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An independent social affairs magazine

Supported by Advice NI

issue 48, 2018


VIEW, Issue 48, 2018

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Giving a voice to the victims of austerity t the age of 15 or 16 I wrote my first ever letter to a newspaper in Belfast. To my surprise it was published. In the letter I criticised those who referred to people who were unemployed as ‘scroungers’. I am 61 years of age now and the same abusive language is still being used. The politics of austerity has not only left a trail of human destruction in its wake, but it has often labelled those who have borne the brunt of welfare cuts as ‘wasters’ and ‘cheats’. This issue of VIEW, ‘Stories From The Frontline’, is our attempt to reset the narrative and tell the story from the victims’ perspective, After the global crash in 2008 a series of austerity measures were unleashed in the United Kingdom – firstly by the Labour Party, followed by more brutal measures which were implemented by the Conservative government. The ‘tighten your belt’ language was specifically aimed at the working class – who were not responsible for the economic crash. Northern Ireland, until the signing of the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015, had escaped the worst effects of ‘welfare reform’. The Agreement bound the main parties to implementing welfare reform in Northern Ireland on a similar basis to the rest of the UK.


By Brian Pelan VIEW editor Email: Both the two biggest parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, signed the Agreement but managed to have a mitigations package built in to offset some of the losses which would be incurred by those who were claiming benefits. These measures have not been enough to stem the growing numbers of those suffering from the effects of the cuts. Food banks are on the increase. The mitigations package runs out in March 2020. There appears to be no plan B. As we have no Assembly, I wrote to the Department for Communities. In my email, I asked that I wanted to interview the Permanent Secretary Leo O’Reilly.

I wanted to ask Mr O’Reilly about the Department’s views on what happens when the mitigation package expires. I received the following reply from the Department for Communities. “Thank you for your email. Given the wide-ranging nature of the areas you would want to cover, it would not be appropriate for the Permanent Secretary or any civil servant to be interviewed...” We have seen a rise in hardship, especially from those who have moved from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP). This is evidenced by the amount of PIP personal stories in this issue. The situation will only get worse with the introduction of Universal Credit and the end of mitigation in 2020. Do we want to continue a race to the bottom or do we want to support those whose safety net is being shredded daily? • I want to pay particular thanks to guest editor Mary McManus, manager of the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre and Advice NI, who supported the production of this issue. I would also like to thank all those who told their personal stories of hardship and pain to VIEW.

Go to WWW.VIEWDIGITAL.ORG to read more stories about the impact of austerity

Become a VIEWdigital champion Contact Una Murphy at if you enjoy our work and want to know more about becoming a VIEWdigital champion Contact VIEW editor Brian Pelan at if you have any complaints about this issue. Contact VIEW deputy editor Kathryn Johnson at Contact VIEW publisher Una Murphy at

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VIEW, Issue 48, 2018


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VIEW, an independent social affairs magazine in Northern Ireland

Guest editor Mary McManus, manager, East Belfast Independent Advice Centre y career in advice services began as a volunteer in 1997. Not much changed in the initial years but since the economic crash in 2008 and the subsequent austerity policy, the number of people requiring advice began to grow and people’s circumstances began to deteriorate. We made our first referrals for help with food to a church in 2008. There are now at least three dedicated food banks in east Belfast. Food Banks were not always here, they are a new phenomenon. There has been cut after cut to social security, which means that benefits do not provide people with a minimum essential level of income to survive. A recent report on poverty in east Belfast by the Northern Ireland Assembly Research Team found that for a single person, social security income is 36 percent of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard (MIS). A lone parent with one child receives 50 percent of the MIS and a couple with two children receives 59 percent. People can also have their benefit stopped overnight due to failing an assessment, being sanctioned or simply not paid due to an administrative error. The result is people presenting in advice centres in a desperate state needing immediate help to restore an income and referrals to food banks and St Vincent de Paul for charitable assistance with food and fuel. We see people who have been disallowed benefits such as Employment Support Allowance and due to this their Housing Benefit has stopped. Without intervention from us they would have no income and could be made homeless. ESA and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) replaced Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance. People with severe and enduring mental illness rarely if ever had to seek help and advice from us with those benefits. Nor did so many severely disabled people with chronic or permanent conditions such as cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease.



One day, a woman came to us who had applied for a benefit but due to an administrative error, she had not received any money. Months had gone by; she did not have enough money for food or to buy school trousers for her son

Now not only do we regularly help these groups of people with forms, we also may have to help them to appeal a disallowance. In one case, we had to call an ambulance for a person due to a seizure. They were turned down for PIP despite having a seizure at the assessment. People in need of social security are stuck in a never-ending cycle of assessments that can traumatise and impoverish them. The only winners are ATOS and Capita with their lucrative assessment contracts Despite the overwhelming weight of evidence in the public domain regarding the terrible human impact of social security cuts the Government carries on regardless without any major overhaul. They even ignore their own committees and the experts they appoint to carry out reviews. The National Audit Office has said that Universal Credit could cost more to administer than the old system, but still they press on. Who is counting the displaced costs of these cuts such as the cost to the health and social services budget? Advice centres are windows into communities showing how these cuts are affecting people. It is very difficult to witness how the policy seems to punish people on a low income, children, the chronically sick and disabled. One day, a woman came to us who had applied for a benefit but due to an administrative error, she had not received any money. Months had gone by; she did not have enough money for food or to buy school trousers for her son. Fortunately, in this case, the Department for Communities admitted their error and fast tracked a payment to her that day. Our adviser’s T-shirt was wet from the woman’s tears of relief. I am delighted that VIEWdigital has chosen to shine a light on the impact of cuts to Social Security in this edition of the magazine. Social Security is there to provide a safety net for when we need it and any of us can at any time. We need to ensure that it is adequate and treats people with dignity.

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EBIAC advice workers Peter, left, and Gerard

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To not be able to even feed your own children is a terrible weight to carry People are visiting the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre in growing numbers as cases of hardship are on the increase. VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to two of its advice workers, Gerard and Peter, about what they are witnessing on the ground n a daily basis the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre (EBIAC) on Templemore Avenue deals with the stark reality of austerity and cuts in people’s welfare benefits. The staff inside the building are the unsung heroes who, somewhat similar to a surgeon, try to stem the hardship inflicted on working class citizens who attend the drop-in clinics in growing numbers. Deputy manager Gerard Morgan, who has worked at EBIAC since 2004, said they have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of people using the advice service. “We would have up to 35 people a day using our drop-in service,” said Gerard. “We’re working in an impoverished area. A lot of the work we do is benefit related. Benefits by their very nature are the lowest amount of money that the Government says that you need to live on. Whenever there are benefit cuts, sanctions or freezes and inflation rises, it effectively means that you are impoverishing people even further from what you said they have to live on. “We have also seen a massive rise in the number of food bank referrals. We used to never have any food bank referrals. We have everyone coming in – from young mums to pensioners. “I remember a pensioner calling in. He found it very difficult to ask for help but he had no other option. He didn’t smoke, drink or gamble. He said that he had noticed his money going less and less further. He was a proud man but became quite tearful as he told me his story. He was literally broken at the fact that he had to ask for food. This is an example of a person who just doesn’t have enough to live on.


“It’s nearly shameful to say that it has now become a part of our service. We’re living in a society where some people just can’t feed themselves. I have children myself. To not be able to feed your own children is a terrible weight to carry.” Gerard was keen to point out that EBIAC offers a range of services. “Our service has a holistic approach to advice. We look at the impact on people’s lives.We look at their finances to check that they have everything they are entitled to. A lot of the time we’re referring people to counselling. We have witnessed a big increase in this area. “The minute we get some one through the door we will have an overall look at the issues affecting them and see if we can help them or refer them to another service.” I asked Gerard was it difficult to leave the daily stress – caused by helping vulnerable people – behind when he went home. “I think it’s impossible not to take some of those feelings with you when you go home.You would have to be a very cold fish indeed not to be affected. “I have always wanted to fight for the underdog. Because of what I’m dealing with I really value what I have. I value going home and I value my children. I value the opportunity to sit with my wife in the garden and have a glass of wine.” It was enlightening to chat to Gerard. He’s someone you would want in your corner when you are fighting bureaucratic decisions. I also took the opportunity when I was at EBIAC to talk to Peter, who works as a tribunal representative. He represents people who are appealing against benefit decisions. “I look through the appeal papers to

see what evidence the Department for Communities has for turning someone down. We will try to find evidence that counteracts what the department is saying. “Ninety percent of the people we’re dealing with in connection with the move from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) have mental health issues. “The whole decision-making process has been outsourced to Capita. It annoys me that public money is being paid into the private sector. “Tribunals are held in Cleaver House, opposite Belfast City Hall. “One of the tribunals I attended had to be adjourned as the person I was representing was sobbing so much they couldn’t answer any questions.” Peter also revealed to me an incredible statistic in terms of the amount of cases they are handling. “We’re winning around 75 percent of these tribunal cases,” said Peter. “Some people just give up, though, before their case gets to the tribunal stage. The whole process if you are appealing can take six to eight months, and sometimes even longer.” Peter recalled a case where a woman got a decision against her overturned. “I said to her: ‘I’m really glad you won the case’. She said: ‘I’m happy for you too’. “I was glad she said that to me. It’s not just a case of professional satisfaction. It’s also personal satisfaction as I really felt for the situation she had found herself in.” • Contact EBIAC at 55 Templemore Avenue, Belfast, BT5 4FP. Telephone: 028 9073 5690 Email:

