Problems with the benefits system

Everyone in the study who has ever received, or currently receives, a benefit, has had a change in circumstances that has, in turn, affected their entitlement. Without exception this has not gone smoothly, being marred by: incorrect information from benefit advisors, incorrect assessments, long waiting periods (of months) for money to come through and alleged hostile treatment by benefit advisors. The most damaging of these appears to be the time it takes for money to come through and the impact it has on families. Some of the changes have been as a result of work capability assessments and the withdrawal of ESA, DLA and/or carer’s allowance. This has resulted in people’s income reducing dramatically while awaiting the outcome of lengthy appeals. For those waiting for benefits such as JSA and housing benefit to come through, the time it can take has multiple adverse consequences:

  • Getting into debt, relying on family (in particular elderly parents), using doorstep lenders (Pauline)
  • Using limited savings, relying on family and friends, not having Christmas, not having food, using a food bank, losing two stone in weight and becoming ill, being hospitalised (Janice)
  • Using a food bank, relying on family, in particular elderly parents, using doorstep lenders (Liam)
  • Relying on family, in particular elderly parents and a grandparent (Jennifer)
  • Relying on debt and her church (Sarah)

When benefit entitlement changes

Liam had been receiving employment support allowance (ESA) for a number of years due to depression and mental health issues as well as mobility impairment. In late 2012, following a work capability assessment, his ESA was withdrawn for the first time.

After he had his ESA withdrawn this first time, he was without income for a number of weeks until he claimed jobseekers allowance (JSA). Liam appealed the ESA decision and after four months he was successful in having his ESA reinstated. During this lengthy process of benefit withdrawal, appeal and reinstatement, which caused a significant reduction in income, Liam tried to make savings, which he felt was to the detriment of him and his son:

‘It's hard when you have to make choices. Do you cut down on the electricity you’re using or do you cut down on the food? And when you're cutting right down to the bare minimum it's hard to cut back any more’.

Liam was forced to use a local food bank. He describes this experience as 'a bit intimidating, you're going in and people are asking you these questions and it's humbling, that you're taking this (food) that people have handed in for charity. I'm a great believer in giving something back, so, the first time I got money sorted out... I got some tins and gave something back, gave a contribution back (to the food bank)’.

‘There's been a couple of times when I've had to use the food bank. That’s happened on another two occasions. I felt actually guilty because I'd asked for a referral to the food bank (from a local voluntary organisation), because I was struggling, I told my mum, my mum helped me out, she got me some messages (groceries), and then these people knocked on my door with food and said “we’re the food bank”. I said “I don't really need you now”. But they were insistent: no take it, put it away, tuck it away. So that helped me, putting that by helped. I try to stock up on tins and things like that to keep a stock’.

After Liam’s ESA was reinstated, he had to undergo another ESA assessment some months later whereupon his ESA was removed for a second time. Once again Liam was forced to use a foodbank due to the sudden dire circumstances he found himself in. As had been the case previously, after an appeal Liam’s ESA was reinstated but not before it had caused him and his son, not only financial straits, but also emotional upheaval and anxiety. He says: ‘It’s been a nightmare, an absolute nightmare’.

Liam has struggled very much to provide his son with a decent standard of living during this time of benefit withdrawal, appeal and reinstatement, so he applied for a loan from the Provident as a ‘buffer’. This debt now amounts to more than £3000. Liam is now struggling with loan repayments on top of an insecure, constantly changing benefit situation.

Liam feels that his anxieties have deepened due to having ESA withdrawn, being put onto JSA, then this being reversed again before the whole process is repeated. He feels that it has had a negative impact on his health and has made his stress-related conditions flare up again. Consequently he has been visiting his GP more often, has been referred to the hospital and is receiving treatment for anxiety.

Liam also feels the stress is having a detrimental effect on his son too. His son’s anxieties have increased and his bedwetting returned after a period of dryness in the night. His son is accessing children’s mental health services to help him with his anxiety and emotional issues, which, while not caused by their current circumstances, are very likely exacerbated by them.

At the present time Liam is receiving ESA but is expecting it to be removed again imminently, starting the cycling of benefit withdrawal, appeal and reinstatement for a third time.

