mirrorshard: (Default)
[personal profile] mirrorshard
Or, Why filling in the forms really is hard work, and why the process sent my mental health spiralling downwards.

A lot of you, O my readership, have been on government benefits or had a partner or close friend who has, and for you there is no need to explain that it really is unpleasant, counterproductive, interminable, and soul-destroying. On the other hand, there's a pervasive sense amongst some sections of the British public (and the media) that benefits are money for old rope; all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, turn up to a couple of interviews, and then you're living the life of Riley.



One experience more or less all of you will have in common is the job interview, so let's use that as an analogy. You start by filling in forms and writing up your CV, and you want to tell them all about the wonderful things you've done and how competent and capable you are, how any company would be lucky to employ you. Maybe you stretch the truth a little, make out that a particular situation turned out better than it did, that you were the pivot that turned a failing team around, that it was your bright idea which took a company from ruination to roses in six months flat. That's fine; everyone does it a bit. Everyone expects it when they're hiring. That's how it works. And then you go for the interview, and you have to live the CV you wrote - you have to convince yourself, inhabit the bright shining persona you devised, fake it till you make it. And there's nothing wrong with that, because we're all performing our own lives, creating ourselves as we go along, becoming the person we want to be. And if somehow they don't realise you're perfect for them, there's plenty more out there, after all.

Try imagining doing it in reverse.

You've got the form; what the DWP want to find out from it is just how incompetent and incapable you are. If you aren't incapable enough, you won't get hired. If you have too much success behind you, if you've got solid accomplishments and learned skills, you're going to have to answer tricky questions about them, and prove that they aren't real and useful after all. And you're getting graded on your answers, and if they catch you out in an inconsistency then you won't even get to the interview stage. And this one's important; it's the only shot you've got at the only job you can do, with the only employer in town. So you stretch the truth a little, make out that a particular situation turned out worse than it did, that it was your disability that made a team collapse and fall apart, that if you were to get up and go into business for yourself you could lose a million in no time.

And then you go for the interview, and you have to live the CV you wrote - you have to convince yourself, inhabit the dull haggard persona you devised, fake it till you fail hard enough to satisfy them. And if there's ever anything calculated to reinforce a poor self-image, that's it. If anything can institutionalise failure, that's it.

And remember, your only points of contact with the system are an information-only website designed for the reading age of a bright 10-year-old by someone who'd never tried to use the system themselves, and a perpetually overloaded and underfunded call centre equipped with the best call-waiting system 1982 has to offer. You don't get to talk to the same person twice; you get a succession of interchangeable powerless cubicle workers who can't do anything more than talk to the confusing badly designed computer system on your behalf. Oh, and it's an 0845 number, which means it's only free if you're using a BT landline. So that's about twenty quid you've paid to apply, already.

There's a Jobcentre just down the road, but you're not allowed to go in and talk to them; you have to wait for a couple of hours in a phone queue (or even attempting to get into the phone queue) before you can make an appointment, and nobody has the time to help you work out what you really need and share the information through the system. Instead, you get shoved into the nearest square hole they can find, and Heaven help you if your situation is at all unusual.

It's possible to fill out the form online, but the process is confusing and complicated enough that I tried and gave up after ten minutes in favour of paper & pen.

Once you've sent off your completed form, they might well lose it; the best thing to do is take a photocopy, get it certified, and send that off. You have to mail it; you can't hand it in at a Jobcentre and get them to sign for it and send it through the internal mail any more. And they won't photocopy and certify it for you without an appointment, and there isn't any way to get one of those without three hours dealing with the phone line. You'd do best to send it recorded-signed-for, too, because then at least you know it's got to their mailroom. That's another fiver.

