Negotiating today’s welfare system demands superhuman skills

In my last blog (January 17th 2016) I raised the growing concern that the welfare state is being restructured by policymakers to be an organization to deny people support rather than to offer it to them. Everything is about testing, rationing, excluding. You have to prove you are facing the most extreme problems, in the most disastrous circumstances to be seen as entitled to anything.

But this is only half of the story. If you have to present yourself as the epitome of disaster, failure, pathology and hopelessness; unable to do this, incapable of doing that, then you have to have at the same time human skills to an almost superhuman degree, in order to get what you may actually be entitled to. Let me explain.

The Barriers that face you

To qualify for help in the real world of 2016 UK neoliberal human services and welfare reform, you have to have the ability to negotiate the massively increased barriers and obstacles that seem deliberately to have been put in your way. In my last blog, I referred to systems of testing and assessment, but the process begins much sooner than that.

The skills they demand

Lets go through some of the difficulties imposed that require the determination of Robert the Bruce and the intellectual abilities of a MENSA member to cope with.

First if you need help or support, you have to have a sense or realization that this is the case. You may know only too well that you are facing difficulties, but that doesn’t mean you know something should be done about it. And sadly increasingly often, governments aren’t anxious to tell you, so there may be little information letting you know about what you are entitled to and encouraging you to claim accordingly. The times when you need outside help are often times of loss, crisis and isolation, when there may also be fewer people close to you to advise you. So first there are many obstacles in the way of the unwary, leaving them without any idea that they may have a right to some official help.

But let’s imagine you get past this. Then we are talking about embarking on the process of securing that help. Simple it definitely ain’t. Complicated it certainly is. And there is no consistency in the process. So, for example, a claim for Universal Credit can only be completed on line. One for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) can only be started on the phone. For Attendance Allowance, you can download a form or complete on-line. If you are seeking Employment Support Allowance (ESA), you can get the form on the phone or you can fill it in on the phone. When you phone the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), it can take ages to get through, you can expect to hear ‘this is a free call but you may be charged by your mobile company’. As spending cuts bite, the DWP is an increasingly creaky organization, taking ages to do anything, sometimes losing things, when they may tell you they never received them.

The forms

All these forms I’ve talked about are big forms. Housing Benefit forms are really big; the form for Pension Credit ‘does your head in’, as one social worker put it to me. We are not really talking about forms here – in the strict meaning of the term. We are really talking more about completing a life history, an autobiography or a novella. Life may be unraveling around you, but these are certainly not tasks for the faint hearted

All these processes can be described quite quickly here, but they aren’t quite so simple to undertake, if, for example, you aren’t computerate or on-line, if the phone frightens you, if the form frightens you, if the on-line form chooses not to work as it is meant to, or if you are left holding on the phone for ages to get through. With housing benefit, even if you have successfully downloaded the form and claimed on line, you then have either to take a whole set of proofs to the local office or scan and upload them. If you need social care, you can phone through and then you have to go through the whole rationing business with a system that is in chronic crisis and extremely underfunded. Good luck with it!

No wonder that so many people at this stage decide to give up and not even proceed with their claims for help and support. The DWP have a script with a declaration at the end where you have to confirm that you have not knowingly given false information – to do so is a criminal offence. There’s a frightener if you are not at your best and one hundred per cent sure you are getting everything right and remembering everything accurately. As benefits experts have long argued from the evidence, the real issue has never been benefits abuse, it is many people not getting their entitlement and feeling forced to give up the struggle.

Filling in the forms

Then there is completing the form. Not so easy if English is not your first language or you are a refugee and have little English (Yes I know Mr Cameron thinks you should learn English but that may take more than a day or two!!). But there is more to it than this. It is also about knowing how to complete such forms. While right-wing media, politicians and associated think tanks seem to conceive of most people facing hardship, as combat trained in the arts of dishonesty, deviousness, misrepresentation and other forms of dependency-related skullduggery, the reality is most people determinedly seek to tell the absolute truth and minimize their difficulties, when they fill in the forms. They don’t want to exaggerate, come across as seeking ‘charity’ or as minimizing their abilities and efforts. Big mistake. Truth is that it is a very bad idea to present things as how they may be on a very good day, when you can perhaps do a little more. Or to suggest that you can walk more than a few steps, when that actually entails pain, real difficulty and risk.

What is really required is a story of epic proportions to convince the system’s arbiters of your helplessness. The whole tenor of the process is to emphasise inability, incapacity and inadequacy – and if you don’t do that, as most people are reluctant to, then you may well seriously reduce your chances of getting the help you really need and are entitled to. This is in appalling contrast to the thinking underpinning the social model of disability developed by the disabled people’s movement. Here instead of having to show how incapable you are in order to get help, the idea is to ensure that people have the support they need to live their lives as fully and on as equal terms as non-disabled people. It is support to enable, not support that stigmatises and segregates people as ‘hopeless cases’.

Finally, if you have managed to negotiate this whole process and then you are denied help or pressured into seeking employment, when this clearly wouldn’t be appropriate or possible, you will have rights to contest such a decision. That means you have got to write an appeal on the right form, demonstrating a reasonable standard of literacy, familiarity with English and collecting the necessary evidence. Many people who make such appeals are successful, so arbitrary are current UK welfare systems and decision-making processes. But of course very many people are too fearful to make such appeals or do not have the technical skills and expertise to present them as is needed.

What happened to advocacy?

Which of course brings us to advocacy. Once upon a time you might have been able to enlist help to secure the benefits you needed. But as things have got much tougher, there is actually much less of that help available. If ever there were a time when advocacy were needed to ensure people their rights and entitlements, when the welfare system puts more and more barriers in their way, then it is now. But of course another casualty of neoliberal welfare and the cuts that go with it, is such advocacy. There is less and less independent advocacy available, fewer social workers, less funding for user led and voluntary organisations that would and could help people – who more and more are left adrift on their own.

So as has been said, while to qualify for help you have to seem as incompetent, dependent and pathetic as possible, to negotiate the system you need as big a range of skills as ever TV’s The Apprentice would appear to demand. Getting and living on welfare benefits, truth to tell, is a job of work in itself. This is an indictment of our policymakers, our welfare system and our social services. If the UK is to continue to claim it is a wealthy and civilized society, this will have to ,change. But few people who know the system or are at the mercy of it are holding their breath.



5 thoughts on “Negotiating today’s welfare system demands superhuman skills

  1. The overall trend in advocacy has seen a change from activity promoted by service user activists and concerned citizens towards an expert model of advocacy provided by advocates who are not necessarily directly affected by the issues faced by the people they support. This trend has resulted in the growth of larger organisations that provide statutory forms of advocacy, at the cost of the peer advocacy, citizen advocacy and self-advocacy groups that flourished in the 1990s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that this comment really reflects the reality and is another worry. Of course what it also highlights is the diversion of resources away from service users, their organisations and local and BME organisations to the traditional keeping it safe type charities that are nervous about rocking the boat in case they don’t get their government contracts, thanks Patrick


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