Janice

At the start of the study, Janice received disability living allowance and employment support allowance as she has multiple physical conditions. Her partner receives carer’s allowance to look after her, which means that he cannot claim other benefits, such as jobseekers allowance, for himself. Around this time, Janice’s ESA was removed for the first time following a work capability assessment. Janice launched an appeals process which took several months, during which time she was on an incredibly low income, She experienced stress and ill-health during this time. Her ESA was the reinstated following the appeal. Of this time, Janice says: ‘I was at my doctor and I said “I'm having a nervous breakdown here. I can't cope”’. At the end of this first meeting, Janice explains that she will soon be reassessed for both her ESA and her DLA. She is extremely worried about losing these benefits for a second time.

At our second meeting one year later, Janice’s ESA and DLA had been stopped for the second time after another work capability assessment five months earlier. Her worries and concerns had been well founded. Once again, Janice was embarking on an appeal process to have these benefits, which she needs for her disability-related costs, reinstated. Furthermore, as she had been on the higher rate of DLA, her partner had been receiving carer's allowance. This was also stopped. This meant that both Janice and her partner had their benefits stopped at the same time. After four months Janice’s ESA was reinstated at a higher level than before and her DLA was reinstated at a lower level than before. As the DLA is at a lower level than before, her partner’s CA was not reinstated.

Janice explains that during the appeals period she and her partner were given £60 per week between them to live on. Between the November and February she lost two stones in weight and was quite ill with one of her health conditions. Janice and her partner’s finances are desperate during this time and Janice was advised to access a foodbank:

‘I always say said I would never use a food bank, never. But, when I went to the housing, it was to get my discretionary bedroom tax done, and she did a thing they do, how much money you’ve got, a benefit check for money, and she said “but you've more money going out than you’ve got coming in”. So she gave me vouchers to go to the food bank. But, it was on a Tuesday she gave me the vouchers and I don't get my giro until the Friday, and because it was at the other end of Glasgow, I still couldn't use them. So I still had no food for three days until I could get the bus fare to go’.

Janice had mixed feelings about using a foodbank, expressing both gratitude and shame:

'I was grateful for it ... but I was so ashamed, I'll tell you.’ Although the staff at the foodbank were very good, Janice says: 'it wasn't a nice experience'. On top of the hunger and the worsening physical condition, Janice is also now struggling with stress, anxiety and depression. She explains: ‘I’ve been so ill, and the stress, which doesn't help, it makes it worse. And I'm on antidepressants as well again because I couldn't cope... I just couldn't cope'.

When asked whether her partner and daughter knew the food was coming through the food bank, Janice said:

'No, and that was the worst, having to hide it. What I was doing, because it was giro day, I was leaving it in my shopping... and my daughter said “Mum, were you at Sainsbury's? That’s Sainsbury's pasta.” I said “oh (my friend) bought it and didn't like it so she gave it to me”’. ‘He would have gone ballistic. He's the kind, well you do without. He would rather starve than do that (use a food bank). So they didn't even know about it’.

As the previous two comments show, not only did Janice have to use a food bank, about which she was very ashamed, she also went to great lengths to hide that fact from her partner and daughter.

She says that she didn't want her daughter to know because she would have tried to give her money from her earnings as a young apprentice and Janice didn't want to take her daughter's money as she doesn't have much. And she said that her partner would not be able to cope with the knowledge of them having to use a food bank and so it is better off if it is she that bears the stress of knowledge.

She went to a Trussell food bank and she said that they were very nice and she felt well treated.

‘They were actually quite nice, they were so good ... They were really good’.

At out third meeting Janice is expecting to have to go through the same process for the third time as her ESA and DLA are due to be reviewed again within the following month. She is extremely stressed which, she explains, exacerbates her illness. She is dreading the impending review and is feeling sick with worry. She says: ‘You know it's there. It's going to come. You try not to think about it but... I’m always ill anyway, but then I'm worse with the worry… I’m sitting here trying not to think about next month or the end of this month and it starting all over again. I’ve got to go through all of that again’.

Benefits for students

Sarah is a lone parent at university studying physics. Her finances are very up and down, not least because during the long student summer she has to go on to jobseekers allowance. This means that for those few months she is subject to the job hunting criteria of the benefits system and the conditionality that goes along with this, even though she is not able to take up work because she will be returning to university in October. This makes her finances unpredictable and causes her financial problems.

