A man sat across from me in a small room in Dundee House. A few crumpled letters were spread out on a table between us. The letters were limp with rain.
‘If it’s no’ one thing, it’s another’ the man said. He stared at me and then down at his soggy letters. He shuddered and glanced back at me. His benefits had been stopped, so he had no money for food or electricity. I was a Welfare Rights Officer, and it was my job to help him. ‘I just keep getting hit by stuff,’ he mumbled. His voice was breaking. When he stared at me, I felt he was imploring me to make sense of what was happening to him.
Dundee looks like a wealthy place from the outside. It is a small city on the banks of the River Tay. There are several routes into the city and most suggest prosperity. From Fife, you can get to Dundee by one of two bridges: road or rail, each bridge stretching for a mile across the river. The city streets and buildings cascade neatly down from a central hill, The Law, topped by a large War Memorial. Or, if you enter the city from the north, you pass through Broughty Ferry – a comfortable leafy suburb. If instead you approach Dundee via Perth and drive along the waterfront, you pass by a few gleaming new office blocks, the huge ship-shaped V & A design museum, with Captain Scott’s real ship Discovery moored alongside. The railway station is newly spruced up and its large windows and sparkling interior hint at prosperity.
It may then come as a surprise to visitors that much of Dundee’s population relies on food banks, and one in three children lives in poverty. In the large housing estates, where most Dundonians live, many people rely on benefits income, including Universal Credit top-ups for workers who struggle to get by on low wages. Most of the better-paid manufacturing jobs died out in the 1980s and 90s.
I have lived in Dundee all my life. I’m 60, and for 10 years from 2010 to 2020, I worked on the frontline against poverty in Dundee, as a Welfare Rights Officer, with the local council. As part of a team, I dealt with a rising flood of difficult ‘cases’: people ‘hit by stuff’, mostly benefit cuts. Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party and then Secretary for Work and Pensions, was in charge of these cuts. Politically, he chose to carry this process forward under the banner of ‘welfare reform’. He needed clever excuses for taking essential income from the poorest people in society, so he and his advisers fed propaganda daily to the press about ‘benefit scroungers’. It was nonsense but cleverly argued nonsense. New laws were designed that made it harder for unemployed, sick, and disabled people to claim benefits. Those who were allowed to claim faced an ever-present threat of having their money stopped on the whim of officials armed with many new rules. For people on benefits, a brown envelope arriving in the post could mean weeks or months of hunger and intense anxiety because their benefits were cut.
For a few months at the end of 2010, I led a campaign to demand a public debate on the likely effect of welfare cuts in Dundee. Our call was supported by Hollywood actor Brian Cox, and the leaders of major trade unions, including the rail workers’ champion Bob Crow. Despite this widespread support for a debate, and me goading the government on TV and radio, Iain Duncan Smith and his deputies declined. To this day, they have never debated the terrible effects of their welfare policies with any ordinary campaigner. After so much suffering and so many deaths, I no longer feel that it would be right to debate with any of those responsible. Now, it would seem like debating with war criminals.
One of the government’s key reforms was a tougher sanctions policy. Unemployed claimants had their benefits stopped if they were deemed to be avoiding looking for a job. In practice, this meant that if you turned up late for an appointment due to a delayed bus or an illness, your benefits would be stopped. Multiple ‘offences’, for example as a result of ongoing illness, could result in months and sometimes years of no benefits. Victims of this sanctions regime often turned up at our offices looking for help.
The Scottish Government, listening to anti-poverty campaigners, tried to mitigate some of the damage done to the poorest communities in Scotland. The Scottish Welfare Fund was set up and promised to operate in a fairer way than the old DWP loans system. Yet at first, in places like Dundee, a sanctioned jobseeker could not get a crisis grant. There was a rule stopping them from being awarded to people who were sanctioned. I vividly remember a visit to our offices from high Scottish officials who argued they could not replace benefits which had been cut in Scotland due to UK government policy. I and others argued that we had to support those people in our own communities who were starving because of sanctions. Eventually, thanks to many other people campaigning on the same point, the Scottish Welfare Fund allowed sanctioned claimants to get crisis grants. Even those grants however were time limited. We then had to organise food parcels or any other food we could find.
