Or, Why filling in the forms really is hard work, and why the process sent my mental health spiralling downwards.
A lot of you, O my readership, have been on government benefits or had a partner or close friend who has, and for you there is no need to explain that it really is unpleasant, counterproductive, interminable, and soul-destroying. On the other hand, there's a pervasive sense amongst some sections of the British public (and the media) that benefits are money for old rope; all you have to do is fill in a couple of forms, turn up to a couple of interviews, and then you're living the life of Riley.
One experience more or less all of you will have in common is the job interview, so let's use that as an analogy. You start by filling in forms and writing up your CV, and you want to tell them all about the wonderful things you've done and how competent and capable you are, how any company would be lucky to employ you. Maybe you stretch the truth a little, make out that a particular situation turned out better than it did, that you were the pivot that turned a failing team around, that it was your bright idea which took a company from ruination to roses in six months flat. That's fine; everyone does it a bit. Everyone expects it when they're hiring. That's how it works. And then you go for the interview, and you have to live the CV you wrote - you have to convince yourself, inhabit the bright shining persona you devised, fake it till you make it. And there's nothing wrong with that, because we're all performing our own lives, creating ourselves as we go along, becoming the person we want to be. And if somehow they don't realise you're perfect for them, there's plenty more out there, after all.
Try imagining doing it in reverse.
You've got the form; what the DWP want to find out from it is just how incompetent and incapable you are. If you aren't incapable enough, you won't get hired. If you have too much success behind you, if you've got solid accomplishments and learned skills, you're going to have to answer tricky questions about them, and prove that they aren't real and useful after all. And you're getting graded on your answers, and if they catch you out in an inconsistency then you won't even get to the interview stage. And this one's important; it's the only shot you've got at the only job you can do, with the only employer in town. So you stretch the truth a little, make out that a particular situation turned out worse than it did, that it was your disability that made a team collapse and fall apart, that if you were to get up and go into business for yourself you could lose a million in no time.
And then you go for the interview, and you have to live the CV you wrote - you have to convince yourself, inhabit the dull haggard persona you devised, fake it till you fail hard enough to satisfy them. And if there's ever anything calculated to reinforce a poor self-image, that's it. If anything can institutionalise failure, that's it.
And remember, your only points of contact with the system are an information-only website designed for the reading age of a bright 10-year-old by someone who'd never tried to use the system themselves, and a perpetually overloaded and underfunded call centre equipped with the best call-waiting system 1982 has to offer. You don't get to talk to the same person twice; you get a succession of interchangeable powerless cubicle workers who can't do anything more than talk to the confusing badly designed computer system on your behalf. Oh, and it's an 0845 number, which means it's only free if you're using a BT landline. So that's about twenty quid you've paid to apply, already.
There's a Jobcentre just down the road, but you're not allowed to go in and talk to them; you have to wait for a couple of hours in a phone queue (or even attempting to get into the phone queue) before you can make an appointment, and nobody has the time to help you work out what you really need and share the information through the system. Instead, you get shoved into the nearest square hole they can find, and Heaven help you if your situation is at all unusual.
It's possible to fill out the form online, but the process is confusing and complicated enough that I tried and gave up after ten minutes in favour of paper & pen.
Once you've sent off your completed form, they might well lose it; the best thing to do is take a photocopy, get it certified, and send that off. You have to mail it; you can't hand it in at a Jobcentre and get them to sign for it and send it through the internal mail any more. And they won't photocopy and certify it for you without an appointment, and there isn't any way to get one of those without three hours dealing with the phone line. You'd do best to send it recorded-signed-for, too, because then at least you know it's got to their mailroom. That's another fiver.
Which doesn't mean it's got to anyone who can read it and enter the data; it could take another two or three weeks to work its way through the system and start a response on its way to you. And then, if they have all the information they need, and if you have a complete set of doctors' certificates (which you might have to talk fast and argue your GP into giving you - I did) covering the entire period of your application without a break, they'll start paying you some money. You get a total of £54.90 a week, plus housing benefit if you applied for that too - which means another form and another bureacracy to negotiate with, and another set of supporting documents to give them in another place too.
And that's an interim payment; at this point, if they decide later you're not entitled to it after all, they'll not only stop paying you but make you repay what you've already had. For that matter, if there's any irregularity they'll suspend payments, without telling you they're doing it. An irregularity would be something like not getting a doctor's certificate for May before the one you sent them for April runs out; bear in mind that it takes three weeks for any given document to work its way through the combination of Royal Mail (two days) and the DWP mail routing & backlog (nearly three weeks). You'd better bear that in mind, because they won't.
In a while after that, they'll schedule you for an interview with a doctor at Atos healthcare, who will ask a lot of things you already told them and then check whether you can read with your glasses on. If you're really lucky, they'll ask you to suggest an interview day & time; if not, they'll just assign you one. You can change it once if it doesn't work for you; if you try more than that, the computer system won't let them put in another and sends you back to the DWP to start again. Atos, at least, pay your expenses travelling there... two weeks later, which means they had the use of £15 of my money for two weeks and I didn't. That's really quite petty.
The DWP also send you for an optional work-focused interview with a different private contractor, who ask you all the same questions and try and work out what you're capable of, and then sit back and ask "OK, how can we help you back into work?" as though, at that point, what you wanted was anything but for them to stop waving hoops around and just give you your money. It's optional, of course, because it's designed to help you. On the other hand, if you don't turn up or if they think you aren't cooperating, your benefits get stopped.
Then there's a different work-focused interview, with Atos again; I haven't had this one, because I had to reschedule it once ("No, I can't get to Romford for 8:45 AM. Sorry.") and then had to try that again ("I have swine flu. You don't want me to come in. ...I can't reschedule it? Computer says no? OK, so the DWP will send me a letter about doing it some other time... I'll wait for that, then. Thanks."). Still waiting, of course.
The bright side of that is that they're now paying me. I get a grand total of £160 a week, which has to cover everything including rent. That works out to an annual income of £8,320. And the reason that's so high is because I managed to convince them I was disabled not workshy, and because I'm over 25 and living in London. Otherwise, it could go as low as £6,500 or so. I'm lucky, of course; I don't smoke, don't drink much, and don't keep a car, and I don't have any dependents.
For comparison, the Rowntree Foundation's research has found that the general consensus in the UK is that you need £13,900 to pay for the essentials of an acceptable standard of living. If you can work, and find someone who'll hire you to work 40 hours a week at the national minimum wage, you'll get £11,900 or so.
It's been a hideously unpleasant experience, and it's taken me six months and left me quite a bit more depressed and less functional than I started. That was with my girlfriend filling in the forms for me, the CAB writing letters on my behalf, and a letter from my MP to JobcentrePlus. And I have bucketloads of privilege here, too - I'm a fairly well spoken white guy over 30, with letters after his name, who knows his rights and resources. I know enough to turn up in a suit and tie when I need to get them to take me seriously, and to wear the same T-shirt three days running before the interview so they don't decide I'm too together and capable to have depression. So yes, I'm coping with the process a lot better than most people with my condition do. And it's been breaking me.