In 2014 I had my benefits, my main source of income, stopped for almost 3 months. I was a single parent and I was receiving disability benefits because I was assessed as unfit for work due to chronic illness. What happened to me is known as a sanction. I want to tell you about the impact it had on me, not just because it was one of the most stressful and distressing times of my life, (worse than divorce), but because my case is shockingly commonplace and could be on the increase with the introduction of Universal Credit.
The reason I was sanctioned is that I couldn’t physically do the activities I was being forced to do. My chronic illness causes severe exhaustion and very poor stamina. But throughout 2013 and 2014 I kept receiving letters compelling me to attend employability workshops for 18 hours a week, which involved an hour’s journey, including a ¾ mile walk, each way, three days a week. Each letter threatened that my benefits could be cut if I didn’t comply.
I’m not a naturally rebellious person and I push myself incredibly hard to achieve things and to please other people. So it’s not that I didn’t want to work, or that I didn’t try my hardest to comply with the rules. Quite simply: if I could have done what was being asked of me, I would have been in work, not on benefits. I do manage some work at present, but my illness limits me to 12-15 hours per week and I work from my bed because my muscles are too weak to support me sitting up for long.
Like Daniel Blake in the film by Ken Loach, I simply got mowed down by a terrifyingly senseless bureaucracy. The word used in this system is “mandation”: it means making people do things in order to enforce obedience. Mandation is a key idea in the Department for Work and Pensions’ efforts to get people off benefits and into work. In my case, though, the government’s own Fit for Work test of my capabilities stated that I couldn’t manage the things they were making me do. The whole thing was completely illogical. Yet despite countless letters, phone calls, attempts to get adjustments, plead for fairness, and even with representation from an advocate, there seemed to be no human being in the whole chain of command of the benefits system that had the will, the power, or stayed in their post long enough to press a button on their computer to make it stop. To stop this terrifying bureaucracy of mandation and punishment. It left me feeling utterly powerless.
I don’t think my case was isolated or unique. Statistics show that disabled people are twice as likely to be sanctioned as non-disabled people.
For me, the worse part of being sanctioned wasn’t being left with no money. I am incredibly fortunate to have had the back up of family and a social network. I did not go hungry, and I wasn’t at risk of destitution. My children didn’t suffer material hardship. But they did suffer a mother who withdrew into herself at the school gates because she felt ashamed. Although I looked and spoke just like everyone else in my neighbourhood, I feared that if people found out I was on benefits they wouldn’t want to associate with me. So I kept myself to myself.
These feelings of shame felt like part of a deliberate attack. I had regular appointments at the Jobcentre that consisted of my adviser fabricating evidence that I was defrauding the system and faking my disability and subjecting me to staged interrogations. When she failed to pinpoint a crime I had committed, she would say that people like me had to go out and work because the system wouldn’t support us any more. When I pleaded, in tears, how much I longed to recover from my illness, and how desperately I wanted to work she said I just had to try harder. After each of these encounters I was too numb to speak. A little part of me died inside. Eventually, this shaming, coupled with the overwhelming sense of powerlessness, caused a period of depression and anxiety. My day to day function, already very limited by physical illness, now ground to a halt.
I lifted myself out of that dark period. I learned to use the law to fight the discrimination and injustice I faced. I enlisted the support of my MP. I had the love of my family and friends to help me rekindle my self-esteem. My two amazing little girls gave me the determination not to allow my spirit to be crushed.
Had I not had that safety net; had I experienced hunger and destitution on top of the anxiety and shame and my debilitating illness, I don’t think I would have had that resilience to fight back. I honestly don’t know whether I would still be here. Newspapers regularly report cases where people have died through suicide or the complications of destitution and malnutrition on their poor health, as a result of sanctions.
I don’t believe that hunger and destitution, stigma and shame are effective ways to help people out of poverty, or out of the complicated circumstances that cause poverty. Academics agree with me. A five year in-depth study showed that benefit sanctions, and the threat of sanctions “routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes”. I believe the current benefits system deepens the divisions between the haves and the have nots, and damages the fabric of our society.
That’s why I campaign against Universal Credit. Universal Credit is the new benefit system and it’s being introduced across Lewisham right now. It creates an even more hostile environment for people in poverty than the one I experienced, with tougher rules and tougher sanctions. Universal Credit leads to more people being sanctioned, including people already in work on low wages; to an explosion in food bank use, and to more people facing eviction from their homes.
You can find out more about the campaign to #StopandScrapUniversalCredit from Disabled People Against Cuts