The toll on the mental health of benefit claimants from sanctions was high. Other people also came to us, stressed and looking for help when they were suddenly hit by the ‘bedroom tax’. This was a policy the UK government brought in against council tenants. If tenants were deemed to have a ‘spare room’, their housing benefit was cut, in a brutal attempt to force them to get a smaller house. Again, the Scottish government listened to campaigners and began to top up the lost housing benefits so that no one would get evicted for having a ‘spare room’.
Many unemployed people were made ill through the experience of such unfair policies, and the constant terror of the contents of brown official envelopes. You never knew until you read the letter if you were about to be made hungry for a long time, or evicted, or hurt in some other arbitrary way. Most of the letters were so vague and badly worded that people would arrive at our offices in a panic. Sometimes it was a real threat, and other times it was a mistake. The anxiety caused was always real.
People who tried to claim benefits when sick encountered other ‘welfare reform’ barriers. To claim Employment and Support Allowance, if you were ill, you had to be prepared to face officials from the notorious ATOS company which helped the DWP decide who would get benefits and who would not. These decisions were not based on how ill a person was, but according to a points system. It was made up of bizarre categories which supposedly measured a person’s ‘limited capacity for work’ or ‘limited capacity for work-related activity’. Even if you received benefits because you were in a coma, it would be because of a decision made on the second category! As with the name of the benefit – Employment and Support Allowance – the rules did not mention levels of illness. Even GPs’ sickness notes for claimants were renamed ‘Fitness notes’. Awards were made or not made on the whims of ATOS officials and rubber-stamped by the DWP. ATOS became so notorious after years of horror stories that it lost the contract. This however did not stop the DWP from continuing to send out standardised letters justifying why a benefit was refused. One notorious phrase used in hundreds of thousands of stoppages claimed that people do not have a mental health condition if there is no evidence of them trembling.
In my work as a Welfare Rights Officer, I helped many people whose benefits had been stopped but who were clearly very unwell. People with cancer, serious heart disease, severe depression, and many other health conditions appeared regularly at our offices after having their benefits cut. I remember one very thin man. He was so dizzy with hunger that he had to be given sandwiches first before he could even tell me what had happened. We also found a woman trapped in her home who was so malnourished she had to be immediately taken to hospital. More generally, the people who came to us for help looked haunted and afraid.
Appealing a benefit decision would often take months. Ill people were expected to sign on for job seekers’ allowance. This left many people at risk of having their benefits cut if they felt too ill to sign on one morning. The best job centre advisers tried to shield people from sanctions. Yet, for several years sanctions went up and up. Self-harm increased, depression and anxiety increased, and suicide rates increased. As the worst years of welfare reform rolled on, I lost track of the number of individuals I tried to help who seemed utterly exhausted by repeated crises. I began to dread opening emails in case I read about another suicide. Yet, in a small town like Dundee, it is impossible not to hear such news.
Another benefit we often dealt with in appeals was the Personal Independence Payment. It replaced Disability Living Allowance. Again, the name change was significant: there is no mention of disability because the benefit rules were changed so that assessments were not about disability but about tick boxes and categories to do with the deemed ability to care for yourself or to have mobility. A person could have massive pain trying to walk, but that fact would often be ignored by decision-makers, and disabled people were denied benefits. Many people gave up trying to claim. As a service, we won most cases, but we had no way of making time go quicker; it was the months of waiting for a result which hurt people.
Nowhere was the unfairness of the benefits regime more evident than in the sessions of the tribunal system. Every day our agency and others went along with clients to help them fight their case. I went along with clients every few days, to sit it in a small room, facing a panel of two or three officials who would decide whether a person would get benefits. It is important to remember that these decisions were not made on the basis of any general concept of illness or disability. The decisions were based on the bizarre and cruel tick box categories. The term ‘Kafkaesque’ does not approach the levels of absurdity we faced in tribunals. One woman who could dress small dolls was assessed as therefore able to dress herself. In fact, she could not dress herself. The case was won on appeal. Regularly, I saw clients denied benefits despite the fact they each had massive problems, such as a long history of mental health suffering, repeated hospitalisations, and suicide attempts. If a person did not have a psychiatrist or a high level of medication, the panel often assumed that there was not sufficient evidence to award benefits. I often had to point out that the person I was representing had been on a waiting list for a psychiatrist for months or over a year. Much depended on the opinion of the judge. The actual rules were on the side of stopping benefits.
