When Ted Heath was elected in 1970, I was 10 years old and my Dad gave me a ten shilling note in celebration. Brought up in a strongly Tory and newly middle class family I never doubted that the welfare state would care for the vulnerable, and when I started to pay my taxes, did so willingly, believing this to be the case.
Fast forward 40 years. My adult autistic son is suffering severe depression and anxiety. There is a tranche of professional evidence that he needs ongoing care and support. He has a congenital immune deficiency which is linked to his coeliac disease and other long term health problems. He is destitute.
He consents me to apply for ESA on his behalf. The initial phone call takes 50 minutes and costs 31p a minute from a mobile. “Oh but you can apply online” I hear DWP chime. But my son has no money to get broadband. And he cannot get to the library because he cannot manage the crowds and noise, and when he tries, he panics, and is seen dashing into the road in front of cars. Last time he saw the GP, the consultation took place outside the surgery, the GP crouched down by my son, who was curled up in a ball in the gutter.
In receipt of the evidence that he has no income and is suffering from severe depression and anxiety, DWP computers generate 2 letters which arrive in seperate envelopes in the same post. One states that his application is defective and will not be processed. The other calculates his income as £0.00 and informs him that the government consider that is enough to live on.
Eventually we source specialised support from a VCS organisation*, who evidence and send a complex legal request to DWP for reconsideration, on my son’s behalf. My son is awarded ESA in youth (no longer available to new claimants) and middle rate DLA, as he is entitled to under the law of our land. They treat him with respect, care and kindness.
I am not jubilant that we are getting money out of the system. I don’t think my son is “lucky” to get benefits, any more than I thought he was “lucky” to get free prescriptions for gluten free flour as a child. I would rather he was not coeliac or autistic. I would rather he could earn money and pay his own bills and have expendable cash. But I am relieved that he has some income in his own right and does not have to come “cap in hand” to us.
Witnessing him experience severe panic attacks and life threatening depression broke my heart. That was three years ago, and to my great joy, my son is now well, living with his partner and studying at University. He will continue to need ongoing care and support. He will achieve great things. He wants to make a positive contribution to society.
During the last three years, I have tried and failed to convey to Iain Duncan Smith the inaccessibility of the benefits system. What happens to men like my son who don’t have family support frightens me. That the Coalition government seems not to care frightens me more. Separately from the personal anguish of this situation, the cost to the taxpayer of supporting someone while they are too unwell to work, is much more cost effective, than the long term costs of the consequences of not doing so.
Our current government claims to support disabled people in work, whilst closing the Remploy factories which enable this to happen, and using the private firm ATOS to conduct Work Capability Assessments which are not fit for purpose. Austerity measures arising from the banking crisis have been linked to the need to cut welfare spending, with the implication that those who can work are making lifestyle choices not to. Concurrently, the Coalition government has cut benefits available for low paid workers, causing great hardship to individuals and families. The plethora of food banks now needed to support destitute people is an indictment of a Government who claim “We are all in this together”.
I am joining the Labour Party and working with them to win a 2015 election victory, because I want a government that values hard working people and supports the low paid, and because I am genuinely afraid what will happen to the most vulnerable members of our society if the Tories or Coalition government win a second 5 year term.
*Quids for Kids, Devon Welfare Rights support families with children or young adults with additional needs up to the age of 22.
- By an Exeter constituent