Tuesday, 13 November 2018



 Stories From The Benefits Frontline


By Jane Fowler

When we first met as a group to work on the broad topic of cuts and assessments, we needed to find a focus for our research.

There were so many issues that provoked despair and bewilderment – and the anger that comes from being at the sharp end of a benefits system which many feel is uncaring.


I asked a question.

Which, of all the cuts, and the assessments that go with them, is the most iniquitous?

There was a short pause and then stories were shared from first-hand experience on one particular area: the impact of the various elements of Universal Credit on families, and thereby, on children.


It was from the personal experience of those within the group, and their knowledge of others who had encountered similar problems, that we decided to focus on disability benefit processes, as they affect children moving from one benefit to another as they enter adulthood at the age of 16, and the 2 child policy, which limits benefits to only two children, regardless of the circumstances of a mother or family. 


Statistics may be dismissed as ‘damned lies’ but when gathered with rigour, they can offer a stark truth. The Child Poverty Action Group estimate that 200 000 children will be pulled into poverty by the two-child limit in the next two or three years.

That is a horrendous figure.  And this, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.


There have been ongoing cuts to Universal Credit since its introduction in 2013.  These may be invisible to those lucky enough not to claim benefit.

But the figures, again from Child Poverty Action, reveal that couples with children who need benefits will be £960 worse off in 2020 compared with the income they could have expected in the absence of cuts to universal credit.  Single parents will be £2380 worse off.


This is the crucial fact.  Families with children lose out more under Universal Credit than any other group.  Universal Credit was supposed to reduce poverty – and yet this is its consequence.


Personal stories based on experience are at the heart of the Poverty Truth Commission.

Statistics can offer context.  (They can, of course, be fashioned by some to bolster a political argument.)

Personal stories offer the truth of people’s lives.

They take us to the heart of the matter.




Our group sought the personal testimonies of those with children.


As Barbara describes, her disabled son has always needed, and will always need, 1 to 1 care.

She had to give up full time employment to care for him and left a high pressured, well paid job to do so.  When her son approached 16, she had to apply for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) that marks the move from child to adult services. As soon as you apply, your Child Tax Credits and Child Benefit Stop.

The assessment period is 13 weeks, so you’re looking at a huge loss of money.


In her job, Barbara had managed stressful situations on a daily basis.  But her comment on the experience of trying to navigate the process on behalf of her son speaks for many.

‘I have never come up against anything as complicated, frustrating and stressful as I have with the whole ESA process.  My mental health suffered.  I didn’t really need this on top of caring for my son.’


Another story stays in my mind.  Amy has had ME for 7 years which causes her great pain and fatigue as well as cognitive impairment.  She came to speak to us and described how the questioning during her Appeal tribunal had been extremely leading and framed in terms of challenging her claim to be ill, asking her to prove that she was ill.  She was asked what grade she had gained in the Higher exam she took the previous year.  It was a good grade, and the reply was to the effect, ‘Well, there you are then’.

End of story.  Proof positive.  Guilty. Not ill.


Her mum thought to herself, ‘A person could do the West Highland Way on their hands and knees over the course of a year.  Just because they’ve done the West Highland Way doesn’t mean they aren’t disabled.’


Amy had a relapse after the tribunal and had to drop out of college.  She feels that the stress of the tribunal contributed to her relapse.


A culture of disbelief.  A system that is dehumanising.  And as Jackie says in her forward to our report, no sense that children have natural rights that do not depend on income.


Our recommendations are at the end of our report.  I hope you might find time to read them.  They matter.

link to Stories From The Benefits Front Line report









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