Taking the Support Out of Employment and Support Allowance

We will say to people that if you can work, and if you want to work, we will do everything we can to help you. We will give you the training, we will give you the support, we will give you the advice to get you going and get you back at work.
David Cameron.


Bold and encouraging words there from our Prime Minister. Words that reassure you that systems are in place to support you if you have found yourself out of work. Words that tell you that the government’s main objective is getting the unemployed employed, getting the people living on welfare off benefits and into the workplace. Excellent. Bravo. Well said Mr Cameron.

But wait. I want to work. I’ve found a way that means I can work and yet this very morning I have walked away from a voluntary meeting at my local Job Centre Plus being told that there is nothing they can do to support me into work.

So here’s my situation. I’m a single mother. I have been since just after my son’s first birthday. When my son was three I decided that I’d had enough of trying to survive on Income Support and, much to the shock of the JCP adviser, I decided to go back to work. I had a nursing degree and had worked as a Ward Sister in a Marie Curie Hospice before the birth of my son. I got a job as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Palliative Care, I was doing what I loved, looking after patients in the NHS as they approached the end of their lives. As much as I loved my job I started to become unwell; I was having panic attacks, crippling insomnia and levels of anxiety that interfered with my ability to do my job. After a period of sick leave I was given no choice but to resign and try and concentrate on getting well. I was then back on Income Support.

My diagnosis jumped around, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder and I was eventually diagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder. I have been under the care of the mental health team for over two years, according to the Disabilities Act I can class myself as disabled.

The British people think that if someone is disabled, then they should get all the care and support that we can offer.
George Osborne.

When my son turned 5, in February 2013, I came off Income Support and applied for Employment and Support Allowance. The way that ESA is set up you are supposed to be at the pre-assessment level for 13 weeks and then placed in either a support group or a work group depending on your assessed work capability.

35 weeks after I started claiming ESA I was due to have an Atos assessment. I was having an especially mad few months, daily panic attacks and symptoms that frankly I’d rather not talk about here and therefore I contacted them asking for it to be rearranged. 25 weeks later and I never have received another appointment.

Recently, even though I am still under psychiatric care and I know I am not well enough to cope with the pressure of employment I have been thinking about ways the I can be self employed and therefore come off ESA. I booked my appointment to discuss what support I could get and that is what took place today.

The short answer is none. Zip. Zilch. There is a scheme called the New Enterprise Allowance, it is made for people like me. It supports you in setting up as self employed, takes you off ESA/JSA and then gives you a payment of £60 for 13 weeks and £30 for 13 weeks as you get yourself on your feet. It would be the ideal support for me as I built up my copywriting client base. Except I don’t qualify. To qualify you have to be ‘fully on ESA’, ideally in the work group. In order to be in the work group then you need to have been assessed as capable to start looking for work. The Job Centre couldn’t tell me when I might get another assessment date through. The Job Centre insisted that the government no longer using Atos was not having an effect on the time it would take to be assessed. Apparently me saying that I feel able to start doing some work, and that I want to work is not enough. So I have no choice. I can’t start working for myself, or at least if I do I have to do it with no support, no financial cushion for the first few weeks.

The system is broken. The system isn’t built to get those who want to work into work. It is built to demoralise and humiliate people. To ensnare them into a benefit trap so that they can be sneered at by the rest of the country. Excellent. Bravo. Well done Mr Cameron.

Kiran’s World of Pooverts


Ok so I’ve kind of nicked the title from Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe but with good reason, you see I seem to have spawned a child with the same sharp cynicism of Charlie, someone on whom advertising doesn’t work, someone who sees adverts for the big smelly pile of poo they really are; that someone is my son, Kiran and he is just six years old.

When Kiran’s television watching habits changed from the delightfully advert free Cbeebies to commercialtastic Cartoon Network I must say I was worried. I thought we would be entering the world of ‘I want that’ and ‘you should buy this’ but I was pleasantly surprised. Watching Kiran watch adverts is pretty special, he’s like a mixture of angry old man and Abraham Lincoln. He can only speak the truth and he will expose adverts for their lies and he does it beautifully.

Here are my three favourites:

Cillit Bang: The oh so familiar, yet equally obscure, LEGO haired grinning adbot takes to the screen clutching his purple bottle and exclaims: “I’m Barry Scott…” as he does so Kiran’s face contorts with injustice and he shouts at the telly… “NO YOU’RE NOT!” I don’t know how he knows this, maybe he can just spot a liar with the accuracy of a Jeremy Kyle lie detector but ‘Mr Scott’ watch out, Kiran has your number.

