Years ago, when I was healthy enough to work, I used to assume that those who needed to claim disability and sickness benefits (namely DLA and ESA) would be able to do this without much hassle. I also believed that they would be properly supported, without judgment or harassment.
Now I know, this isn't true.
Ever since I've been claiming ESA, I've noticed the increase in tabloid headlines; claiming that most people "on the sick" were doing so fraudulently. Contact details for reporting fraud have been more visible, and so malicious calls have been made. More programmes on television about people on benefits. Society seems to be more suspicious of anyone on benefits (be it ESA, DLA/PIP or JSA). I'm not sure if I'm being paranoid, but I feel as if all eyes are on me when I leave the house. I still have people doubting how ill I am, how much pain I'm in, whether I *really* need my walking stick. It's horrible, but my experiences of being judged/harassed are fairly mild compared to some.
Just over a month ago, I went on holiday to Spain with my parents. Before anyone says anything about "luxuries", a relative had helped us pay for the holiday and we had all saved up bit by bit for over a year. We didn't go on fancy excursions and we stayed in a small hotel. But I was relatively quiet about this, on social media. I worried about people judging me for daring to spend their so called "hard working taxpayer's money".
I shouldn't have to justify what I spend my money on. It is no one's business. As long as I'm only claiming what I qualify for, and I'm making sure essentials are paid for first, why should it matter? I'm lucky that I live with my parents, and that (with a long time saving up small amounts) we can afford a nice thing on rare occasions. If I couldn't live with my parents, I dread to think if I'd even have a roof over my head, let alone any other essentials. That odd nice thing gives me something to look forward to. Having a lifelong, incurable physical illness, has taken a real toll on my mental health. I spend my days resting, trying to make sure I have one hot meal a day (on bad days it does have to be take-out when my parents aren't able to help), blogging when I'm able (with the help of a speech-to-text program) and going to appointments with dad's help. I've not seen one improvement in my physical or mental health. In some cases, things have become worse. Every day is pretty much the same. I am trying to study for a CBT diploma, from home, but I haven't completed nearly enough; due to a whole host of symptoms (including brainfog).
Last night, I found out that the government are currently picking claimants of ESA, JSA, Income Support, Pension Credit or Housing Benefit, at random and are visiting them (without notice in most cases) to check they are receiving the correct amount of benefit. They will ask for ID and to look at bank statements. They cannot force themselves into your home, but your benefits could be affected if you disagree to this visit. See these links for more information: https://www.gov.uk/dwp-visit http://www.nhs.uk/CarersDirect/moneyandlegal/otherbenefits/Pages/benefits-agency-visitor.aspx
This knowledge sent my anxiety through the roof. I thought I was about to have a panic attack, and have been feeling very ill since. I have nothing to hide. I have declared everything to DWP (including the holiday, might I add), yet people like me are still treated with suspicion. I worry about the effect this, out-of-the-blue visit, will have on those with serious mental illnesses. How about those whose illnesses (physical and/or mental) could be seriously compromised by the stress of these visits?
I'm sure you have heard of the effects of the infamous Work Capability Assessments, people being (wrongly) found fit for work, unfair sanctions and the huge delays for being assessed. These things have led to deaths by either suicide or pressure causing peoples' illnesses to progress severely. What civilised society would allow this to carry on, all in the name of making sure that the miniscule percentage claiming fraudulently are found out? Is it worth it?
I recently subscribed to Benefits and Work and received their latest newsletter on 30th July. They made a Freedom of Information request, regarding these DWP visits, and have received the following information:
"As a result of that request we can now reveal that, in reality, the vast majority of people who get a visit do not get a letter in advance – surprise visits are the rule, not the exception. There’s more on this below.
However, we can also reassure our readers that:
- you don’t have to let them in; and
- you can insist on being given proper notice;
- you can insist on having the interview at a DWP office instead of in your home.
And doing so won’t affect your benefits, though refusing to take part in an interview at all may leave you open to a fraud investigation."
"There are also certain classes of claimant who should never receive an unannounced visit, including:
- “customers suffering from depression or a medically defined mental illness
- customers with an alcohol or drug-related dependency
- disabled customers where there is evidence from the preview information that they may be distressed if an MRO calls unannounced."
However, where the visiting officer suspects, on the basis of your files, that you may be committing fraud they can still carry out an un-notified visit even if you are in one of the categories above.
And it’s important to be aware that one of the things visiting officers will do is look out for any difference between the details given in your work capability assessment medical report and your behaviour at home. The rather bizarre example given is that of a claimant who is up a ladder washing windows when visited, but their incapacity is listed as vertigo.
So, if your condition is a variable one and you’re having a better day, make that very clear - even if you aren’t asked."
This may not be brilliant news, but at least we now know what our rights are, and that there are exemptions (whether the DWP practise what they preach, however, is another story).
- A newsletter, from Benefits and Work, sent to me on 30/07/2014, Entitled "An Unexpected Knock At The Door Is The DWP Rule, Not The Exception"
- Click here for the online version of the letter.