Which doesn't mean it's got to anyone who can read it and enter the data; it could take another two or three weeks to work its way through the system and start a response on its way to you. And then, if they have all the information they need, and if you have a complete set of doctors' certificates (which you might have to talk fast and argue your GP into giving you - I did) covering the entire period of your application without a break, they'll start paying you some money. You get a total of £54.90 a week, plus housing benefit if you applied for that too - which means another form and another bureacracy to negotiate with, and another set of supporting documents to give them in another place too.

And that's an interim payment; at this point, if they decide later you're not entitled to it after all, they'll not only stop paying you but make you repay what you've already had. For that matter, if there's any irregularity they'll suspend payments, without telling you they're doing it. An irregularity would be something like not getting a doctor's certificate for May before the one you sent them for April runs out; bear in mind that it takes three weeks for any given document to work its way through the combination of Royal Mail (two days) and the DWP mail routing & backlog (nearly three weeks). You'd better bear that in mind, because they won't.

In a while after that, they'll schedule you for an interview with a doctor at Atos healthcare, who will ask a lot of things you already told them and then check whether you can read with your glasses on. If you're really lucky, they'll ask you to suggest an interview day & time; if not, they'll just assign you one. You can change it once if it doesn't work for you; if you try more than that, the computer system won't let them put in another and sends you back to the DWP to start again. Atos, at least, pay your expenses travelling there... two weeks later, which means they had the use of £15 of my money for two weeks and I didn't. That's really quite petty.

The DWP also send you for an optional work-focused interview with a different private contractor, who ask you all the same questions and try and work out what you're capable of, and then sit back and ask "OK, how can we help you back into work?" as though, at that point, what you wanted was anything but for them to stop waving hoops around and just give you your money. It's optional, of course, because it's designed to help you. On the other hand, if you don't turn up or if they think you aren't cooperating, your benefits get stopped.

Then there's a different work-focused interview, with Atos again; I haven't had this one, because I had to reschedule it once ("No, I can't get to Romford for 8:45 AM. Sorry.") and then had to try that again ("I have swine flu. You don't want me to come in. ...I can't reschedule it? Computer says no? OK, so the DWP will send me a letter about doing it some other time... I'll wait for that, then. Thanks."). Still waiting, of course.

The bright side of that is that they're now paying me. I get a grand total of £160 a week, which has to cover everything including rent. That works out to an annual income of £8,320. And the reason that's so high is because I managed to convince them I was disabled not workshy, and because I'm over 25 and living in London. Otherwise, it could go as low as £6,500 or so. I'm lucky, of course; I don't smoke, don't drink much, and don't keep a car, and I don't have any dependents.

For comparison, the Rowntree Foundation's research has found that the general consensus in the UK is that you need £13,900 to pay for the essentials of an acceptable standard of living. If you can work, and find someone who'll hire you to work 40 hours a week at the national minimum wage, you'll get £11,900 or so.

It's been a hideously unpleasant experience, and it's taken me six months and left me quite a bit more depressed and less functional than I started. That was with my girlfriend filling in the forms for me, the CAB writing letters on my behalf, and a letter from my MP to JobcentrePlus. And I have bucketloads of privilege here, too - I'm a fairly well spoken white guy over 30, with letters after his name, who knows his rights and resources. I know enough to turn up in a suit and tie when I need to get them to take me seriously, and to wear the same T-shirt three days running before the interview so they don't decide I'm too together and capable to have depression. So yes, I'm coping with the process a lot better than most people with my condition do. And it's been breaking me.
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Date: 2009-09-08 06:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirabehn.livejournal.com
Oh, my darling.

*holds you*

Date: 2009-09-08 07:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirabehn.livejournal.com
*attempts to get self together*

Well done for writing that, darling. I wanted to write something similar once about my own DWP experiences, and just never managed to be able to face it. I'm so proud of you.

I do want to point out here in addition, for those who have got down this far, a) that the DWP also managed to lose my P45 while moving offices between Dover and Croydon, b) that this same system concluded eventually that I am well enough to work full-time. People who know me at all will I hope recognise the sheer stupidity of that. I chose not to appeal, because the idea exhausted me, and I was lucky enough to have the choice, with a husband in well-paid employment who was (and is) happy to support me having no income. That's very, very, *very* lucky of me. That plus my middle-class accent, white skin and English degree must make me one of the luckiest people to apply for benefits of all. And it's still had a horrible effect on me.