In Dundee, the behaviour of some panel members was so appalling that Welfare Rights Officers collectively asked for a meeting with a senior judge. We put forward detailed evidence of the poor treatment meted out to our clients. Uniquely, local panels were then ordered to do more training. It was however a small victory. The same benefit rules ensured that sanctions, disallowances, and months of appealing decisions remained the norm for many people on benefits. It created a permanent undercurrent of fear in the lives of thousands of people in Dundee and millions of people across the country.
One regular ordeal that people faced was to be told in a benefits tribunal by a panel member: ‘I did not find your evidence credible.’ It did not matter if I had outlined the person’s years of self-harm, homelessness, or previous trauma from being left with no money through benefits unfairly stopped. If the person was not believed by a panel member that was enough to deprive them of all income. So, although our team won most cases, the ones we lost were often as the result of deeply unfair decisions. It is no exaggeration to say that vulnerable people who have their benefits halted in this way, often many times, are tortured.
Despite a few benefits mitigations in Scotland, UK government policy continues to form the framework for the welfare system. Seeing the effects of these policies on vulnerable people began to have a deep impact on my own mental health. I began to fear walking into Dundee House. I got counselling, and some mindfulness training, and then I was back on the frontline. Our workloads got larger, but the number of Welfare Rights Officers decreased. I began to develop a twitch that became so severe I felt I was turning into a puppet.
When I was a Welfare Rights Officer, I knew very little about the mental health system. I was aware that some of my clients were on too many psychiatric drugs because they told me, and I would urge them to raise their concerns with their GP. Yet, I did not know about such things as the serotonin myth, or the way that psychiatric diagnoses and expert publications like DSM were largely invented by psychiatrists who blindly followed the agendas of drug companies. I wish I had known all of that during my 10 years as a Welfare Rights Officer. I learned later after I broke down. At work, I could only see that people I was trying to help were getting more and more unwell through benefits decisions. I naively thought that medicine would always be helpful.
For us on the frontline, trying to get a client enough money to survive, a medical diagnosis of illness always seemed useful. We could use it in a benefits tribunal and say to a judge: ‘Look, here’s what this consultant says. This is proof that this person is not fit for work.’ Or, if someone was prescribed strong medication of any kind, we knew that a judge or panel was less likely to stop benefits. Of course, that didn’t always work. Yet, the point is, in our armoury of information, it seemed like a good thing. Nothing was worse than walking out of a tribunal with a devastated and vulnerable soul who is clearly suffering but the panel had said: ‘Sorry, but you do not meet the criteria for benefits. You have no psychiatric input, and you’re not even on any medication.’ Then the person would have to sign on for job seekers, and almost inevitably, we would see them again, after they had been sanctioned because they were too ill to attend some appointment.
In the months when I was recovering from the stress of trying to protect people from being starved and tortured, I reflected on what I had learned. Welfare Rights Officers, food bank volunteers, social workers, homeless service staff and others did whatever we could to keep people alive. When the movie ‘I, Daniel Blake’ came out, we all recognised the story of a life being destroyed by deeply unfair benefit rules. We had fought alongside similar cases thousands of times. Yet it was more difficult to spot the damage that was also being done to ourselves, as workers, from continually patching up people whose lives were inevitably damaged again by the same unfair rules. I wasn’t twitching from some chemical imbalance in my brain, but because my whole being could no longer stand seeing so much pain in the faces of the men and women I tried so hard to help. We helped many people but for a long time, all I could think of was – what about the ones who did not make it, who had enough of the torture, and just wanted it all to end? I came very close to giving up and joining those lost souls because I felt I had let them down.
I now work part-time as a Support Worker in Dundee. I give one-to-one emotional support; listening mainly. I try to learn as much as I can about mental health. I have read about the harm that over-drugging and misdiagnosis can do. I am aware, through experience, that poverty and injustice can make any of us feel terrible. I have nothing but respect for all those people who remain on the anti-poverty frontline, trying every day to keep people alive. I see now that there is a great need to unite the best help and the best thinking in welfare rights with the kindest possible care in mental health. In both areas, we must end the harm from unjust ideas and policies, and instead create change from the ground up. An injury to one is an injury to all.