On Thursday, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) posted a video to Twitter of the Minister For Disabled People, Tom Pursglove, wearing a DWP-emblazoned stab vest and accompanying police breaking down doors. He says “We will track you down. We will find you. And we will bring you to justice.” The DWP adds “At DWP we have a very particular set of skills…” It would have been a laughable parody of Taken, but for people like me it set off old trauma.
More than 15 years ago, all my benefits suddenly stopped. When I called to ask why, I was put through to the fraud office. I’d been given no warning, no chance to answer. I just suddenly had no money. They told me they had people sitting outside my flat taking photos and ‘caught’ me carrying shopping. Luckily I had copies of my benefit application forms –always keep copies – so I could prove I had told them that my condition was variable and that I had days when I had to just do stuff and pay the energy, and pain cost later. My benefits were reinstated.
It’s been more than 15 years, and still every time I’m outside – every time – I’m afraid. Sometimes it’s just a background hum, sometimes it makes it hard to go out. I am aware all the time of how I look to a spy – am I smiling too much, moving too easily? I know that’s not how disability works, not least because to be part of society we often have to mask pain, depression, stims, etc. But I also know the DWP have accused people of fraud because of FB photos of them smiling.
DWP messaging and its catastrophic effects
And it’s not just my mental health which is affected; it’s my physical health, too. When physios recommend exercises using gym equipment or daily walks outside, I have to weigh the risk of complying because it might be used to take everything from me. Sometimes I’ve decided it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not.
This messaging from the DWP and, horrifically, from the Minister For Disabled People himself, is an act of material violence. It has catastrophic effects on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. There are so many newly disabled people who don’t yet know they should be afraid. Many thought there was a safety net, or we were exaggerating when we described how violent the system is. The video is the DWP letting all of them know exactly who they are.
My heart was racing all day. I posted about it on Twitter and was inundated with stories from others who experienced the same invasion and long-lasting effects. Many people reacted by saying the system must be broken but the truth is, it’s not. The system is working exactly as intended.
As an equalities consultant specialising in disability, I work hard to increase people’s understanding of it, which means I know most people’s general baseline: most people with no prior knowledge have absorbed enough through TV, reading, conversations with other people, to know depression doesn’t mean you never smile and most chronic illnesses aren’t static or easily visible. For the people whose job is to deal with this every day, to hold these views is a choice. It’s a policy. They know fine it’s not how disability works but it’s in their interests to pretend they believe these myths.
DWP’s negative proposition by default
The DWP’s starting premise is ‘everyone is committing fraud unless proven otherwise’. The disability assessment process uses tricks to ‘catch you out’, which makes it particularly hard for people with cognitive dysfunctions, memory problems or conditions which vary. It is made to be hard to access and traumatic to experience because of a key conservative belief: if you really need the help you’ll continue, and everyone else will give up. This just isn’t true.
Many people who need the help just die instead, as multiple coroners’ reports have shown. Many decide to live smaller, restricted, isolated lives because they know the damage from the process would make their health even worse. It’s much easier to endure the process if you have other options.
It’s easy to blame all this on Tory austerity or the current ‘culture war’, but as I said, this happened more than 15 years ago. Disabled people have been targeted by successive governments for more than two decades, and it was New Labour who built the architecture for this cruelty. With few other options, we are reliant on state support. Why target billionaires when there are people who don’t have the energy to fight back, or who will lose everything if they do (we also have to worry about losing benefits for being photographed at protests).
‘Trapped on benefits’ was New Labour’s excuse for imposing stricter rules
When these changes were made by the Blair government, they defended clearly dangerous processes by talking about people being ‘trapped on benefits’. Here’s the truth: it is thissystem which traps us because we cannot risk anything. Some cannot risk leaving abusive situations: for many people, their carers are their abusers and if they leave that might be used as proof they can cope without a carer, and are therefore lying about their condition. We cannot risk improving our health even a little. We cannot risk complying with medical suggestions, seeing if we could work a day a week, finding out what kind of life we can have within the boundaries of our conditions.
Being disabled involves a lot of trial and error, trying new treatments, new routines, which often don’t work or need adaptation. We are trapped because the system treats us as criminals who need to be found out, rather than complex people who need support to live the lives we canhave.
We have been fighting this system for so many years, from local authorities to the UN itself, but it often feels like we’ve got nowhere. We’ve talked about humiliation, cruelty and despair. We’ve cited research into excess deaths, mental health damage, and loss of independence. Disabled people shouldn’t have to endure this just for trying to live our lives. The Minister For Disabled People should be advocating for disabled people, not using his platform to play at being a threatening cop.
Too many people already don’t get the support they are entitled to, and this video is designed to put more people off applying in case their doors are beaten down for posting a photo of them at a wedding.
There will always be people defrauding any financial system. The DWP knows benefit fraud is incredibly low. There are some large-scale organised frauds which are picked up in criminal investigations, but there will never be a situation where we stop all fraud while also supporting everyone who needs it. There will always be a choice: do we sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of disabled people just to make sure a few people don’t get what they’re not entitled to?
I would prefer a system which prioritises disabled people who live complex lives, whose conditions don’t meet worthless tickbox lists, but who deserve the opportunity to live the best lives they can with the support of the society we live in.