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Work And Pensions Committee Investigating Survival Sex Among UC Claimants

March 20, 2019

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

The Work and Pensions committee has begun an enquiry into universal credit (UC) and survival sex.

The committee says it has received reports from charities that claimants, mainly women, have been selling sex in order to survive. The problem has been brought about by changes in welfare policy and particularly the rollout of UC.

The committee believes that three main drivers of survival sex may be:

The wait for a first payment, which is a minimum of five weeks but can be a lot longer;

The accumulation of debt: for example, as a result of third-party deductions to benefits or taking out an Advance Payment at the start of a claim;

Sanctions, which are applied at a higher rate under Universal Credit than under the system it replaces.

The committee say:

“We’d like to hear from you if you’ve had to exchange sex for basic living essentials, like food or somewhere to live.

“This will help us to understand what is happening and to make the right recommendations to the Government.

“We understand that telling your story might be difficult. You can ask for your evidence to be anonymous (we’ll publish your story, but not your name or any personal details about you) or confidential (we’ll read your story but we won’t publish it).

“The Committee is inviting anyone with experience of or affected by this issue, in any capacity, to send us a written submissions on any or all of the following questions:

“What features of Universal Credit might drive people into “survival sex”? How does Universal Credit compare to the previous benefits system in this respect?

How widespread is this problem? To what extent are any increases in prevalence directly attributable to Universal Credit?

Are some claimants at particular risk of turning to “survival sex”? If so, who are they and what are the risk factors?

What changes to Universal Credit could help tackle this problem and better protect claimants?

What role should Jobcentre Plus play in supporting claimants who are involved in “survival sex” or sex work more widely?

You can share your story or evidence – we’d like to hear from you by Monday 29 April 2019.”

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More New ESA Claimants In Support Group

March 20, 2019

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

The latest DWP statistics for employment and support allowance (ESA) show a marked rise in the proportion of new claimants being placed in the support group.

In the latest quarter to September 2018, for ESA initial assessments:

  • 47% were placed in the support group, up 5% on the last quarter.
  • 21% were placed in the work-related activity group, up 1%.
  • 32% were found fit for work, down 6%.

For repeat ESA assessments, the figures are:

  • 72% support group.
  • 16% work-related activity group.
  • 12% fit for work.

Between October 2013 and June 2018, mandatory reconsideration success rates for ESA stand at just 14%.

Of those claimants who do not succeed at mandatory reconsideration stage, just 21% go on to appeal the decision.

Yet an average of 63% of those who go on to appeal won over this period, with current appeal success rates at 73%.

You can download the full ESA statistics here.

PIP And ESA Appeal Success At Highest Rate Ever

March 20, 2019

With many thanks to Benefits And Work.

Claimants are winning PIP and ESA appeals at the highest rate ever recorded, according to the latest Tribunals Service statistics, released last week.

Overall, an extraordinary 70% of social security appeals are successful, with the claimant getting a better award than they originally received from the DWP.

The success rates for benefits include:

  • ESA 74%
  • PIP 73%
  • DLA 66%
  • UC 58%

The success rate for PIP is up 4% on a year ago, whilst the success rate for ESA has risen 5%

The number of appeals is down, however.

ESA appeals are down by 42% compared to a year ago, although much of this is due to the introduction of universal credit.

PIP appeals are also down, this time by 14% compared to a year ago. This may, in part, be due to a slow down in the transfer of claimants from DLA to pip.

Overall, social security and child support appeals are down 19% on a year ago.

The time it takes for appeals to be dealt with is rising, however, is spite of a diminishing caseload.

The mean length of time for a case to be dealt with has risen to 30 weeks, up from 24 weeks a year ago.

You can read the full tribunal statistics here.

Special Educational Needs: Segregation Is Not The Answer

March 19, 2019

A showdown between parents of children with special needs and the government is coming. Three families from different parts of England have won the right to a judicial review of the funding allocated to local authorities to fulfil their obligation to educate the 253,680 young people in England with an Education, Health and Care plan (EHC) – or “statement” – and the 1,022,535 other children also entitled to some form of SEN support. Such budgets have been stretched beyond breaking point, while the number of children assessed as having special needs has increased for two years in a row until these groups now form 14.6% of the school population – with autistic spectrum disorders the most common type of need for pupils with a statement.