Advice NI: Sponsored page

COMMENT We’re rapidly hurtling towards a cliff edge Bob Stronge, chief executive of Advice NI, warns that the clock is ticking on Northern Ireland’s welfare reform mitigations package, which ceases from March 2020 t is easy to forget that not so long ago the issue of welfare reform and concerns about how it would impact on the most vulnerable people almost brought the Northern Ireland Assembly to the brink. In 2015 a consensus was reached that whilst welfare reform would be implemented, the most savage cuts to household incomes would be mitigated by implementing recommendations of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group chaired by Professor Eileen Evason. Using the latest published figures we can now see more clearly the effectiveness of the ‘Evason’ mitigations and the extent of the help provided to vulnerable, low income households, including:


• Bedroom Tax (low income social tenants) from February 2017-March 2017: A total of 34,010 claimants were impacted by the change in 2016/17, receiving a total of £2,380,850, which equates to an average of £70 per claimant. • Benefit Cap (lone parents or couples with children) from May 2016-March 2017): A total of 2,020 claimants received Welfare Supplementary Payments because they were impacted by the Benefit Cap. The total amount paid to these claimants was £1,754,710. This equates to an average of £870 per claimant. • Discretionary Support Scheme (replaced community care grants & crisis loans) from November 2016-March 2017: A total of 19,900 claimants received a total of £4,144,870 which equates to an average award of £210. • Additional Independent Advice Services (from November 2016-March 2017): A total of 15,706 welfare reform enquiries on issues including Personal Independence Payments, Employment & Support Allowance and Welfare Supplementary Payments. Undoubtedly the figures for the complete year 2017/18, which will be published later this year, will provide an even clearer picture of the reliance on the mitigations package by families across NI.


Overshadowing all of this are the risks posed by our democratic deficit with no Minister and no scrutiny committee

We are now rapidly hurtling towards a welfare reform cliff edge in March 2020 and there is very little time to start thinking about which parts of the package should be retained. Whilst some aspects of the mitigations package will no longer be required beyond March 2020, there are of course a number of existing mitigations which most definitely do need to continue in recognition of the volume of need and special circumstances in Northern Ireland. Consider the uproar when it was revealed that the number of homes in Northern Ireland hit by the ‘bedroom tax’ had more than trebled in six months – to 86 housing benefit claimants. Unquestionably we must secure the continued mitigation of the ‘bedroom tax’ due to the non-existence of suitable alternative accommodation and we need the continuation of the now embedded independent advice services set up to help people through the welfare changes, including the rollout of Universal Credit. Furthermore we need to think about how we can help those affected by cuts made after the ‘Evason’ report was produced: most notably those affected by the implementation of the two child policy, the further cuts to Employment & Support Allowance and the severe limitation in support for widowed parents. And overshadowing all of this are the risks posed by our democratic deficit with no Minister and no scrutiny committee to monitor the impact of welfare reform; the fact that people living in our poorest areas are already more likely to die prematurely than in any other area of the UK; the precarious position of Northern Ireland in terms of the impact of Brexit; and the looming prospect of recession with latest economic figures indicating worrying levels of economic contraction across the private sector, the public sector, production and construction. The clock is ticking on the expiry of the mitigations package and the savage cuts this will unleash on thousands of unsuspecting low income households. This must focus minds on securing the necessary agreement and resources.

Advice NI: Sponsored page

Independent Welfare Changes Helpline WELFARE REFORM ADVICE

Freephone 0808 802 0020 Monday to Friday 9am-5pm or email: HMRC Tax and Benefits Advice


Freephone 0800 988 2377 Monday to Friday 9am-5pm or email: Business Debtline



Freephone 0800 083 8018 Monday to Friday 9am-5pm or email: Historical Institutional Abuse advice and support Call 028 9064 5919 and ask for a HIA advisor Monday to Friday 9am-5pm or email: Advice NI is the leading provider of nationally accredited Advice and Guidance, Legal Advice and Independent Advocacy Qualifications in Northern Ireland. For a list of courses, please visit our website or email:

Advice NI, 1 Rushfield Avenue, Belfast, BT7 3FP Tel: 028 9064 5919, @AdviceNI NI Charity No. NIC100008 Company Registration No. NI071966

Advice NI: Sponsored page Advice NI proposals on Universal Credit (UC): How to make it better dvice NI believes that now is the time for a fundamental review of the purpose of Universal Credit with a view to rebalancing the focus on meeting the needs of claimants as opposed to delivering value for money; focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable as much as it focuses on getting people back to work. This paper assumes faultless performance in terms of technology and UC staff – obviously any problems in either area need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.


Strategic Changes to Universal Credit • Abolish the two child cap Universal Credit will not pay an additional amount for a third or subsequent child. • Abolish the benefit cap The benefit cap is a limit on the total amount of Universal Credit that most people aged 16 to 64 can get.

The freeze refers to most elements of Universal Credit being frozen for four years from 2016. • Reverse remaining Budget 2015 cuts to Universal Credit

Abolish the bedroom tax/social sector size criteria The bedroom tax is the amount Universal Credit housing element is reduced if someone in social housing has spare bedroom(s).

• Reduction in the Universal Credit work allowances • The removal of the family element in Universal Credit for new claims • Universal Credit parent conditionality from when the youngest child turns age three (previously from when turns age five).

• Abolish the uprating freeze

• Run the first Universal Credit

assessment period over the last month of legacy benefits (in terms of managed migration) ensuring people land immediately on to fortnightly UC payments with no delay, no hardship. • Revert back to using implied consent where independent advice sector advisers are acting on behalf of, or making enquiries for, the claimant. • Simplify and improve ‘passporting’ arrangements where entitlement to Universal Credit triggers assistance with another service, for example Free School Meals.

Operational Changes to Universal Credit Making a claim • Protect claimants so that their ‘date of claim’ is their first day of entitlement, avoiding ‘self-disconnection’ for example if struggling with the online process. • Clarify and publish the criteria and guidance as to when a Universal Credit application will/will not be taken by telephon. • Put in place follow-up mechanisms (including sign-posting for independent advice) to address the issue of one in five claimants ‘dropping out’ of the claim process, apparently due to the complexity of the process. • Address the problems associated with the online identity verification system (Verify) or terminate the requirement to use Verif.y Claimant Commitment • A guidance document should be made available setting out how the claimant

commitment can be tailored to take into account individual circumstances, without jeopardising entitlement to UC.

• Protect digitally excluded claimants by giving the choice to receive decisions by post as well as uploading to the journal.

• There should be a particular section of the claimant commitment which focuses on potential vulnerabilities for example disabilities and health problems (regardless of ‘limited capability for work’ status); / childcare responsibilities / needs of older claimants / English not first language.

• Provide clarification on the process for requesting a mandatory reconsideration.

• Put in place a rigorous process for enabling a claimant to challenge aspects of their claimant commitment without jeopardising their entitlement. • Allow short scheduled breaks from the claimant commitment for example for holidays (mirroring the world of work). Determinations/Decisions/ Challenging Decisions • Ensure that all Universal Credit determinations / decisions on a case (award, disallowance, case closure, mandatory reconsideration) are communicated to claimants in writing.

• Stop the practice of closing the journal when a case is closed as this in turn prevents the claimant from triggering a mandatory reconsideration of the decision to close the case. Payments/Payment History • It is critical that payments are made faster and in full for all Universal Credit claimants: four weeks + one day. • Claimants need access to a payment calender so that they can see exactly when their payment (whether fortnightly or monthly) is due to arrive. • Provide the choice to nominate two accounts should a couple choose to avail of split payments. • Introduce more scope for backdating an award – in particular where the claimant struggled with the

Advice NI: Sponsored page digital platform. Sanctions • Introduce Universal Credit ‘red flags’ for vulnerable people at greater risk of sanctions (for example young people leaving care) so that safeguarding arrangements can be put in place. • Introduce a ‘Yellow Card’ warning system for a claimant at risk of a first sanction. • Introduce a single Assessment Period deduction (set at 25% of the standard allowance) for all claimants following exhaustion of the ‘good reason’ process. • There should be a safeguarding visit to any household at risk of a sanction where there are children. • Remove any financial sanction for people in work. •Remove any financial sanction for people with Limited Capability for Work (LCW).

Payments to sit within Universal Credit, so ensuring that these payments can be accessed and processed effectively and efficiently. Employed / Self-Employed • Improve the taper rate to 50% and improve the work allowance to show an absolute commitment to supporting people move into work. Correct the fundamental flaw where two monthly pay packets can be included in a single UC assessment period. • Abolish the Minimum Income Floor anomaly which means that self-employed people whose earnings fluctuate are penalised financially. • Move to a system of annualised reporting for the self-employed in light of both the enormous administrative difficulties in producing real-time accounts and the irregular nature of earnings amongst the self-employed.


for Work & Work Related Activity (£328). • Exclude sick and disabled people from conditionality and sanctions while they are awaiting a Work Capability Assessment. • Exclude disabled students getting DLA/PIP from the Limited Capability for Work requirement. • Enable claimants to dispute Work Capability Assessment determinations immediately. • Increase the temporary absence from the claimant commitment for occasional sickness to 2 x Assessment Periods (currently allow x 2 periods of sickness of up to 14 days at a time). • Protect older people by abandoning plans to make couples claim Universal Credit where one of the couple is aged under retirement age. • Improve access to and the range of support available for vulnerable people to make and maintain their Universal Credit claim.