And let's not even get into what this system does to people who are in the wide gulf between "well enough to work full-time" and "completely unwell"...
Edited Date: 2009-09-08 07:07 pm (UTC)

Date: 2009-09-08 07:34 pm (UTC)
ext_15802: (Default)
From: [identity profile] megamole.livejournal.com
Our local MP seems to be one of the "get things done" variety. He's also likely to be in the next Tory Cabinet.

Any objections to him reading this?

Date: 2009-09-08 07:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
None at all - please do point him to it!

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From: [identity profile] megamole.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-09 07:43 am (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2009-09-08 07:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] thirstypixel.livejournal.com
In your eloquent, biting post above, you illustrate the pain of the process in a way that gives lucky gits like me pause. That in itself can only be a good thing. It would be such a blessed relief if just some of these pointless, counter-productive stresses were lifted.

(no subject)

From: [identity profile] sleetersoulfire.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-10 02:45 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2009-09-08 07:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jacquic.livejournal.com
Thank you for writing this: I really had no idea at all about the process (and to be honest had never thought about it) - you've opened my eyes.

Date: 2009-09-08 07:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
That's really good to hear - thank you! That's precisely the effect I was hoping for.

Date: 2009-09-08 07:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] swisstone.livejournal.com
Thanks for that. I will try to remember the details of this next time I get in an argument with someone about how "it's just too easy not to work these days".

Date: 2009-09-08 07:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] khalinche.livejournal.com
This is amazingly well written. So many well dones for setting it out so clearly. You took me right back to my mind-bendingly frustrating days trying to claim Jobseekers. Would you mind if I linked to this?

Date: 2009-09-08 07:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Please do, and thank you!

Date: 2009-09-08 08:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hippyjolteon.livejournal.com
Thank you so much for writing this! I haven't had this experience, but this has definitely made me stop and think.

Date: 2009-09-08 08:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
You're most welcome, and I'm glad it has helped you!

Date: 2009-09-08 08:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] roz-mcclure.livejournal.com
Thank you for taking the time and energy to post this.

Date: 2009-09-08 08:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
You are most welcome. I have to do something with the rage and bile every so often, and what else is a livejournal for if not to rant on?

Date: 2009-09-08 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] miss-next.livejournal.com
Pointed here by [personal profile] mirabehn. I'm appalled. It was bad enough at the time when I was applying for benefits; I didn't realise it had managed to get even worse. You have my very deepest sympathy.

(For the record, I had to live on the charity of friends and relations for some considerable time because one lot of DWPeople decided I was disabled and therefore couldn't claim ordinary unemployment benefit, while the other lot decided that I wasn't disabled and therefore couldn't claim Income Support. The situation was eventually resolved and I was declared to be, in fact, disabled, but I never got any retrospective payments from them to compensate for their foul-up.)

Date: 2009-09-08 09:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Oh, dear, that's appalling! And, sadly, entirely unsurprising.

Date: 2009-09-08 09:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] arkady.livejournal.com
I don't know how much of a comfort this will be, but once you've been on the lower rate for 28 weeks, the amount will go up. I'm not sure how it operates under ESA, but with Incapacity Benefit at 28 weeks I received a letter stating I would not have to submit any further sick notes from my GP.

Date: 2009-09-08 09:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
I'm already past that stage; the sheer collective mass of screwups and delays meant that I got to that point before they started paying me regularly at all.

Date: 2009-09-08 10:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] smhwpf.livejournal.com
Very well put, and well done for writing it. The whole way the system is run angers me so much.(I've been both lucky and highly privileged in my various spells as a claimant - but I know rather a lot of people who have been messed around by the system - including my mother who's been sent round the houses of the pension credit/Housing Benefit system, though thakfully it's been resolved for now.

