer at the moment seems to be a spectacularly uncomfortable hammock.