Children • There must be a protected minimum amount of the Universal Credit award which is protected from deductions. • Repayment schedules must be based on priority debts first; non-priority debts (for example repayment of UC advances, overpayments) when affordable. • Put in place a mechanism for formal consideration by the decision maker of the impact of other third party deductions which also serve to lessen the amount of money available to claimants. • Produce and publish UC-specific guidance on challenging recovery of alleged UC overpayments. Housing • Increase the amount of the housing element (to the 50th percentile) for private rental tenants. • Improve the communications and flow of information between the Department, tenants and housing providers, in particular when claimants first claim Universal Credit. • Include an entry in the journal outlining the date and amount in respect of housing costs paid via ‘Alternative Payment Arrangements’. • Re-organise Discretionary Housing

• Reinstate the higher child element in respect of the eldest child; triggering the higher child element (£277) as opposed to the lower generic child element (£231). • Reinstate the higher disabled child addition (£383) for all children as opposed to the lower disabled child addition (£126). • Introduce flexibilities for families with children (much like previous JSA Regulations in relation to the jobseekers agreement which contained a specific requirement for staff to have regard to its impact on the well-being of any child affected by it). • Introduce an ‘economic reasonableness’ test for families with children for refusing an offer of work (precedent has been set as there was past provision within JSA flexibilities for parents as a model for this). • Provide upfront payment of childcare costs, to help parents move into work and improve children’s chances in life.

• Introduce a ‘clinical judgment’ approach as opposed to a rigid prognosis of six months or less where a claimant is terminally ill; and, introduce a fast-track approach to dealing with these applications. • Safeguarding arrangements should be strengthened within Universal Credit, with clear guidance provided to all stakeholders regarding the safeguarding measures in place and how they operate. Universal Credit staff • Engender a culture and learning & development environment driven by a purpose of helping often vulnerable claimants as opposed to meeting top-down targets. • Put in place specialist training and support for staff dealing with specific client groups, for example the long term unemployed, people in work, self-employed people, EU citizens living in the UK, people with disabilities in particular mental health problems.

Vulnerable People

• Allow a claimant to choose a different work coach, if the claimant-work coach relationship breaks down;

• Reinstate an amount equivalent to the Work Related Activity Group (£126), in addition to the Limited Capability

• Put in place a simple and effective complaints process specifically for Universal Credit.

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Impact: Simon Matchett


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I was becoming a virtual prisoner in my own home Simon Matchett, who has multiple sclerosis, tells Una Murphy about why he had to fight after his mobility car was taken away elfast City Council has backed a charity campaign to change rules which have led to some people with multiple sclerosis losing their mobility cars after assessments carried out by the private company Capita. Councillors heard about the case of Simon Matchett, 38, from Bangor, Co Down, who is among 4,500 people in Northern Ireland with multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition which affects the brain and the spinal chord. Alliance Party councillor Peter McReynolds, who also has MS, said that Simon “had his PIP (Personal Independent Payment) reduced to the standard rate before getting the decision overturned”. He added: “Simon walks, in pain, using a crutch and gets fatigued easily. He lost his mobility car for three months, reducing what he could do and isolating him.” Peter told Belfast City Council that Simon found it difficult to get to the shop for food or out to see friends when his mobility car was taken away. VIEW magazine spoke to Simon about the impact of losing his vehicle. He said: “I became severely depressed. My antidepressants were increased and I was so worried and stressed at the thought of becoming a virtual prisoner in my own home – which in turn did not help my MS. “I wasn’t always up to going out daily but having the car at least gave me the choice should I be feeling up to it. Public transportation was not an option due to the distance of the nearest bus stop. My independence at that time was stripped away from me. I could have perhaps scraped together the money for an old car, but it would have been the insurance, which would have crippled me financially.” He had some advice for anyone with a disability fearing they would lose their


Campaign: Simon Matchett, left, with Alliance Party councillor Peter McReynolds mobility car after a PIP assessment. “Make sure you get your MP on board,” he explained. Despite having letters from medical experts on MS he lost the higher rate of benefit and his mobility car. When his local MP Lady Sylvia Hermon intervened he was awarded more points. There was a further delay until he got another mobility car again. Simon said he was turned down for a home visit to assess his condition and he said of the assessment in Belfast city centre with a nurse: “A lot of it came down to ‘he said, she said’. “I had requested a home assessment but if you request it you don’t get it, you have to demand it,” Simon said. “My mum came in with me after my sister left me off right at the door. I gave my name to the girl in reception and asked where the nearest toilet was. On the way back the assessor met me in the corridor and told me to go to the assessment room behind me.”

Simon described how “nervous and anxious” he had been prior to the 35-minute assessment, which he described as “mentally draining”. He said that his GP was “astonished” when the assessor decided Simon could walk more than 20 metres, which resulted in the loss of his mobility car. “My MP intervened but Capita did not change its mind. My case manager in the Department for Communities gave me more points,” Simon said. “My understanding of the PIP reform was that it was to weed out the so called ‘fakers’, but I feel it has failed immediately on its namesake – Personal Independence Payment. People with genuine conditions, should they be constant or fluctuating, have lost independence, whether this is due to losing money, or more importantly their mode of independent transport. “Many, including myself, rely unequivocally on the car, which we pay our monthly mobility award for, to try and be social and pick up groceries etc, and just generally try and remain a functional member of society, rather than a forgotten shut-in,” he added.

• Peter and Simon are both members of the MS Society Northern Ireland Council which is campaigning for the UK Government to ‘Scrap the 20m rule’. Belfast City Council is the first council in Northern Ireland to back the campaign. More details about the MS Society campaign can be found at: t-involved/campaign-with-us/msenough/scrap-pip-20-metre-rule

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It’s like no one cares, no one wants to listen. I feel depressed and anxious. I am only keeping going for my children Anne, a mother-of-two and a survivor of domestic abuse, tells writer Sarah Bruce how she is struggling to cope with life as a result of her rejection for Employment Support Allowance niversal Credit discriminates against single mothers as well as people living with trauma and mental health debilitations, according to one domestic abuse survivor. Anne, a mother-of-two and survivor of a decade of physical and emotional abuse, told how she is struggling to cope as a result of her rejection for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and subsequent halting of Child Tax Credit payments following the separation from her abuser. Claiming Universal Credit was her only option. “When I found out I just sat and cried,” she said. “There have been days where I have just wanted to go back to bed. I’m struggling to cope.” When asked about her Employment Support Allowance assessment, Anne said: “I felt discriminated against because I appeared physically and visually well.” Anne claimed that the application process “is not fit for purpose” when considering the reality of people’s lives. Research has shown that claimants are reluctant to disclose abuse to assessors for fear of not being believed, fear that the perpetrator may find out and other repercussions. Anne, who did disclose her abuse, said: “Having to answer questions about my


marriage from the coldness of strangers was terrible. The report did not include some of the things I talked about that should have been included. It’s as if a massive impact on my life had been written off.” Anne’s believes that no consideration was given to her debilitating mental barriers to employment – the invisible scars that you cannot see. “It’s like no one cares, no one wants to listen. I feel depressed and anxious. I am only keeping going for my children.” When the Universal Credit application was made, Anne’s Child Tax credits were stopped. There is a at least a five-week waiting period before Universal Credit is paid. This means that the family will have to wait five weeks without any money before her Universal Credit is paid. “Universal Credit means I have to spend 35 hours a week actively seeking work. I have no internet and live rurally.” Anne said that she has no choice but to spend hours each day, with her children in tow, at the jobs and benefits office while attempting to find work that will allow her to look after her children at the same time. She has a limited support network and faces practical barriers to employment regarding child care. A loan has been offered up front to

help Anne during the five-week assessment period but this will have to be paid back at a time when she will need the money most. She may not be back-paid for the weeks she has gone without. Further budgeting concerns follow with a change from weekly payments of Child Tax Credits to bi-weekly payments of Universal Credit. The reality is that welfare support is a lifeline for victims leaving domestic violence. They are feeling the effects of the austerity agenda, which can be seen in the massive increase in reliance on food banks for access to basic essentials. “Toothpaste has become a luxury I cannot afford,” said Anne. “The children are not only asking questions about their dad, but why they can’t do the things and go the places they used to.” What is worrying is that women can be forced to remain in abusive relationships as a result of welfare reform, out of fear of what will happen when changes of circumstances are declared, which can place their lives at risk. Anne understands the hardship she is suffering is not her fault. A survivor of abuse – a victim of austerity. • The person’s real name has been changed to protect her identity.