New Labour keep talking about how they want to "help people into work", but the whole design of system is predicated not on helping people but on suspicion, on digging for the least hint of 'malingering' - and on paying out only when they absolutely have to.

And unfortunately, I fear such an approach is popular, in that a rather large proportion of the population have been convinced to place suspicion above solidarity, and to blame their economic problems on those below them in the pecking order rather than those above.

Well, hope you manage to keep the b*stards off your back for the while.

Date: 2009-09-08 10:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Thank you!

The basic problem with the system is two-fold - first, it's a net exporter of money from the public purse[1], and that's never going to be popular with the Treasury, so all the good and dedicated people who want to Make It Work get starved of funding and forced to put up with substandard equipment and slapdash training.

Secondly, the system has perverse incentives built in right down the line, because nearly all the metrics and reportage are designed not to show the number of people helped, but to report the smallest possible number of successful claimants (because a high number of claimants is seen as a poor economic indicator) and the largest possible number of fraudulent claimants refused assistance (because that indicates efficiency).




[1] At least, they think it is. It has apparently not occurred to them that every single penny they pay in benefits goes straight back into the economy, and more than half of it is taxed, either through VAT or through tax on the rental income. Poor people live hand to mouth and don't do the tax-evasion thing.

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From: [identity profile] smhwpf.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-08 10:48 pm (UTC) - Expand

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From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-08 10:56 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2009-09-08 10:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] palmer1984.livejournal.com
Thanks for writing this.

Date: 2009-09-08 10:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
You're most welcome!

Date: 2009-09-08 10:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] neonchameleon.livejournal.com
I knew it was bad. But not like that. *hug*

Date: 2009-09-08 11:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] emperor.livejournal.com
What saddens me is that all the civil servants I know are decent hard-working (often over-worked) people trying to do their level best; and yet the result, at least as far as benefits goes, is so abundantly clearly not fit for purpose. I suspect it really doesn't help that no politician is ever going to say "let's make life easier for people on benefits" :-(

Date: 2009-09-08 11:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lovelybug.livejournal.com
Sympathy - I'm doing all this shit too just now - first Atos interview yesterday grim and involved crying in the waiting room and freaking out at the size of their insanely huge open plan of doom.

Date: 2009-09-09 12:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
Oof, much sympathy to you too!

..WTF? They hold medical(ish) interviews with benefits claimants in an open plan office? The one I went to, in Romford, at least had an interview room with a closed door.

Date: 2009-09-09 12:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fu-manchu12.livejournal.com
This post made me think, and fewer things manage that than I'd like. Thank you for saying it.

Date: 2009-09-09 12:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com
You are entirely welcome!

Date: 2009-09-09 08:15 am (UTC)
ext_6483: drawing of a golden hare in front of a silver moon (Boosh: Kitten time. :()
From: [identity profile] sunlightdances.livejournal.com
So, so much empathy. They lost my details four times, and decided not to pay me and didn't inform me. I eventually got an apology because I sent times and dates to my local MP and left it to a voice of authority to wield some power. I don't want to think about what would have happened if I hadn't had my parents. Ugh.

And after seeing programmes about secret DWP filming, I worry about how well I look when I'm out, too. If I smile at everyone, will they think I'm cured? When I start uni, will they say I was well enough to work all that time, and make me pay the money back? I've no idea, and I'm very scared.

Date: 2009-09-10 06:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vashti.livejournal.com
Yeah, a hundred times this. I am not well enough to work. The chance that I will ever be is negligible. Yet I'm terrified to be as well as I can be, because if someone actually sees me on the few days a year (I'm not exaggerating) that I'm well enough to leave my house and be happy and bright and confident and chatty? I'm fucked.

FWIW, I have come off IB to attend uni (briefly) and nobody brought up repayments. That was in 2001. they're just glad to get rid of you, for the most part.