Sarah has had a negative experience of claiming jobseekers allowance during the 4 months she has to claim during the summer holidays. She describes the experience as ‘horrific’ and feels that her interactions with the jobcentre staff have the quality of them ‘wagging their finger’ at her. She was told that she would be expected to do four hours per day active job seeking.

Sarah has had problems claiming JSA and housing benefit during the summer. It has never gone smoothly or without problems, she says:

‘It causes me nothing but trouble. Last scholastic year I had to restart my housing benefit because they stopped it... it’s just stress, stress , stress, stress, stress, all the time. Are they going to do it properly? Every time, twice a year I have to change my circumstances with them. And it’s never once gone right, not once. I know what I’m doing, because I do it twice a year. Not once has it gone without a hitch. I’ve ended up at Christmas having to choose between paying my rent and having Christmas. That’s not on’.

Sarah has been experiencing anxiety which is exacerbated through the negative and stressful experiences she has during her university summer holidays: ‘the problem with dealing with this stuff is the emotional energy that it takes and that's what I'm out of right now. It's really difficult. This is the stuff that I find it most difficult to deal with. I can deal with just about anything else but when it comes to the benefits agency (huge sigh) it’s just so hard to deal with’.

Sarah says that the stress from all this makes her really ill. The reason she had resits in August was that she was suffering from exhaustion in April and May brought on by the stress of her ever-changing income. Sarah explains how stressful she finds the benefits system. She feels it has a power and the control over her because it upsets her so much. She says that affects family life too because she gets so stressed out and feels that she takes this out on her son, and there's only the two of them so he bears the brunt of her stress.

‘It’s just dealing with the greater monster of the DWP that I don’t like. And I suppose it makes me feel poor, because I am, because I’m depending on benefits, you know?’

Sarah receives full housing benefit of £115 per week in the summer months which reduces during term time:’ In the summer I get the full amount which is £115 a week, and it’s supposed to be that your working tax credit isn’t considered when you are getting housing benefit, but for some reason my housing benefit has dropped to £24 a week. Last year I was getting £35 per week, or something, so I haven’t gone in and spoken to them yet… But I just haven’t dealt with them yet. I haven’t had the strength to go in and deal with them… I looked at it and I went “aw, for crying out loud, where are you coming up with these numbers? It’s like they’re pulling them out of a hat’.

When a disabled child leaves full time education

Mary has a 17 year old son with learning disabilities and mental health issues. At our second meeting in 2014, Mary was asked whether she receives the disabled child element of child tax credits and she said: ‘I’ve never heard of that. I don’t know what that is’. Mary had received child tax credits since 2013 and had received disability living allowance and carer’s allowance for her son but had never been told of the existence of the disabled child element of child tax credits. Although there is a question asking whether your child is disabled on the initial CTC form, subsequent years’ entitlement is based on previous years’ circumstances unless you inform them of a change, e.g. in income or child care costs. However, if Mary was unaware that there is a higher rate for a disabled child then she was never in a position to request it. This means that Mary has lost around 10 years’ worth of this money to which she was entitled.

Until August 2014 Mary’s son had been at school and was then undertaking a supported place at college. However, after this time he was no longer able to manage going to college due to his disabilities. This meant that Mary’s money changed overnight with a huge reduction in her income as she lost child benefit, child tax credits and disabled child tax credits. Mary says: ‘It’s a lot less. I’ve lost my child tax credit, I’ve lost my child benefit. So, I’m rapidly getting in debt’.

When asked how she was managing after the removal of all monies she received for her disabled son, Mary says: ‘I just dinnae eat. I had to phone… What do you call them? When you get emergency help? I can’t remember the name of it. It was through the council. (Was that the Scottish Welfare Fund?) That’s it! I phoned them and I explained to them what had happened (that her son had left college). But the way it happened, obviously I never knew that my money was going to stop there and then. I thought maybe, oh, there will be a week backdated or something. But nothing… They stopped it that week and I was left with 4 pounds in my purse.’ Mary was told all her benefits would stop from that day forward and that she should go to the Scottish Welfare Fund as she had a disabled son.

Mary described accessing the SWF as excruciating and explains that she had to answer many questions on why she had not money left, with the person on the other end of the phone making comments about how she should better manage her money. Mary says:

‘And I thought, “who are they to judge?” You don’t know what comes up in somebody’s life. Somebody phoned me back the day later and said “we’re going to entitle you to £18.63. You must buy food with it and that will have to do you until you get your income support on the Wednesday”’.