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Angry: Ross Ruberry

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If having an artificial limb doesn’t mean you’re disabled, then what does? Ross Ruberry tells journalist Kelly McAllister how he went from receiving the highest disability rate payment to getting absolutely nothing at all after he went through the PIP assessment process oss Ruberry was awarded Disability Living Allowance 14 years ago after losing his lower right leg to cancer. When he received a letter earlier this year explaining that the benefit was to be replaced and that he had to reapply, he initially thought it would not be an issue. But, like many others that were forced to do the same, his application was denied. I met with the 26-year-old in a coffee shop in Belfast city centre, close enough to his home in east Belfast. We spoke about his situation and how his life has been impacted by this decision. Although Ross remained calm throughout the interview, his disappointment was clear when he talked about how he had been feeling since he received the news. “It’s been extremely difficult and extremely stressful. It’s hard to describe to you how I felt receiving that letter, I really couldn’t put it into words,” he said. “It just made me feel really angry and at a total loss of what I was going to do. “I went from receiving the highest rate you can get as well as middle care rate, to absolutely nothing at all.” The decision was based on how Ross answered questions when reapplying and how he was perceived during a face-to-face assessment. “I had to fill out an application form


first and some of the questions on it didn’t really relate to me. “They judged me on communication – that’s irrelevant to my situation, managing money and mixing with other people. They don’t affect me so how can you judge me on them,” Ross said. “Even during the assessment, they would make me do things such as put my hands above my head, another one was asking can you stand on one leg,” he added. Ross talked about passing his driving test six years ago and how getting his licence has enabled him to become more independent. Being in receipt of the allowance meant that he could get a car that suited his needs through a mobility scheme. “Passing my driving test changed my life, I can get out and about and don’t have to rely on anybody else. “I can’t drive a normal car because of having an artificial leg – it’s specially adapted for me to drive it. “They gave me a date to give it back and offered me something like £300 or £400 pounds for it and something like £12,000 to buy it off them. “They never told me that when you’re going through an appeal you get to hold on to it.

“The way I see it is that they just want you to give up,” he said. Although Ross is appealing the decision he hasn’t received a date for it. He worries about losing his car as it would have a huge impact on his life. “It is a big concern. “Whenever I first got the letter I had to take two days off work because I was so stressed out about it. Having no car would make things like shopping nearly impossible to do, and what if I need to go to Musgrave Park Hospital to get adjustments done? That’s another burden.” Ross said that the criteria the decision is based on is the same for everyone applying for the new Personal Independence Payment. “They need to look at it again and base criteria on people with a physical disability, then base criteria on people with a mental health disability. Don’t judge people on both unless they have both.” As the conversation comes to an end Ross turns to me and says something that caused a lump in my throat. “If having an artificial limb doesn’t mean you’re disabled, then what does? “I was in receipt of DLA indefinitely because my circumstances won’t ever change. I would love them to, but they never will.”

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Stress: Lee Jepson

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I’m struggling to get by Lee Jepson, who was left with a brain injury after being involved in a car crash, tells writer Michele Beck, how he is finding it difficult to cope after his welfare payments were reduced ee Jepson (44) was born and lives in Doncaster, he had a car crash in 1993, which left him in a coma for weeks and even more devastating, a lasting brain injury. “I was in a coma for six weeks and when I woke up I couldn’t talk properly, I saw the wheelchair by the side of my bed and realised I’d have to walk before I could talk, so that’s what I did.” Prior to the accident Lee had worked in door to door sales as a delivery driver and had even trained to be an electrician. After the long recovery process, speech therapy and physiotherapy, he had to start to try to piece his life back together. During the brain injury rehabilitation period some of the symptoms Lee had to endure were post-traumatic amnesia, depression, headaches, fatigue, but the lasting issues he is left with today are communication, behavioural difficulties and severe memory loss. Lee has completely forgotten how to do the daily tasks required for independent living, such as cooking. He can forget what he is doing halfway through a task. This has caused him a lot of stress and anxiety and has often placed him in direct danger. Lee said he can now manage some elements of independent living by himself after years of trial and error. Aided by friends and pro-


fessionals he has started writing step by step instructions for his daily tasks. “I’ve been left with short-term memory loss. I have notice boards on my wall and messages in my notepads so I can do things.” In conjunction with managing these physical and emotional difficulties Lee began the process of applying for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Incapacity Benefit. His depression was debilitating and his memory loss meant he simply could not function completing the tasks required for employment. Trying to prove this was not easy. He eventually won his first appeal for full DLA in 1995 after a long process. With regard to Incapacity Benefit, medical professionals at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) deemed him fit for work. What has subsequently preceded is 25 years of medical assessments – every 18 months to reprove his incapacity to work. Lee has gone through two other medical tribunals since the first and won. Today, he is again waiting to hear if he is eligible for an Employment Support Allowance appeal, which means Lee is now on the Universal Credit (UC) system, which would have been the old Jobseekers Allowance (JSA).

“They said I’d have to go onto JSA while I wait to hear about my appeal, that was ages ago, I haven’t heard anything.” When Lee had won his appeals in the past he was entitled to £188 a week, but with the current abolition of Severe Disability Premium (SDP) and only deemed eligible for half Personal Independence Payment (PIP) a week, he receives just over £100 a week. This significant reduction has left him short financially and he is struggling to manage his financial commitments. UC is paid monthly (fortnightly in NI), and this demands a closer budgetary analysis of his financial outgoings. Lee is not capable of fulfilling this requirement due to the lasting affects of the brain injury. “I’m struggling to get by. They pay me every 28 days, I can’t manage on that. I have asked them to consider me for fortnightly payments which they are doing.” Lee does not know what the future holds for him. His doctor has signed him off from the requirement to look for work as part of the UC rules and the vicious cycle continues. Not only has Lee had to come to terms with losing a part of himself in that accident, he is made to continuingly prove this repeatedly, leaving him in a perpetual cycle of low self-esteem.

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ZER0 points

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It has been a difficult journey with my son. Reading the assessor’s comments would have been a joyous occasion if they were in fact true Journalist Brian Pelan talks to the parents of a 47-year-old man who has complex mental health issues. He recently received zero points in a PIP assessment ore than 13,000 people rejected for disability benefit after scoring “zero points” on their assessment have had the decision overturned, new figures show. Labour MP Chris Matheson, who obtained the figures, said: “The system is broken and is designed to take money from people whose only crime is to be unlucky, to be born with a genetic problem or to suffer an accident that completely changes their life.” He called for private companies Atos and Capita to stop doing the assessments and for the process to be brought back into the hands of civil servants. Personal Independence Payment tests (PIP) award ‘points’ for each task someone can’t do, like dressing, washing or using the toilet. Claimants must score at least eight to be paid the benefit. But 83,000 people were given no points at all between April and October 2016. One such person who was recently awarded zero points is 47-year-old Peter Smith, who lives with his mother Elizabeth and father Joseph in Belfast. Peter, who suffers from chronic anxiety, panic attacks and severe mood swings, was receiving a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for nearly two years before he was asked to attend a PIP assessment. Peter received zero points. Elizabeth, who accompanied Peter, to


the assessment, said: “When we arrived at the Capita centre, a woman came to meet us in the reception area. When we went into the interview room, the assessor said: “I see that Peter is able to walk.” She also said to Peter: “Are you going to answer the questions or will it be your mother answering them? “Peter just replied ‘mum’ and he never spoke again for the rest of the interview. “The interview lasted about 30 minutes. I was asked questions about Peter’s mobility and is he able to cook for himself.” At the end of the interview Peter was asked to stand up and touch his toes. The assessor said that his mobility was OK as he was able to stand on one foot. When we got the results they were the complete opposite of what I had told the Capita assessor. “I had told her that Peter couldn’t cook a meal and that it was unsafe to leave him in the kitchen. In the report it was stated that ‘he could prepare and cook a meal’. The report also said that ‘Peter was quite relaxed, kept eye contact and answered all the questions appropriately’. “But Peter never spoke during the interview. He didn’t answer any questions.” Peter’s dad Joseph said: “It has been a difficult journey with my son and one that has been made more difficult with the lack of understanding and help from others. Reading the assessor’s comments would have been a joyous occasion if they were in

fact true. I couldn’t believe that my son didn’t get a single point.” Elizabeth added: “I was also completely flabbergasted. Everything they wrote was the total opposite of what I had told them. “They said ‘he could walk around the town by himself’. Peter goes into town sometimes, but he is in a group that is organised by the charity Action Mental Health. A counsellor accompanies them at all times. Apart from that, he rarely goes out. “Peter’s reaction to the decision has been a mixture of fear and anger.” Elizabeth and Joseph are a lovely couple and they obviously have deep affection for their son. But life has been hard for the couple, who are now in their 70s. They didn’t expect to be still looking after their son at their time of life. They are appealing the decision by Capita. A stressful time lies ahead for them and their son. Peter’s story is just one more addition to the growing list of people who are suffering because of these assessments.

• Some details, including the real names of the people in this article, have been changed to protect their identity.