Vanish Gold: You wouldn’t think that children would have much interest in stain removal, they seem to be the ones making the mess, not cleaning it. And perhaps if they were to have any reaction you’d think it might be closer to thinking they witnessed sorcery. The advert in question shows Vanish Gold being applied to a host of stains and then put in water as a big gold clock counts down to the thirty seconds in which the advertiser claims they will have gone. And they probably have, I’m not going to dispute it’s efficacy but, er, Kiran does. See, when the clock hits thirty seconds the bits of cloth are still in the water and as it takes some time to take them out of the water Kiran cries fraud. “It’s longer than 30 seconds!” “They haven’t even gone!” “They said it takes 30 seconds but it’s longer and so I don’t even think it works, do you mummy?”. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Some irritating PPI ad: This is the simplest but possibly the best. You know how there is a glut of these generic adverts with generic men telling you the same thing about insurance that you probably didn’t buy. They’re annoying right? Kiran thinks so too. So a man comes onto the screen and announces  “Don’t you know you might be entitled to PPI compensation? Not interested?” and Kiran shouts  “No! I’m a kid!” He doesn’t understand why mummy starts giggling…

It’s not all angry cynicism though, there is the occasional advert that pierces even the most sceptical heart. We were out one day and Kiran starts to sing  “Rice rice baby…Mmmm tasty!” he sings it repeatedly, I ask him to stop. “Why?” he asks  “Because it’s annoying” I reply. “Nope. It’s funny.” Kiran states this like it’s absolute fact, “Dude, it’s a bear singing. What’s not funny about a bear singing?” I have no response, he’s stumped me and Muller Rice you should be proud, you got through to the harshest of critics…

Nicola Sheehan is author of Tiger Tiger

The Ridiculous Truth of Legal Aid Changes.

Today would have been my wedding anniversary. That’s not a hugely relevant point other to say that at almost exactly this point in time 7 years ago I was in my beautiful dress in a vintage Rolls Royce and not thinking for a second how I would meet legal costs in the case of a divorce; I didn’t marry my ex with my escape route already planned. I thought we’d stay together. I guess that’s my starting point.
For the two years following that wedding day I changed, I was constantly put down, told I wasn’t good enough, told I was embarrassing, told how to dress, how to act, how to think. Any protest from me was met with my ex getting teary and threatening suicide ‘just like your dad’ and me turning into a guilt ridden and terrified mess. A year and a month after my wedding day my son was born. This gave my ex yet more power to control me. He’d dictate who my son could see, he’d criticise my parenting, he’d even criticise how he imagined I’d parent in years to come. I was made to feel like an inconvenience yet always with the caveat that he loved me (& that no one else EVER would) almost said resentfully as if I bewitched him.
A year on from my son’s birth we broke up. A messy complicated break up which culminated in him assaulting me. To this day I’ve never feared for my life as much as I did in this period.
I obtained a restraining order but this didn’t curb my ex’s behaviour. He spread toxic lies to my friends and family, he reported me to the police twice stating that our son was at risk, he sent me a terrifying email that led to sleepless nights of me listening for the slightest noise in the house as I was convinced he would break in and rape me. I wouldn’t take the same route home from nursery two days in a row, I didn’t go out if it wasn’t necessary. I was scared.
After a while the initial terror lessened slightly, the general abuse didn’t. There are too many incidents to list but over the last 4-5 years I’ve been subjected to constant claims that I had ruined his life, threats of suicide, name calling, power trips, malicious behaviour, threatening my friends, threatening me with his money and power and feeling arrogantly confident that he will evict me from the family home, not through any need but because he can.
It’s been horrible. Constant stress, tears, fear, the last two years being so unwell with stress & anxiety that I lost my career.
Now we are finally divorcing. I wanted to do it sooner but every time I talked about beginning proceedings he would manipulate me or threaten me and so I’d hold back. I am currently on ESA and therefore have a very low income and yet I got refused legal aid because I can’t ‘prove’ abuse in the last two years. The legal aid agency letter which turned me down accepted that I had been subject to domestic violence, it’s not that they disbelieved me it’s just that it wasn’t recent enough. So I don’t qualify and the abusive ex’s assertion that he has more money for legal advice and therefore will ‘hang me out to dry’ seems to be true. And I’m left with the feeling that if only I’d not felt too weak to stand up and divorce him sooner or hadn’t felt guilty for leaving him and therefore tried to show compassion on delaying divorce proceedings that I wouldn’t find myself in this position.
Well done government, seriously well done.