So Mary was awarded £18.63 from the Scottish welfare fund. She had been humiliated by the process, put through the wringer when she was already extremely fragile, and awarded a paltry amount to feed herself and her 17 year old son. When asked how she felt about this, Mary said: ‘I think I cried for about two days. I wasn’t expecting that’.

However, Mary’s humiliation was not complete. In order to receive the £18.63 she had to go to a local shop with a ‘Paypoint’, with a code given to her by the SWF, which the young girl behind the counter didn’t know how to use. Mary lives in a very small town where everyone knows each other. There were people behind her in the queue and she was deeply embarrassed when the young girl shouted to the manager to say she didn’t know what the code was for and the manager replied in full voice ‘this is a crisis fund’. Mary was embarrassed and wished she had not applied for the fund in the first place. Mary says:

‘I was desperate… I was so embarrassed… I was so embarrassed. I wish I had just left it. It was so degrading. I know we all need help in life now and again, and you have to hit the bottom before you come up again, but it was so degrading… I’m not caring if I’ve got half a slice of bread I’ll never do it again, never ever’.

Mary explains everything’s experience she has had with the SWF she would recommend to friends, if they were experiencing hardship, not to apply for it: ‘I understand that the poverty here is immense… but it was degrading’.

Since this time, Mary has been getting into debt, her health has deteriorated and she has applied to access a counselling service to help with her anxiety. She says:

‘It (her anxiety) has just gone overboard the now. I was actually at the doctors today about it. But again, that’s money worries. My anxiety is making me really, really ill. My anxiety has gone through the roof. I can sleep, but the minute I wake up, all I’m thinking about is money, money, money. What have I to pay tomorrow? How am I going to get the electricity to do another two days? It’s quite scary’.

Tax credits

Currently Emma is not receiving any tax credits because last year she discovered she had been overpaid by quite a large amount that they have been taking back from this year’s tax credits. So they are taking all of Jennifer’s tax credits for this year.

‘Currently we’re not receiving any tax credits. We’ve not had anything for a wee bit and anything we do receive no would be offset against the over payment received. But we’ve come to the conclusion now that it’s been so much more hassle than it’s worth that, I think if I’m entitled to something then I should get it, but I’m scared to spend it. So anything that comes in now we’ve had a decision that were going to keep it aside and keep it until the next tax year because that is, they are looking for almost a grand and a half from me’.

Emma said the overpayment occurred because she and her husband’s monthly incomes for the previous year varied so much that she contacted tax credits to change this on a monthly basis but it still ended up with them being overpaid. She said no she has no idea how much she should be receiving from them for this year: ‘well, do you know, I have no idea (how much I should be getting) because I think because our situation the previous two years changed so much, I mean I was on different hours so that was up and down, same with my husband, we couldn’t really give an accurate decision. It would be some months that he would take more money if we needed it or whatever. Also the childcare costs were changing a lot. We were paying for some childcare and we were putting him in for more sessions over the holiday periods and stuff like that. So our income and expenditure was up and down all the time and I think that’s where some of the problems have lied with the overpayment, so it got a bit messy’.

‘And depending who you were speaking to, you’d get some folk really helpful but there was other times I knew the person I was speaking to on the other end of the phone didn’t really know, and when it was the childcare and I was saying “it’s coming to an end very soon, I’m not sure how much I’m going to be paying over the next few months because she will be in more sessions” I said to them “do you want me to tell you know what I’ve paid or wait until the end” and the girl was humming and hawing and said just phone later. And then it was almost as though I felt I was a wee bit penalised for that. When I’ve sort of complained it was like “oh we would never say that, we would never do that” blah blah blah’.

Emma’s aim for her family would be to get to a position where they don’t have to be involved with tax credits at all. Her son starts school in the summer and she would like to eventually be able to work more hours. ‘Just to feel we are supporting ourselves and that we are in a good financial position again’.

Many of the families have real fear and apprehension about approaching either the Jobcentre, DWP or HMRC in relation to benefits and tax credits, especially in response to a chance in circumstances. On the whole, the engagement usually results in reduced income for the families followed by lengthy, painful, appeals processes. The negative consequences of this affects everyone in the family – food is more tightly controlled, children can participate less in school and leisure activities, and children have to cope with the increased stress and anxiety experiences by their parents.