Unfortunately I can’t take credit for that title, it was my genius partner who came up with it. What I can do is illustrate just how much of a ‘fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t’ situation people are living with in the UK under Universal Credit. Let’s start with my visit to the Jobcentre this morning (as an aside, whoever put the Jobcentre Plus building next to the Job Lot shop needs a medal IMO) I have been transferred over from UC Live to the full UC system, which has been about as much fun as you can imagine. Firstly, it involves a lot of my time providing information about my work history and proving my identity to the new system, despite the fact that I already did it the first time I signed on. Then I had to log into the online system, and fill out a questionnaire on my past income (which they already know since they made me spent the last year calling every month to tell them) and my medical certificate, and the type of work I am looking for. (A pretty harrowing part of that was the inclusion of the question ‘Do you have a terminal illness?’ I don’t know about you but if someone who is literally dying doesn’t really want to jobseek, I’m really fine with that. In fact, we should pay them to go do something they’ve always wanted to do, like see the Taj Mahal or Disneyland)
So here’s the first conundrum. I have a sick note from my Doctor. It says I am not fit for work. I need to provide my sick note, and fill out a Work Capability Assessment form so they can judge if I score enough points to prove that the doctor actually knows about illness and stuff. In the meantime, I am to continue to job search according to the claimant commitment I agreed to before I got my sick note. Making the questionnaire I filled out totally pointless. So I am currently supposed to be searching, applying and interviewing for jobs which, if I were to get them, I would then be off sick.
No I’m not joking. Firstly, who the hell is going to hire me? I’ve previously left 5 total jobs due to the same mental health issues I’m currently experiencing. I haven’t recovered, I’m waiting for treatment. Let’s just follow this scenario through for a minute here. Congratulations! You got the job! Great, thanks but I’m not going to be able to actually come into work you see, because I have a sick note. Oh no it’s not flu, it’s a long term medical condition. My note is from September until December. Yes, that’s before I applied, interviewed and somehow got this job. Yes I can see how that makes things tricky for you. I do seem to remember that part of the probation period agreement is that you don’t have to keep me on or pay me if I can’t do the job. Yes it does seem like this was a waste of everyone’s time doesn’t it? Back to the Jobcentre I go then! I mean it’s genuinely ridiculous. Even if you got to an interview, it’s not going to go well is it? Tell us about a time you dealt with a difficult situation. Oh I think it was Tuesday and I had a panic attack and cried in the bathroom… Oh at work? Ok, so it was the Christmas rush and I had a panic attack and cried in the staff room. Then I had to go home because I just couldn’t stop. It happens quite a lot actually… And that’s if they even get past the glaring gaps in my C.V and the average 3-6 month employment period before I…..well, I had to leave because I kept having a panic attack and crying in the staff room. The only possible way to get around that kind of work history is if you’ve got to a point where you can honestly say, I was ill but I have received treatment and recovered to the point where I think I am capable of doing this job, and look at all my shiny skills, experience and qualifications! I’m not in a position to do that right now, and if I said it, it would be an outright lie.
The next step for me is to go to a meeting with my work coach and we can ‘negotiate’ changing the terms of my claimant commitment. This is where it gets fully Catch P45… I have a sick note, but until I am assessed by the DWP as being ill enough not to work by their standards, I have to look for any work, but even if I found a job I would have to go off sick anyway because I have a sick note, but if the DWP does assess me as being sick enough not to look for any job I still have to go to job club groups to look for a job. Didn’t quite catch that? Well, if you are unemployed, and need to claim benefits, you have to look for, apply for and accept any job you are qualified to do. The only thing that changes if you are Officially Disabled is that you can specify which jobs you are able to do. Well, as long as they agree.
After I got home from the Jobcentre this morning, I stumbled into the kitchen where my parents were watching Politics Live. A Conservative MP was trying to claim that Universal Credit is not a horrifically punitive and deeply discriminatory system, but actually because more people are in work, it’s all jolly good. Another panellist dared to suggest that’s not quite right as his disabled friends couldn’t pay their bills after being moved onto Universal Credit, and the Conservative MP scoffed at the use of individual anecdotes. Firstly, individual anecdotes about people who have been pushed into poverty should not be dismissed, they matter. Secondly, here’s a few little statistical facts for you; the Joseph Rowntree Foundation studied UK poverty in 2017 and found that of the 14 million people who currently live in poverty (over 1 in 5 or 20% of people living in the UK) 8 million live in families where at least one person is in work… 30% of people living in a family with a disabled member live in poverty, compared to 19% of those who do not. Futhermore ‘state support for many of those on low incomes is falling in real terms, rents are increasing, and rising employment is no longer reducing poverty.’ Given that I was told today I’m not suprised. I was told very clearly that if I failed to complete a task they set me online within the time frame it is set in, they just close my claim. That’s it. No discussion, no querying, no checking to see if it is fair or correct, just closed. No more money. And then it would be one hell of a battle to claim again.
It is particularly enraging to hear someone who is part of the government making things harder for the most vulnerable people blatantly show that they really do not care. As this report and many others state, poverty is increasing, in scope and in severity, and the changes in the benefits system are actively making it worse. And the government know this. They know because MPs, charities and constituents are consistently and repeatedly telling them and they are simply ignoring it. Like most people, I do want to work. I want to do more of the work that gives me purpose, helps others who are in similar situations to me, uses the knowledge and experience I’ve gained, and be able to live independently and comfortably on an income that means I don’t wake up worrying about it at night. The great irony of it is, I’m not going to be able to do that unless I am given the treatment I need, with the space and time to fully benefit from it. All I, and literally millions of other people want, is to be able to do it at our own pace, so that we can keep getting better instead of getting worse. If we were able to do that, we would have sustainable, fulfilling jobs that actually reduce the chance of us needing benefits.
For the full Joseph Rowntree Foundation report click here https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-2017#