A Christmas Carol

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It’s Christmas night, and E’s gone to bed, and although there was more wine in the fridge, I make a pot of tea for my aunt A and I – the Last Men Standing, as usual.

“The thing is,” I say, continuing the rant I started before the last bottle had run out. “I don’t understand how people can be so transparently stupid, so easily led. I mean, it’s a fact that the majority of people on benefits are also working, so if you cap their benefits at beneath inflation just because wages are capped, you’re capping financial support for working people whose wages are rising at beneath inflation – people who’ve been pushed into part-time positions, people who haven’t seen their wages rise in years – or who’re disabled and can only work part time. And the government are actively obfuscating that fact. Why is this not headline news? How did we all end up on this bandwagon of actively demonising the poor and sick? How did we get here, you know?”

A gives me her ‘oh the passion of youth’ look as we settle into our seats at the kitchen table. “Just be glad you’re both in positions where you have potential for advancement, and in a sector where you can expect wage rises,” she says. “Imagine if you were in a charity, or in local government.” I open my mouth to observe that technically of course universities are charitable organisations, then shut it. A hasn’t seen a pay rise in years, and I think she was pushed into part-time hours this year, at least for a while ’til they realised they needed her around. I know only a vague overview of the situation, and when I enquire I get a Look and a ‘Don’t ask’.

“I’ve worked in welfare rights for thirty years, under all sorts of government – in the eighties under Thatcher, in the nineties under Blair, and now,” she says. “Every few years, there’s reform in the benefits system. Every time, the stated ‘aim’ is to simplify it, and every single time it’s made more complicated, and more and more people fall through the cracks.

“I was all prepared to give input on this during the most recent round of changes, actually. You’d think, as someone who’s been doing this for so long, that they’d value my input. I had everything gathered together and ready to present, and I was told my presence wasn’t required.”

She doesn’t sound even slightly surprised by this, and nor am I.

“I’m used to feeling removed from stuff like this,” I say as I pour our tea – we both take it weak and milky. “I’ve never directly tried to claim benefits, even when I was unemployed – I always had some cushioning there, my overdraft or family or whatever. But this time, this business with ATOS and the DLA-”

“ESA,” she corrects me.

“Right, yes, I meant ESA, sorry. This time I know people – I mean, not well, but I know them – who’re on the…” I wave my hand vaguely. “…Magic Roundabout. They keep popping up on my Facebook and they’re under assessment, or in the appeal process, or they’ve had their appeal and just had another assessment letter through. It’s not just some isolated cases made up by the Daily Record, it’s-”

“It’s everyone,” A confirms. “We don’t even know how many people are really suffering for this because honestly, trying to get people to keep proper records when they’re already overworked and underpaid is just impossible.”

“And the appeal success rate is, what, like a half, forty per cent?” I say. I know it’s about forty per cent but I’ve learned not to sound too much like I know what I’m talking about around A; it makes her want to put me in my place.

“We lose folk even before that. Look, when those assessment letters go out, a third of people just disappear. We actually don’t know what happens to them. A third of them are just gone, out of the system, because even filling in that form is just too much to handle.”

I raise my eyebrows. The statistic sounds familiar, but it’s no less shocking for that.

“Of the people that get assessed, fifty nine per cent of them are found fit to work. That’s fifty nine per cent of a group of people who’ve been properly examined by doctors, medical professionals who know them, and know that there’s no chance they can hold down a job or they wouldn’t have signed them off in the first place.

“On appeal, about forty two per cent are successful. But of the group who receive competent legal support, that appeal success rate goes up to sixty per cent. That’s with people like us helping from the Advice Shop.”

“And all those other support services that are being cut back and losing their funding.”

“Exactly. That support isn’t going to be around much longer.”

“I just don’t know what I can even do about it, y’know? I write angry letters, I bang on about it constantly, but… I don’t know what else to do.”

My aunt sighs, shakes her head. “Just keep writing them.”