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How the U.K. Benefits System Is Harming Those It Should Be Helping

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In the U.K. we have a benefits system which splits those who are not working into two groups: those who are expected to be looking for work (fit and healthy and capable of work) who get a Job Seekers Allowance, and those not expected to be looking for work who receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

ESA is then split into three groups. The first is ESA for short term sick, which is the equivalent of JSA without the requirement to search for work while signed off sick by a doctor. Second is those expected to be too ill or disabled to work for the foreseeable future, but who may get better and able to work at some point, who are put in the “work related activity group” (WRAG). They are not expected to look for work, but must take part in courses or appointments designed to help them get back to work. Lastly, those in the support group are not expected to be able to work in the foreseeable future. They only need to be reassessed occasionally.

The WRAG and support groups also get additional “premiums” added to their basic benefit when they are deemed to qualify. ESA is usually contribution based (taking from taxes paid) for up to 12 months, when it becomes income based, meaning it is only available to those with no or little other means of supporting themselves.

I am what I believe to be a pretty “normal” person with a pretty “normal” upbringing. I was always taught you should work for what you want. I also have depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder, which have together caused me to be unable to work for the past three years. Until then I had worked all of my life and never claimed benefits once.

That is when I had the shock of my life. As a first time claimant in my mid-30s, a lot of people will have already found their life partners, but not me. I met mine two years ago, and even though I know he is “the one,” I can’t progress the relationship any further. We just can’t afford it.

As a single, disabled person I am entitled to certain help from the U.K. government to allow me to continue to live while I’m unable to work. I want to work so much, but my mental health prevents me from doing so. The main benefit I claim, and which gives me other benefits related to it, is employment and support allowance (ESA). This gives me money with which to pay bills, buy food and essentially to exist. Contrary to popular belief, those of us “on the dole” are not rich; we can’t afford to be saving up, going on holidays or buying brand new 70″ TVs. We barely get by most of the time.

We also appear to only deserve our own financial freedom or independence whilst we are single. As soon as we fall in love, if that person moves in with us, all of a sudden every single penny we were entitled to stops. We still get our NI stamps paid for our pension. If we qualify, we also can continue to receive our Personal Independence Payment, paid to those with additional mobility or care needs, to cover the costs of those additional needs. It’s not means-tested. Everything else stops.

All of a sudden your partner is totally and 100 percent responsible for both of your financial needs. Unless your partner is lucky enough to have a job paying well enough to be able to support two people with all food, bills, rent, medication (free prescriptions are only for those on income-based ESA), dental, travel etc. included. That would be a struggle, as any couple who both earn national minimum wage will tell you.

Let me fill you in a bit about my past. I became too unwell to work while in an emotionally controlling relationship. He was unable to work himself and became so dependent on me that my mental health suffered. Since he was already on benefits, I had to be added to his claim, after six months of him refusing to even allow me to claim anything.

Here is where the financial control really began. All of our money was paid into his one account. I had no access to any of our money. He went out every day to see friends at the pub, have a few beers etc. while I sat indoors with no money to go out myself or even buy clothes. I would have to ask him for money to do the food shopping. I was totally under his control. That is domestic abuse.

I was put in that position purely because of the way the benefits system works. Giving one person control of the finances takes away the other person’s power in the relationship. A relationship which should be an equal partnership becomes totally one-sided. If you are lucky and have found someone loving and caring, that may be OK, but how do you know until it happens to you? And how do you escape when all the money is controlled by the abuser?

Herein lies my point. As a survivor of domestic abuse in the form of emotional and financial control, and as someone who was affected by that abuse so badly that even three years later I still can’t bring myself to work again, how can I be expected to allow someone else to be in control of my money again? Should I give up my independence again so I can be with the love of my life? Should I have to?

I have no doubt in my mind that my current boyfriend would be completely different from past experiences. I know he would never hurt me, but I can’t afford to take the risk. Not until I can work again. So, do I stay single and childless, or do I force myself back into work before I’m ready so I can be happy in another area of my life? That prospect terrifies me to the core.

This is the turmoil too many disabled and long-term sick people face all the time due to a benefit system which was designed by people who do not have to use it. I have long advocated that any MP tasked with making policies for benefits should have to live on them. It’s all very well professing to empathize and fight for the disabled, or the minorities, or LGBT or any other overlooked section of the U.K. community, but actions speak louder than words, and quite often the support offered by the upper echelons of parliament is just words. Hyperbole which amounts to nothing.

We need action now, with the discussions about disabled people having to prove their disability beyond confirmation from medical specialists, to terminal patients being expected to attend work capability assessments if they have more than six months to live, to the basic human right to love and be loved being removed due to the financial restriction put upon those who cannot work through no fault of their own. These discussions need to be followed up with positive actions and outcomes.

We are human, and we deserve to be treated as such instead of being made to feel like the sponges of society, deserving of no more than the minimal amount of dignity and means to survive.

Getty image by Splendens.

Originally published: August 5, 2019
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