In December the Local Government Association predicted a funding shortfall of £1.6bn by 2020/21. Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Headteachers believes the code governing special needs education has been reduced to an “empty promise”. Yet so far the response from ministers has served to underline the problem rather than solve it. This is because, while additional resources are urgently needed, there is another aspect to the special needs crisis in England. Namely, that decades of progress towards an inclusive model in which, as far as possible, all children are educated together, are being rolled back.

In many ways, life for children with special needs and disabilities has improved immeasurably since Baroness Warnock’s seminal 1978 report. Gone is the discriminatory, prejudicial language of the past, while advances in child psychology and teacher training mean that children struggling with emotional or learning difficulties are less likely to be written off in primary school as simply naughty. But recent evidence shows that a decade of cuts has led to segregation once again increasing, with the percentage of EHC pupils attending state secondary schools falling 8% between 2010 and 2018, the bill for councils funding private special school places rising, and exclusions and unofficial “off-rolling” of hard-to-teach pupils both on the up.

It is not clear to what extent these shifts are the unintended consequence of policy changes and funding reductions that have increased pressures across the system, and to what extent they were ministers’ aim. But last week’s announcement that the government plans to open 37 new special free schools appears to confirm that the direction of travel has changed – in defiance of the UN, whose disability convention asserts the right of disabled people to learn with everyone else.

Clearly, mainstream schools are not for everyone and high-quality alternative settings are required for children who do not thrive in them. But moves to divide children according to their needs more frequently rather than less should be vigorously opposed. Inclusive education is not a liberal piety. Properly resourced, it benefits not only the children being included, but everyone else. That there is an unignorable socioeconomic dimension, with pupils with SEN more than twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals than those without, only serves to reinforce how undesirable segregation is.

As well as building special schools, ministers should focus on boosting inclusion. This is a fragmented system in which vulnerable children are falling through the cracks, and councils are loaded up with duties they lack the resources to fulfil. That families are taking ministers to court shows it has reached breaking point.

The Taboo Around Disability And Sex Limits Everyone

March 19, 2019

There remains a heavy taboo around sex and disability in our culture. Research by the charity Scope found that only 7% of non-disabled people have dated a disabled person, while disabled young people are let down when it comes to sex education, often receiving none at all, or nothing appropriate to their needs.

The writer and activist Penny Pepper, who writes extensively about disability and sex, including in her erotica collection Desires Reborn, told me: “If disabled people aren’t having sex, they would like to. And the reasons they’re not are overwhelmingly to do with the barriers in society. I’ve known quite a few disabled people who [because of this] have resigned themselves to never having sex.”

This isn’t just wrong because of the obvious: sex is fun, enables procreation and for many people is vital for wellbeing. It’s also wrong because it’s part of a process of denying disabled people full humanity, which makes it easier to marginalise us in other ways.

I’m invisibly disabled, so I don’t experience the stigma around sex that many visibly disabled people do. But I’ve still noticed that when you’re dealing with disability or chronic illness, there’s a sense that sex isn’t something you should be worrying about. You seem to be expected to exist in a shadow world of sadness and struggle, certainly not entitled to enjoy life (especially if you’re claiming benefits, when an appearance of wellness might get you investigated for fraud).

Some disabled people may be fetishised, a complex topic explored by Emily Yates in her documentary Meet the Devotees, but that’s not the same as the wide choice of sexual roles available to non-disabled people. Yates said: “We end up being one of two things – infantilised or hypersexualised – neither of which help with the normalisation of the disability and sex arena. I don’t want to be treated like a child or a ‘bucket list’ item, just the wheelchair-using woman that I am.”

But attitudes are starting to change a little. Mainstream media coverage of disabled people dating and having sex has become more common in recent years, from Channel 4’s The Undateables to a wave of articles exploring topics such as accessible sex toys. And disabled models are being seen on the catwalk and in major ad campaigns.

I don’t give the media much credit for this change, however. I think disabled people themselves have brought it about. Using social media and blogging over the past decade, we’ve built online communities that have enabled us to start taking control of the narratives around our lives. Sex bloggers with disabilities are talking frankly about the challenges – and joys – of sex in their particular bodies: Leandra Vane, who was wrongly told as a young woman that she’d never have sex because of spinal cord issues, writes about myriad ways of enjoying sex with widespread nerve damage, from “thinking herself off” to kink, and says “visibility is key to bringing about mainstream change”.