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Hard times: Claire Hackett

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There are a lot of people like me, the working poor . . . Qualified solicitor Claire Hackett tells Una Murphy that she and her family economically struggle from month to month he route out of poverty used to be getting educated and finding a ‘good’ job, but for qualified solicitor Claire Hackett (35) from Dungannon, Co Tyrone, that is not the case. She is the mother of three children, aged 18 months, five and seven years, and her husband works in the civil service. Claire told VIEW that the family struggle from month to month. “There are lot of people like me, the working poor.” Austerity is hitting ‘middle class’ families like Claire’s who are university educated. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” she said. “We did everything right – studied hard, went to university, bought our own house but we are still stuck.” Claire said she and her family have been hit by austerity. She budgets by using a prepaid debit card or cash and avoids going into shops in case she overspends, instead she shops for groceries online. “My husband earns over the limit to get any assistance,” she said. “Once you slip (financially) it is very hard to get back up. Looking back we thought times were hard but they were not as hard as now.” “A bill might come in that you weren’t expecting like the car and you


can’t get back up.” Food shopping and money spent on fuel as well as around a third of the monthly income to pay for housing costs are the major expenses in the household, she said. “Childcare is a big thing for us,” Claire added. She has been accepted for training to become a midwife and her mother is giving up her part-time job to mind the children. “People are trying to get their finances back in order and rebuild their credit but there are punitive interest charges.” Claire said: “You can go and say you are struggling and the credit union is good but the bank is not so helpful.” Dr Lisa Wilson, an economist with the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), set up by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said professional people who are university educated “don’t look like people who shouldn’t be able to pay their way”. “Austerity is not just a working class issue; it’s now across all sectors of the population. “One in five people working in education, traditionally a middle class occupation, are now on temporary work contracts.

“Young people with a good education and in employment are hit because their income is not enough to get a decent home. “Eighteen to 34 year olds are spending half their income on rent and it is a particular problem if they live in the private rented sector. “Housing costs and low pay – something has to give,” she added. Last year the TUC (Trades Union Congress) highlighted a sharp rise in household debt and warned that unsecured debt income – which is debt other than mortgages – as a share of household income was now more than 27 percent. Commenting on the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) labour market statistics for July 2018, Geoff Tily, TUC senior economist, said that: “The relentless weakness in pay growth mirrors the underlying weakness in the economy following the financial crisis and the imposition of austerity. “Policymakers need to enable the economy to expand, not force it to contract. They should act decisively to put up pay, increase spending on public services and boost investment,” he said.

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Two child limit ‘is pushing families into poverty’ Alison Thewliss, MP for Glasgow Central, describes policy, which has a rape clause element, as ‘wicked’ and vows to do all in her power to oppose it t shouldn’t be a radical statement that society should look after its children, and that each child should be valued. What the UK Government has begun, with the two child limit on Child Tax Credits and Universal Credit, is an undermining of that principle. It breaks the notion that we should allocate resources on the basis of need. From April 6, 2017, there would be no entitlement for a third or subsequent child born on or after that date. From next year, that will apply for all new claims, not just new births. There is a specific issue for Northern Ireland, as family size is statistically larger than other parts of the United Kingdom. The clear result of this two child limit will be to push families into poverty. Figures just released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on the first year impact of the policy show that 73,530 families across the UK (2,380 in Northern Ireland) have been affected in the first year alone. Each of those families will have lost out by up to £2,780 per year. That’s a lot to make up in a family budget through extra hours in a low-paid job – contrary to what the Tories would have you believe, most of those families are in work. There are a few exemptions to the two child limit – thus far, 2,900 families are claiming under them. These are problematic and riddled with inconsistencies. For example the exemption for multiple births is supposed


Alison Thewliss: ‘Society should look after its children’

to offer support, but only does so if twins follow a single birth. By UK Government logic, if you had twins first, any subsequent children are your choice, but if you have twins after a single birth that couldn’t have been predicted. That there are three children in both situations all needing fed at the end of the day doesn’t seem to occur to them. An exemption also exists around adopting family groups and for kinship carers. The UK Government were dragged through the courts before they would accept that it was unfair that people caring for their younger siblings would lose out on entitlement should they have children of their own. The most pernicious and problematic exemption is the “non-consensual sex exemption” – the rape clause. This allows a woman to claim for a third child if that child was conceived as a result of rape or in circumstances of coercive control. A woman must fill out a form, write her child’s name on that form, confirm she is not living with the father of the child, and have all of this confirmed by a third party, such as a social worker, nurse or doctor. Women’s organisations have called this out as retraumatising vulnerable women, of putting them at risk if they are forced to leave an abusive relationship. For women in Northern Ireland, filling in this form is even more difficult due to the implications of the Criminal Law Act

1967. This could lead to both the woman and the third party verifier being prosecuted if they don’t report the crime of rape to the police. The Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers, Northern Ireland Women’s Aid and a host of others all raised concerns prior to the implementation of the policy to no avail. Shockingly, it took until May this year – over 13 months since the policy came into operation – for the Attorney General to issue guidance on this and confirming that women and organisations would have a “reasonable excuse” for not reporting the rape to the police. The chilling impact of this is clear – of the 190 women claiming under the rape clause in the first year of the policy, the DWP records show that none of them were in Northern Ireland. The two child policy is cruel; it passes judgment on people’s lives and on they children they have. None of us can fully predict what will happen in life – it takes only for you or a partner to leave, take ill, die, or for our working situation to change to mean that we might need to turn to the social security system for support. What the Tories have done is to cut huge holes in the safety net, which will plunge families into poverty rather than help them through hard times. It is wicked – and I will continue do all in my power to oppose it. I hope you will join me.

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‘We have watched with dismay as hard fought for rights have been eroded or simply swept aside’ Sean Fitzsimons, Employment Advocacy Officer with Disability Action, takes aim at austerity policies in the United Kingdom and the devastating impact they have had on the lives of thousands of people with disabilities ’m proud to be a malcontent of austerity. In tackling the politics of austerity, it is critical we frame the conversation not only in terms of fiscal policy, but of the very real human cost. Austerity has been pursued relentlessly for close to a decade now and it has many faces; including political heavyweights, neo-liberal think tanks and the less visible back office Government policy teams. It’s real face, however, sits beyond spreadsheets and financial modelling. Austerity has and continues to change utterly the lives of so many sections of our society. Lower income families, lone parents, self-employed and disabled people being just some of the worst affected. It would be impossible for me in this short piece to speak authoritatively on the conscious cruelty that is being meted out to so many groups under the guise of “balancing the books”. One area I am most familiar with is the outworkings of austerity on disabled people. In August 2017, Theresia Degener, then chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, stated that in respect of UK austerity, “social cut policies have led to a human catastrophe in your country, totally neglecting the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in”. To many disabled people and our allies working alongside us, these comments backed by such considerable expertise and investigative rigour were very welcome but ultimately unsurprising. We have watched with dismay as hard fought for rights have been eroded or


simply swept aside – the closure of the Independent Living Fund, DLA to PIP, legal aid cuts, attacks on social care budgets. In the last decade, sections of the media and political establishment have engaged in an unrelenting, toxic narrative in relation to disabled people. We are painted as ‘scroungers’, ‘fakers’, ‘cheats’, ‘spongers’ and are, without fail, brought up regardless of forum, as a ‘burden’. The ease with which these conversations arise and take place in workplaces, shops, bars and school playgrounds is indicative of the degree to which so many of us have unwittingly been affected by media and political machines. By these indicators alone – it is not hard to see how these policies designed and rolled out (in near total absence of input from disabled people themselves) could be allowed to inflict such unflinching cruelty on our community. What has happened to enable policy that has such a devastating impact on disabled people? Has policy shaped media and societal rhetoric in respect of disability? Has the policy been written and rolled out to feed a desire to blame, single out and create easy scapegoats? There has now been a noticeable political shift, with virtual cross-party condemnation of ongoing failings, particularly in respect of PIP. However, we also need to look at the whole picture – disabled people are not just passive benefits recipients, here in NI we have the worst chances of securing, retaining and progressing in employment anywhere in the UK. Why? As a disabled person, working in the

field of disability rights, it is my hope that we have finally seen a societal awakening and a tipping point reached in respect of systemic abuses and ongoing rights denial. I have watched with admiration the recent resurgence, rise and successes of feminism and LGB&/T movements. It is critically important that disability rights are understood to be inalienable human rights, and that we do not stand alone, but rather shoulder to shoulder with our allies. In the weeks, months and years ahead, a number of key challenges lie before us all. We need to create space for disabled people at all tables, we need to pursue cultural transformation – espousing the inherent rights, dignity and respect all disabled people are entitled to. We need to ensure adequate representation in Government and political spheres. In striving for a change in societal values – we will by default achieve policy change, a halt to rights retrogression and stronger legal protections for the future. Austerity has many malcontents – disabled people have and will continue to reject any painting of us as ‘victims’. I am confident that disabled people will rise from this period stronger. Our voice has been absent and continues to be, we remain isolated, marginalised and othered – we are however unbroken. Pass the mic and join us – the austerity agenda has highlighted to many the need for immediate action – disabled people will be treated with dignity and respect. We will have full realisation of our rights. I look forward to working with everyone to achieve this.