Date: 2009-09-09 08:23 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shuripentu.livejournal.com
Just reading your experience has brought me back into that fun place of paranoia and screaming. I'm almost certainly too chipper for benefits now, but were I to try to apply anyway, I reckon I'd be well and truly crazy enough to qualify by the time I was done. (Possibly not just for benefits but also for sectioning.) It's like they're actively trying to make people ill or something.

Date: 2009-09-09 08:30 am (UTC)
ext_78940: (Default)
From: [identity profile] yoyoangel.livejournal.com
Thank you for writing this.

Date: 2009-09-09 12:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] libellum.livejournal.com
Yes, this, exactly. Your opening paragraphs reminded me forcefully of trying to get the help I needed from medical professionals at university. It's completely counter-intuitive. The best way of getting the results you need is to seem completely hopeless, cry at them - whereas I found that tension made me very cold and precise, and endless worrying about the conversation meant that in the appointment, my description of my state of health was well-thought-out and and articulate. Clearly I didn't need any help!

Asking for help is hard enough anyway, without being punished for it.

I'm going to point this at [livejournal.com profile] steerpikelet, if she hasn't seen it already - she writes a well-read blog and works for mental health magazine One in Four, and might well be able to get this a wider audience.

Date: 2009-09-09 12:19 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] libellum.livejournal.com
In fact, her most recent article (http://pennyred.blogspot.com/2009/09/hypocrisy-and-death-of-welfare-state.html) is very relevant, if you haven't already read it.

Well done for writing this, by the way - it must have taken a lot of grit.

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From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-09 12:34 pm (UTC) - Expand

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From: [identity profile] megamole.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-09 12:48 pm (UTC) - Expand

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From: [identity profile] mirrorshard.livejournal.com - Date: 2009-09-09 12:50 pm (UTC) - Expand

Date: 2009-09-09 03:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] keira-online.livejournal.com
Well done for putting all the frustration and inconsistancies etc of the system into a brillant piece of writing. There's a couple of people I'd like to wave this at, most of whom don't have LJ, can they read it without having an account?

Its a horrible situation, its not as if any of us like being ill. I know I don't fit in any of the DWP boxes, after all who would take time off work sick for medical treatment??? Although I think I got lucky on that, its been deemed impractical for me to attend any interviews as it'd take time out of the treatment.

Date: 2009-09-09 10:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] yvesilena.livejournal.com
AARGH, just AARGH. I can't believe how awful that is.

Brilliantly written, and I gather it's already getting waved around/potentially waved around in some fairly impressive places, so go you.

But aaaagh... I'm so sorry, I don't even know why I'm apologising, I just apologise on behalf of the world that you and so many other people have to go through this CRAP. I don't know which is worse, the fail-interview or the amount of nigh-impossible hoops you have to jump through while having depression or whatever else. I HAVE a job and I couldn't deal with that.

I hope your writing this achieves something, because it deserves to.

*huuuuuuuuggggggs*

Date: 2009-09-10 06:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] vashti.livejournal.com
:( :(

But I am so glad and so grateful that you wrote this. I've never felt able to describe what the process does to me, and you've done it so well. Here's to you getting out of the box soon.

Date: 2009-09-10 08:35 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tattercoats.livejournal.com
Here via smallship1 via vashti...

Oohboy. Reading that made me feel hot and cold all over and took me right back to my worst times - and that's a *good* thing. I'm not there now, and it's good and right that I remember how utterly dehumanising and damaging the process is - as it's right and proper that those who've never been through it get to hear what it does to the most articulate and well-intentioned petitioner.

Thank you for putting this into words so lucidly and so well, and for sharing it. You're right on every point; the system assumes you are dishonest and then *makes you so*.

I hope and wish that some confluence of circumstances improves your situation soon. Yes, call in the big guns. Keep calling them.

This is inhumane, counterproductive and as you say, it breaks people.
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