Charities are making good use of the internet, with the disability-led charity Enhance the UK’s Love Lounge offering online advice on sex and dating. In February, Andrew Gurza, a Canadian disability campaigner and writer, created the hashtag #DisabledPeopleAreHot and saw it go viral. Popular influencers such as the model Mama Cax and the retro fashion YouTuber Jessica Kellgren-Fozard celebrate disabled style (including customised mobility aids), while critiquing non-disabled beauty standards. And Imogen Fox offers frank posts and images about the realities of dealing with illness and bodily difference. Varied representations of disabled life, identity and subjectivity were never so accessible before. On taboo topics, the mainstream media generally operates on the basis of “oh, nobody wants to hear about that”. But in many areas, since the rise of social media, people are making it clear that actually, they do want to hear about it, because, hello, it’s part of their lives.

Meanwhile, in the sex toy industry, a few companies are selling products with disability or health conditions in mind, including Hot Octopuss (which I work for), Ruby Glow, the retailer Jo Divine, and Spokz, a disability-led site selling sex toys alongside mobility aids. But most sex toy companies make products aimed at young, non-disabled people and market them with the usual “media ideal” models and tropes. It perpetuates the idea that sex should be effortless, and done in the “right” way, and that those who can’t do it right should just disappear. If you can’t be penetrated, perhaps due to vaginismus (which affects young people too), can’t get an erection (ditto), need help with positioning etc, it’s just not sexy.

But the truth (that most won’t admit until they have to) is that illness and impairment are normal, everyday human experiences. One in five people are disabled. Add people with health conditions that affect sex life (for example, erectile dysfunction), people who are adapting sex to their naturally ageing bodies and … suddenly you’re talking about a lot of people who don’t fit the mould. We can continue to be limited by a fantasy view of what bodies are like and what sex is, one that marginalises most of us at some point, or we can grow up and start to accept each other and ourselves. As Pepper told me: “If a non-disabled person says, ‘Oh no, a disabled person can’t have sex’, well that really says more about that person’s lack of imagination [than anything else]. Sex isn’t just being penetrated with a dick.”

So what would a more accepting approach look like? Maybe all sex-related products and content would be made with the awareness that one-fifth of their audience may have a health issue that affects their sex life – whether reduced mobility, SSRI-induced anorgasmia, erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, sexual trauma or the natural changes of ageing; these are all factors that change sex, but do not automatically end it. Maybe we’d scrap “sex tips” that guarantee orgasms, or assume all bodies are alike and that penetration is the focus. Maybe more non-disabled people would explore the idea of dating disabled people. And maybe it would enable more of us to accept our own imperfect, ever-changing bodies as they are, throughout our lives, and explore more sexual possibilities without shame – and a bit more imagination.

Misleading DWP Letter On Fit Notes Leading To Benefit Delays

March 18, 2019

Chronically ill and disabled people are being left for months without benefits because officials are sending “misleading” letters to their GPs saying they no longer need to supply medical evidence on behalf of patients who are declared fit for work.

Campaigners and MPs have called for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) form letter to be scrapped after it emerged claimants appealing against a fit-for-work decision were left near-destitute after their GPs refused to provide “fit notes” because they were advised they did not need to.

Claimants who challenge work capability assessment (WCA) decisions are entitled to continue to receive employment and support allowance (ESA) worth £73.10 a week while they await their appeal hearing, but to do so they must obtain fit notes from their GPs to prove they are too ill to work.

It has emerged that ministers ordered changes to the standard-issue letter to remove references that made it clear to GPs they may have to issue a medical statement if their patient wished to appeal against a WCA decision. The DWP claims this was not intended to dissuade GPs from issuing fit notes.

Raji Hunjan, the chief executive of the advice charity Z2K, said the effect of the revised letter could be devastating. “We have seen how our clients, who are seriously ill, suddenly have zero income, become reliant on food bank vouchers and loans, and face a very real threat of homelessness.”

Z2K said one of its clients, called “Louis”, was refused a fit note by his GP while appealing against a WCA decision. He ran up rent arrears and became reliant on food banks before he was eventually able to switch GPs and get the medical statement he needed to claim benefits. After an eight-month wait, he won his appeal.

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chair of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said the lack of clarity over when GPs should issue fit notes could put patients’ finances and health at risk. “No GP wants that, and it only serves to threaten the long-standing trust that patients have in their family doctor.”

The WCA is hugely controversial because of widespread concern over its accuracy and reliability. Nationally, 72% of claimants who appeal against their WCA decision are successful. Z2K said nine out of every 10 WCA cases it takes to appeal are successful.

Last month, there was national outrage over the case of Stephen Smith, 64, who was deemed fit for work despite suffering from multiple debilitating illnesses, having his weight plummet to 38kg (6 stone) and being barely able to walk. Smith won his appeal after waiting 12 months for a hearing.