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How many fingers am I holding up? Joe Kenny, who lost his sight at the age of five, is not amused by the ‘ridiculous test’ that people with disabilities go through as part of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment “So, if you’re really blind, how many fingers am I holding up?” An echo of a question that rings in my ears from when I was a child. Kids would lead off with this question to test whether I was telling the truth about being blind. Sometimes it was just innocent inquisitive childs’ play and sometimes it wasn’t. Why am I recalling this echo from my past? Well, it strikes me that, parts of the assessment for Personal Independence Payment, more commonly known as PIP, which has been replacing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) since 2016, is asking us the claimants, just that. Applicants are asked to perform a ridiculous test by the assessor and how you do is then used in the assessment of eligibility for the benefit. Now in of and of itself, being asked to prove your disability in order to get ‘free money’? I’ve heard some say that’s hardly unreasonable. But allow me to drop a context boom here. So your assessment date has finally arrived after jumping the first hurdle of filling out the forms, which I might add, only come in print and therefore are not accessible to me or any other blind person who only happen to be the subject of this application process. You’ve had to find someone to assist you as you can’t fill out the forms. This isn’t as easy as it sounds as sight loss charities have decided not to do that anymore.Yep, I don’t get it either. You have an eye condition that’s probably been diagnosed by an ophthalmic consultant. It even has a name, that you can Google and everything. Now you’d think, wouldn’t you, that Capita, the professional body that are about to assess your eligibility for this benefit would request a medical breakdown of your sight loss and visual acuity from a doctor who’d know, wouldn’t you? Uh, no, you’d be wrong. Instead they ask you to behave like a performing seal and pull off some undefeatable act of blind sight lossery. “Try and read this print document?” Or here’s an absolute belter: “Could you stand on one leg?” I kid you not, this is an actual question that was asked of someone during their PIP assessment. There’s a strange trend to that, a person arriving to the assessment unaccompanied is presumed not to need as much financial support as someone who arrives with a family member, sighted guide or some other light dependent person. So this half-hour assessment in an uncontrolled environment conducted by

Right to dignity: Joe Kenny someone who has no specialist knowledge about disability or the condition in question, is how we are going to assess you, the person who lives with it day in, and day out. Look, it’s a fact, disability means you spend more money on life stuff. Buying food, reading, communicating and going to where you need to go, when you need to go there, takes longer and costs more. And if you listen really hard, you might just hear the sound of those who believe that we’re faking it, making it and taking money we don’t deserve. I’d give up every penny I ever received from welfare benefits if it meant I didn’t have to spend hundreds of pounds on taxis each month or rely on overpriced technology to just get stuff done each day and now I’m being asked to demonstrate the challenges I face by performing some sort of Christmas cracker disability stunt. I’m gonna let you into a little secret, shall I? When it comes to form filling time, as it must for the best of us, we have to go to that bad place in our heads.

Paint the picture of the worst day, the type of scenarios that really leave you feeling very disabled and will probably make you squirm in your seat as you recall your secrets to someone who is drawing assumptions from what you say right there and then. And we don’t talk about this. Why? Because of unspeakable, diminishing, shame. On one hand, we say to people with a disability your dignity is in your power, fight for your right to independence and an accessible society in which you, me, we, can all play an equal part. And then once you’ve cultivated a little bit of your own self-esteem, self-worth even, just try getting through a PIP assessment with your dignity intact, and boom, how do you feel now? If life gives you lemons, make lemonade but mind the PIP won’t you? So how many fingers am I holding up at a benefits system which ultimately leaves people feeling even more disabled and feeling like they’re committing some sort of fraud against their neighbour. Well, I’ll let you decide.

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When his PIP assessment came up, he was advised not to make eye contact; not to wash... be an unsightly, wretched Dickensian figure of poverty Playwright Finnouala Kennedy writes how she was left dumbfounded after going with her daughter’s father – a man with severe mental health issues – to a PIP assessment ast year I attended a PIP assessment with my daughter’s father. He had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder after a breakdown, an illness that combines schizophrenia and bipolar. It is an ongoing battle that he lives with every day. When his PIP assessment came up, he was advised not to make eye contact; not to wash for days before going; be smelly, unshaven, unkempt; be an unsightly, wretched Dickensian figure of poverty. The female assessor comes to meet us and brings us into a tiny office. As she asks questions, she types responses quickly on a computer. The descriptors set for PIP are ludicrous. They barely consider physical disability let alone mental health issues. It seems you would have to be in a coma to get the maximum points, and even then I suspect they’d find a way to deduct a few points. Prompted by the seemingly understanding assessor, he agrees with her that I cook meals for him, wrapping food up in a Tupperware box to take home like some angelic 1950s housewife. The truth is, I beg him to eat. He has no appetite with the medication. He goes days without eating and we argue about it. He was advised to say I have to prompt him to take his medication, as if needing someone


to remind you is worst case scenario. He’s on 10 million different tablets, most of which I can’t pronounce. I don’t know when he has to take them. I do know there are days when he can’t get out of bed, where he then misses picking up his prescription. I’ve seen the knock on effect of that on him. I am dumbfounded during the assessment. He is asked questions about his illness and medications. He’s not a health professional. He has a very particular thought process and his own version of events. It is disturbing to me that his assessment is based on his testimony alone. Some questions are degrading. Some questions are dangerous – having to recount traumatic life moments, suicide attempts, typed coldly into a computer as if recounting a shopping list. One of the recommendations from the recent Rader Report is that all questions relating to suicide and self-harm be removed – the report is currently gathering dust on a shelf. The Rader Report also calls for a series of information events, echoing the 2016 Evason report, so that clearly hasn’t worked. And it won’t work. Because this is not just an ill-thought through system – it’s intentionally

designed to remove benefits from those who desperately need them; a system that will be responsible for deaths of people with disabilities. At the end of the assessment, this man with severe mental health issues receives his physical assessment. “It’s just like ‘Simon Says’, the assessor cheerily informs him. He is asked to bend at the knees, and stand on one leg. I look at this assessor (a paramedic), and wonder, when she looks back on her career as a health professional, will she ever regret the decisions she made? He failed the assessment. At his appeal, which caused him major anxiety, he was asked if he had “the forms”. He wasn’t sent “the forms”, and the appeal was postponed. The doctor in the room was the doctor that treated him when he had his breakdown, and they said “he couldn’t be impartial”. A doctor that knows his illness and the effects, you might say would be knowledgeable. Now he nervously awaits the date for the appeal. He wants to give up. I’ve run out of ways to convince him not to. • The Rader Report –

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COMMENT Swimming against the poverty tide Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, argues that urgent reform is needed to help those who are suffering economic hardship iving in poverty is like ‘swimming against the tide where the tide never turns’. This is a neat summary of the impact of recent tax and social security reforms. The Equality and Human Rights Commission in Britain recently published an analysis of the cumulative impact of all tax and social security policy changes made between May 2010 and January 2018 and due to be implemented, up to the end of the financial year 2021/2022. The findings make familiar and depressing reading. There are large adverse impacts for households with disabled people, particularly so for individuals with more severe disabilities as well as for lone parents on low incomes. A household with at least one disabled adult and a disabled child has lost over £6,500 a year while a lone parent in similar circumstances has fared even worse losing £10,000 a year. The changes have also led to significant increases in the number of children living below a minimum acceptable standard of living. These findings are replicated in research looking at what it means to live in practice on a low income. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has presented annual research on the income level that working age adults and pensioners say is needed for an acceptable standard of living. In essence, this is a measure of the income needed to live at a standard we take for granted to pay bills, heat our homes, feed ourselves and engage in modest civic and leisure activities. The 2018 report found that social security benefit levels have not kept up with the costs of living assessed to meet the minimum income standard. This has affected both households receiving in-work benefits and tax credits and those getting no income from work. The report recommends ending the freeze on working age social security benefits and increasing the Universal Credit work allowances. Closer to home, JRF published an analysis of poverty in Northern Ireland in 2018 revealing that we have 370,000 people living in poverty. This figure encompasses 220,000 working age adults, 110,000 children and 40,000 pensioners. An important finding is that while the risk of poverty is much lower for working age households where one or more person is



The Government’s mantra that work is the route out of poverty no longer holds true with gains from the rise in national minimum wage being outstripped by cuts to social security

in work over one in eight people in such households still live in poverty. The Government’s mantra that work is the route out of poverty no longer holds true with gains from the rise in national minimum wage being outstripped by cuts to social security. This is important in Northern Ireland where the mitigations package to ameliorate earlier changes to social security ends in 2019/2020. Elsewhere there are shards of light. The Scottish Government has introduced its own mitigation measures alongside the concept of a human rights based approach to delivering social security benefits underpinned by the principles of dignity and respect. Moreover, a number of the significant changes are being challenged in the courts on human rights grounds including the further reduction in the ‘benefit cap’ and the two child rule introduced to Child Tax Credit and Universal Credit. The results of such challenges have been mixed, yet there have been notable successes including the DWP’s decision not to challenge a High Court decision that regulations to restrict entitlement to the Personal Independence Payment mobility component for people suffering psychological distress was “blatantly discriminatory” and a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Commission is interested in exploring human rights legal challenges and operates a weekly free legal advice clinic by appointment. The International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides that everyone should have an adequate standard of living. This is a goal to be achieved progressively with no room for backsliding. Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty, has written of the need to embrace tax justice – both more progressive tax systems and corporations paying their taxes as the key to tackling economic and social rights injustices. As a society, we need to highlight what can be done. That will mean creating a public and political will for meaningful progressive tax and social security reform. We owe nothing less to the 370,000 people living in poverty today to ensure the tide can turn.

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COMMENT Paying the price of global financial crash Economist Michael Roberts argues that the policy of ‘austerity’ has ensured that the poor, the weak and the sick have paid the most for the reckless greed of the bankers t is 10 years to the month since the UK Government imposed the so-called policy of austerity. There is much debate among economists like me about the meaning of this catch-all word. It sometimes means cuts in Government spending in either real or cash terms. It sometimes means running a surplus of revenue over expenditure on the Government’s budget; or it can mean reducing the level of public sector debt, either in absolute amount or as a share of annual national output. Whatever the definition of austerity, governments in the most major economies as the necessary solution to the shocking global financial crash of 2007-8 and the ensuing Great Recession in economic activity of 2008-9. Financial institutions around the world had to be ‘bailed out’ to avoid a total financial meltdown. The sharp collapse in production and rise in unemployment meant a reduction in tax revenues and a rise in social benefits. That led to a huge rise in Government borrowing and debt in most countries. The conventional wisdom was that resultant public deficits and debt had to be reduced – indeed, a myth developed that it was ‘excessive public spending’ that was the cause of the crisis, not the crash in financial markets and the private sector. Yet, the annual government budget deficit before the financial crash was a modest 2% of national output and public debt was 35%. After the crash the deficit rose to 10% and debt to 90% (and still rising). Only this year has the Government finally managed to ‘balance the books’. But the policy of austerity has left a lasting damage on the fabric of society in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. The NHS and education were supposed to be ‘ring-fenced’ from austerity. And yet as we celebrate 70 years since the NHS was founded, the health service is facing its worst crisis. The regular winter crisis period of understaffing and excess demand is now appearing permanent as the shortfall in funding compared to the needs of ageing population worsens. The NHS is gradually being dismantled and turned into a commissioning-agent for private health organisations. As stock markets rocketed and the rich got richer, it was the poorest who suf-



The new system of universal credit (UC), supposedly designed to streamline all welfare benefits, is really just a way of reducing claimants

fered most from austerity, especially those who were disabled, ill, without work or on very low pay. From 2013 onwards, working-age social security payments were limited to a maximum annual increase of 1% instead of being increased annually according to the rate of inflation. From 2016, a four-year freeze on all working-age social security payments was introduced, affecting 11 million families. The Welfare Reform and

Work Act 2016 reduced weekly social security payments for disabled people by £29. As a result, over 1.3 million people have been forced into using a food bank each year. The British Medical Journal in 2015 found that each one percentage point increase in the rate of Jobseeker's Allowance claimants sanctioned was associated with a 0.09 percentage point rise in food bank use. The new system of universal credit (UC), supposedly designed to streamline all welfare benefits, is really just a way of reducing claimants. The scheme has turned into total chaos. A recent survey showed 73% of UC claimants were in housing rent arrears and 77% of evictions were due to failures in UC payments. About two-thirds of landlords would not rent to UC recipients. Where UC was rolled out, there was an average increase of 52% in food bank use. Under the austerity measures, disabled people have been cruelly treated. There are 11m people living with a disability, long-term illness, or impairment in Britain. That’s one in five Britons. The switch from Disability Allowance (DLA) to socalled Personal Independence Payments (PIP) has been another disaster. A report by Muscular Dystrophy UK shows a litany of appointments cancelled at the last minute, lost applications, year-long delays. Two in five respondents report being sent to an assessment centre that wasn’t accessible for disabled people! In this period of austerity, capital investment in new, affordable homes was cut by 60%. The number of people sleeping rough on any one night across England more than doubled between 2010 and 2016 to an estimated 4,134. The under-occupancy penalty, commonly known as the bedroom tax, has affected an estimated 660,000 working age social housing tenants, reducing weekly incomes by £12–£22. Almost two-thirds of the people affected by the penalty were disabled. Maximum housing benefit levels for private sector tenants have been frozen for four years, affecting 300,000 families. It is the poor, the weak and the sick who have paid most for the reckless greed of bankers and the global financial crash. The policy of ‘austerity’ has ensured that.

VIEW, Issue 48, 2018

Chronically ill and disabled people have learned to live in fear because of ‘welfare reforms’ By Mo Stewart, Independent Disability Studies Researcher ctober 2018 is the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), as used by successive UK Governments to restrict access to the out-of-work long-term sickness and disability benefit known as the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Introduced by the New Labour Government in October 2008, the ESA replaced Incapacity Benefit (IB) with the claim that many IB claimants would be able to work if given help to return to the labour market. The adoption of the ESA included the claimed “non-medical functional assessment”, identified as the WCA. At the time of the introduction of the ESA, few people realised what human suffering was destined to be created when using a fatally flawed biopsychosocial (BPS) assessment model for the WCA; which was justified by 2005 Governmentcommissioned research funded and influenced by the private healthcare insurance industry. Commonly known as “welfare reforms”, the political assault on the income of chronically ill and disabled people was to have future dire human consequences following the 2010 election of a Conservative-led coalition Government, with multi-millionaire David Cameron appointed as the new Prime Minister. The Cameron Government adopted austerity measures, used to reduce spend-


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ing and justified by the 2008 banking crash. Cameron claimed that the previous New Labour Government adopted “excessive” spending on the welfare budget, which increased the fiscal deficit. Austerity measures would limit spending on public services to the point where the UK would “live within our means.” The introduction of austerity measures significantly reduced funding for the welfare budget, which Professor Martin McKee identified as being “a political choice and not a financial necessity” when introduced “without any ethical approval”. In May 2010 Iain Duncan Smith was appointed as the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and excelled during the next five years by demonising claimants of disability benefits. The spin, the political rhetoric and the power of the mighty Tory Press were only too happy to aid inflammatory media coverage to suggest that the majority of out-of-work disability benefit claimants were “scroungers”. This removed the previous psychological security of the welfare state, and chronically ill and disabled people learned to live in fear of the Department for Work and Pensions, with the everpresent anxiety that their minimal income could be stopped following a WCA, as Ian Duncan Smith disregarded the 213 percent increase in prosecuted disability hate crimes during his term in office. The WCA adopted the Waddell and Aylward biopsychosocial (BPS) assessment model, as recommended in the 2005 Government-commissioned research: The Scientific and Conceptual Basis of Incapacity Benefits, which was sponsored with £1.6 million by the US corporate

CASH NOT CARE: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state Mo Stewart government advisers when known as UnumProvidentTM Insurance. The Waddell and Aylward BPS model as used for the WCA disregards diagnosis, prognosis, past medical history and prescription drugs. In his 2015 paper “First do no harm” Dr Ben Barr and colleagues identified the WCA as being strongly associated with the preventable harm of chronically ill people. In this three-year study, the WCA was associated with an additional 590 suicides, 279,000 additional cases of self-reported mental health problems and an additional 725,000 prescriptions for anti-depressants. The research concluded that the preventable harm created by the WCA “could outweigh any benefits that arise from moving people off disability benefits.” In a 2016 critique by Professor Tom Shakespeare and colleagues, the Waddell and Aylward BPS model was identified as having “no coherent theory or evidence behind this model” and a review of the Waddell and Aylward publications revealed “a cavalier approach to scientific evidence.”

• Mo Stewart is a former healthcare professional, a disabled veteran of the Women’s Royal Air Force medical branch, and an independent disability studies researcher. Her book Cash Not Care: the planned demolition of the UK welfare state was published in September 2016 by New Generation Publishing. More on Ms Stewart’s work can be found at

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34,000 households will be hit by the bedroom tax when all supplementary payments expire in March 2020 Justin Cartwright, policy and public affairs manager at the Chartered Institute of Housing Northern Ireland, argues that we need to commit to extend mitigation payments beyond 2020 to avoid more people struggling to keep a roof over their heads It might have come as a shock to some people last year when the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) revealed up to 1,500 social housing tenants in Northern Ireland could be hit by the bedroom tax. The NI Assembly had voted through regulations to provide tenants affected by the tax with automatic ‘supplementary payments’, which top up the losses worth up to 25 percent of their housing benefit. However the regulations were endorsed just before the assembly collapsed. They were therefore not subjected to normal scrutiny procedures, such as going before the communities committee or the executive. The Communities Minister Paul Givan was clear at the time that affected tenants who voluntarily move to another social home deemed ‘too big’ for them would lose the top-up payments. However, this exemption was not widely known. The prevailing political narrative before and after these regulations came into force was that tenants would be protected from the bedroom tax. It is possible therefore that such an exemption would not have survived the committee stage. Instead, the bedroom tax began impacting on tenants just three weeks after being introduced.

Figures that we obtained from the Housing Executive at the time showed around 1,500 tenants on the transfer list for another social home were probably not entitled to supplementary payments once they moved. Since then, data in October 2017 showed 35 housing benefit claimants had lost the top-up payments. This number trebled in six months, with further figures showing 86 claimants losing the payment over the six months to March 2018. It might be tempting for some to dismiss this as a small number of households who have ‘chosen’ to pay the bedroom tax. However it would be unwise to do so for three reasons. First, Housing Executive data in July showed that prior to paying the tax, 72 of their tenants had combined rent arrears of £3,345, or £46 each on average. Now this has risen to £12,566, or £175. It is clear that the bedroom tax is linked to rent arrears for low income households, thereby risking higher levels of legal action, eviction and homelessness. Second, tenants opting to stay put and avoid paying the tax is not necessarily a good thing. Many tenants have applied to move home for compelling reasons such as moving closer to family, or for employment and

training opportunities. The bedroom tax forms part of the wider welfare reform agenda that is supposed to make it easier to get into work, so it makes no sense to discourage people from working. Last but certainly not least, around 34,000 households will be hit by the bedroom tax when all supplementary payments expire in March 2020. Affected tenants stand to lose over £21 million collectively each year. So we will see people face difficulties in keeping their homes on a much larger scale. This is but a taste of things to come. It was absolutely right for the Executive to mitigate the effect of the tax and certain other welfare measures, which can be shown to have an adverse impact on people’s lives. However, it is now well beyond time to get our institutions back up and running, to review the regulations that govern supplementary payments, and to commit to extend supplementary payments beyond 2020. The alternative – more people struggling to keep a roof over their heads – has driven decision makers to come this far in mitigating the impact of the bedroom tax. I hope it serves as motivation to go a little further.