The standard letter, called an ESA65B, is sent automatically to the GPs of all claimants who fail a WCA and are declared fit enough to work. Until 2017 the letter advised GPs that if their patient appealed against the WCA decision they must continue to provide fit notes.

However, on ministers’ orders, the letter now states that GPs “do not need to provide any more fit notes for ESA purposes”. It does not mention the possibility that the patient may appeal, or that a fit note is needed for the patient to obtain ESA payments until the appeal is heard.

Frank Field, the chair of the work and pensions select committee, raised the issue with the then disability minister Sarah Newton in January. Newton replied that the wording was amended “to make the letter simpler and clearer”, adding that DWP communications were intended to be “clear, understandable and fit for purpose”.

Field replied scathingly that the wording was “not having the desired effect”, and urged her to revise it to make clear ESA claimants on appeal were entitled to fit notes. “This simple step could greatly ease the stress and worry that people who are awaiting an appeal experience.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “These letters simply inform GPs when a claimant has been found fit for work and are not intended to dissuade them from issuing fit notes for ESA appeal purposes, to claim otherwise is inaccurate.”

However, they hinted the letter may be changed: “We are committed to ensuring our communication is clear, which is why the wording of this letter was cleared by both the British Medical Association and the RCGP. However, we will of course consider feedback when revising the letter.”

It is unclear on what basis the RCGP agreed to the new wording as the change was agreed at a DWP stakeholder meeting for which, according to the Field-Newton correspondence, there appear to be no formal minutes.

Banks Discriminate Against Disabled And BAME People Says Financial Expert

March 18, 2019

Vulnerable members of society, including ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, are being discriminated against by banks, a former board member of the Financial Conduct Authority has said.

Mick McAteer, who now runs the Financial Inclusion Centre, says the regulator has failed to protect the people who can least afford it from being charged excessive amounts for unarranged overdrafts.

The FCA says those living in the most deprived areas are 70% more likely to have to use an unarranged overdraft than those living in the least deprived areas, and when they do so are paying up to twice as much in charges and fees.

The regulator also highlights that they tend to be from BAME (black and minority ethnic) communities and more likely to be financially vulnerable due to poor health and disability.

While the regulator has announced plans to reform overdrafts, such as banning excessive fees, McAteer believes the only way to properly protect vulnerable people is to introduce a cap on repayments.

He said: “The impact [of a cap] on payday lending has been such a success and we can’t see why the FCA can’t do the same for overdraft lending. Banks have been allowed to overcharge people from BAME communities, people with disabilities, single parents – I think this is a real dereliction of duty.

“It’s a fact of life that if you’re from a particular minority, you [are more likely to] have suffered discrimination in the workplace, in the housing market through no fault of your own and the regulator allows banks to discriminate against you in another area of your life.”

The payday loan cap restricts lenders to charging 0.8% a day in interest, including fees, and restricts the total cost of the loan to 100% so that borrowers never pay more than double the amount they borrowed.

By contrast the proposed overdraft rules require banks to charge the same interest rate for authorised and unauthorised overdrafts but stipulate no maximum level. Campaigners fear lenders will increase the rate on authorised overdrafts for vulnerable customers, rather than bringing down rates on unauthorised overdrafts.

The FCA estimates that in 2017, current account providers made over £2.4bn from overdrafts alone, with about 30% from unarranged overdrafts of which more than 50% came from just 1.5% of current account customers. That equates to these particular vulnerable customers paying about £533 a year on average in unarranged overdraft charges, says McAteer.

He argues the operation of unadulterated market forces and risk-based pricing (charging different people different prices according to their circumstances) is unfair because: “Banking is a utility, almost as important as having access to electricity, gas – and different rules have to apply.”

He is not alone in his views. Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert also favours a cap.

McAteer believes the FCA should be asking banks to look at historical loans where they have imposed very high overdraft charges, in the same way compensation has been provided for those mis-sold PPI. “It’s not beyond the wit of the banks and the FCA to start a redress programme,” he said.

An FCA spokesman said the regulator was consulting on proposals “to undertake the biggest intervention in the overdraft market in a generation, and we welcome any view on the changes we’ve suggested.

“We believe that these changes will provide greater protection for the millions of people that use overdrafts, particularly the most vulnerable.”

A spokesperson for UK Finance, which represents banks, said: “UK Finance members have been working with the regulator to explore new ways to better identify and support customers with repeat overdraft use and we will continue to liaise with the FCA in the coming months.”