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Economic pipe dream or a working solution? Basic Income would provide a universal payment to every citizen. Brian Pelan spoke to campaigner Anne Ryan, left, who is a passionate advocate for the concept nne Ryan, from Cellbridge in County Kildare, is passionate, persuasive and determined in her strong belief that Basic Income should be introduced. “I have been professionally and personally interested in the idea of basic income for a long time. I worked in the area of adult and community education for 20 years untill I took early retirement. “I really believe that basic income would support people going back into education. I wrote a book a few years ago, called Enough Is Plenty. I am also a member of FEASTA (The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability). “I believe if people have a floor of economic support under them it can encourage them to do so many other things in their lives. “The support movement for basic income in Ireland is pretty small. But in the last five to six years we have established a group called Basic Income Ireland, whose aim is to raise awareness among politicians and ordinary people. “If Basic Income was established in Ireland it would replace core benefits. But there would be top ups for people with special needs. Nobody would be worse off than they currently are. “The Basic Income should be sufficient to live a decent but frugal lifestyle; it should be universal without means testing and it should be unconditional.” I asked Anne if basic income were to be introduced in Ireland, what should the amount be? “The amount we’re promoting is around 200 euros per week. A commis-


Scotland to launch pilot project Scotland is about to embark on a pilot of how Universal Basic Income (UBI) could be used instead of a system rooted in sanctions, Scott Santens, a New Orleans writer and UBI advocate told VIEW’s Una Murphy on a recent visit to Ireland. Scott said that paying people an income to cover the costs of their basic needs would give people back security lost through the big economic and societal changes that have taken place, including increasing automation, job losses and temporary contracts of employment. In addition to the pilot planned for Scotland he said experiments in Canada and Alaska have been very positive. “The money paid is used to reduce debt, increase savings and put money aside for children’s college education,” Scott said. Scott said: “Insecurity is a big part of the story right now. Basic Income would help you to plan and gives you security.”

sion would need to be established to see if that rate had to be adjusted in terms of inflation.” I asked Anne how we would we pay for it. Is she proposing higher taxation? “The model that we could introduce right now would be paid out of income tax,” replied Anne. “There would need to be a slight raise in tax for some people. But you also have to remember that the person who is paying extra tax is also getting the Basic Income. “The advantage is that if they lose their job they won’t have to sign on for unemployment benefit as they will be getting the Basic Income. “People on short-term contracts or low pay would always have the Basic

Income to support them. It’s simpler to give it to everyone and then get it back in terms of higher taxation for better off people. “We would be getting away from the system having to sign on and facing long delays before getting benefits. “I think the implementation of a Basic Income could have a healing effect on society.” • Basic Income NI meets monthly. Contact Lucy McKenna at for more details or Twitter at @BasicIncomeNI

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Putting wealth into the community By Una Murphy uilding up local wealth in communities could counteract the effects of austerity, according to Neil McInroy, chief executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), a Manchester-based think tank. He is working with the Development Trusts NI on a manifesto to encourage more spending in local communities by public bodies and charities. Neil told VIEW magazine: “How do you counteract austerity? “We need to build up community and local wealth.”º He said that if organisations, such as local councils, education and health trusts, hospital and schools gave priority to using local businesses and services in their supply chains it would have a “multiplier effect to the economy” and money would stay locally and boost local communities. What he terms the “democratic pound” would grow ‘social capital’ within the community. So instead of any surplus from a wellknown chain of coffee shops going back to Seattle, USA, a coffee shop run by a local business owner who lives in the community would result in wealth being retained in that community. Neil said external shareholders in companies from abroad were often given “sweeteners” from the public purse for inward investment. They demanded big dividends, leading to wealth being extracted and a squeeze on the wages paid


Priority: Neil McInroy to local people. “Some people are going to food banks who have jobs,” Neil said. “Wealth is disappearing from Northern Ireland. Wealth is not flowing into the local community. It is flowing into the pockets of tax exiles.” Neil said Northern Ireland has the benefit of one of the highest per head public expenditure levels in the UK. “The vast majority of the economy of Northern Ireland is run by the public purse,” Neil added. Preston in Lancashire has been developing a new system of economics called the Preston Model which prioritises local businesses and services in the public sector supply chain. Public money is helping to support good local services by retaining more wealth in local communities, Neil said. In 2013 only £1 out of every £20 on public money stayed in Preston, with global catering company or building firms with headquarters in London getting the rest.

Public services now spend £74 million more in Preston than they did in 2013, and £200 million more is spent in wider Lancashire. He also pointed to Portland, Oregon, in the USA where Neil said the “massive investment” in the local community made it “a great place to live and work”. There, the economic development agency focuses on building an equitable economy based on growing family-wage jobs, advancing opportunities for prosperity, collaborating with partners for an equitable city and creating vibrant neighbourhoods and communities. “There is a cultural busyness about Portland and people like to stay there,” Neil said. “Northern Ireland does not invest in the social context as much as it should.” • Watch video in which Neil outlines the ‘new economics’ to benefit local communities • Neil will be speaking at a conference in Belfast in September 2018. The Development Trust NI will be outlining how public bodies including local government can help improve the economy and retain wealth in communities, more information here: ni-community-expo-18

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Three young people talking about poverty in a video which was made as part of Project Twist-It

Taking on the ‘poverty porn’ rhetoric Journalist Mary O’Hara tells Una Murphy that Project Twist-It is aimed at developing a different narrative about why people are struggling journalist from Belfast who grew up in poverty has developed an online media platform to promote discussions within civil society. Mary O’Hara, who now divides her time between the United States and the UK, wants the media to turn away from so-called ‘poverty porn’; content with entertainment as its purpose, featuring flawed characters and drama. “Not an average family getting by,” she said. Instead the media should be asking “whether the system is doing what it is supposed to do,” Mary said. “If we are not constantly questioning how we are doing our job. We are not doing it right.” Her latest media project is called ‘Project Twist-It’ – where telling a different story about poverty is made possible’. Mary said that interviewees find it good to speak to a journalist who has experienced poverty herself. “I grew up most of my life in poverty. I’m not jumping into their lives as a voyeur,” she told me on the phone from Los Angeles. “Poverty is difficult to talk about. How do you get a photograph to illustrate it? I’m tired of stereotypical images of kids pushing shopping trolleys in council estates.” In her book ‘Austerity Bites’, published in 2014, Mary travelled around Britain and Northern Ireland speaking to people hit by cutbacks. She found that: “A lot of people have a lot to say but some people did not want publicity and so they were spoken to on condition of anonymity. They felt relieved not to have their name or face known.” Some people are happy to speak publicly about living in poverty, Mary said. I told her that a recent video on the Project Twist-It online platform in which a young girl sitting at a table with a group of teenagers spoke about dividing sparse food


Initiative: Mary O’Hara rations out for dinner at home with her mum, a single parent, was very moving. “You go to interviews with children highly prepared and their parents and guardians have to be comfortable with the situation,” she said. In contrast the so called ‘poverty porn’ seen in some mainstream media is something different, Mary said. “There would be no appetite for that type of entertainment if there was not a culture that vilified poor people, single mothers and people out of work. What is there in the culture that affects this and allows ‘poverty porn’ programmes? We haven’t always had it, why do we have it now?” Mary said that the media in the UK and USA is putting too many resources into describing people in poverty as “skivers” and “welfare queens” and proactively promoting extremely negative stereotypes. “I don’t deny that there are people who play the system at every level but it also includes people putting tax off-shore, and filling in a tax return; it is a societal issue. Poor people are easy to vilify and are without the social capital to defend themselves,” she said. “The welfare state was there to assist

and to help people in difficult times. If a person was struggling you would hear the phrase they had fallen on hard times. With Reagan and Thatcher and neo-liberalism, the rhetoric around poverty changed and allowed the system to become less generous and create a blaming of people. “People hear these messages that reinforce this justification of a system which is more punitive with a penalty and sanctions regime. It has evolved to become harsher and harsher to people who are just trying to get the help they need,” she said. She said that some groups such as people with disabilities have worked together to challenge the harsh new rules affecting them but it was more difficult generally for people in poverty to work together because as a group they are more disparate. The ‘Us and Them’ narrative has successfully been put in place, making it harder to build links across different social classes, she added. Mary believes that in the USA there is now a “highly active local power base at county and state level” fighting the prevailing poverty narrative. Britain and Northern Ireland needed more activism at local level, she said. The Poverty and Inequality Commission in Scotland, which provides independent advice and proposes solutions is a great initiative, Mary added. “Real power to make decisions rests at Westminster and makes it so much harder to shift things in your city, town or region, she said. “We need a voice to help at civil society level.” • Project Twist-it – bout/