Monday, 9 January 2017

Mrs May & Mental Health & A Little Walk

"Fine words butter no parsnips", as Kenneth Clark (OM)'s grandmother used to say, and Mrs May has talked much about mental health, and injustice, and ignorance and prejudice, and so on. All very good. No money has been offered. So, nothing will happen.

But I'm not a knocker, I have an idea, and I wish to share it with Mrs May and those involved in our benefits and fiscal system. Yes, I know that's not about health, but when it comes to mental health, your financial security is absolutely essential, whether it's knowing your home is secure, or the freedom from the fear of the bailiffs, and the terrifying brown (increasingly white, the tricksy devils) envelopes that accumulate on your doormat, and remain unopened precisely because you can know exactly what's in them, and you can do nothing about them.

Work is one of the three keys to fulfilment and mental health (according to Jung - the other two are love, and faith) and work for people with mental sickness is very tricky. I'm guessing, much though I'd like to belong to a more interesting and exclusive club, that the most common form of mental sickness is mine, depression. There was a time when we could be signed off by our GPs for years on end and receive Incapacity Benefit to live on, and help with housing and council tax costs, because we were deemed unable to work. Our GPs had made a judgement that whilst there might be some work we could do, some of the time, the requirement to find full-time work, or face constant sackings (and evictions and deeper poverty) for declining into sickness again, or endlessly to seek jobs we wouldn't get, would actually make our health worse, not better.

Then Atos and Maximus came along. Atos is a French-owned, for-profit, company that managed the "work capacity test", which tested not whether you could hold down a 40-hour-a-week job, but whether you could do any work at all. My mental health was subjected to the intense scrutiny of being asked whether I could walk across a room. I happened to be using a walking stick that day, as I'd just sprained my ankle. I don't think the examiner had paid attention to her notes, nor to my GP, nor my psychiatrist. Like most people sent to Atos, I was deemed fit to work, because my mental state didn't stop me walking across a room (are there many jobs which solely involve walking across rooms?). And like most people thrown off Incapacity Benefit and onto Jobseekers Allowance and fortnightly - or more frequent - attendance at the Labour Exchange, I didn't contest it. I didn't have the emotional energy. I figured I could live on £30 a week less.

And this is where the Labour Exchange ("Jobcentre+" - never could work out what the "plus" was) and Maximus come in. The government makes you sign on for a year, and then the toughnuts are sent to Maximus, an American-owned for-profit company which claims to find people work. I had to walk into town 5 times a fortnight - it's 4 miles each way - once to sign on, and twice to look through the online job columns of "Daily Information" which I could as easily read at home. And I had to apply for jobs. Lots of them, whether or not there was the faintest chance of getting them, which wasted not only my own time, but my non-potential employers'. Also, if a realistic job came up in an outfit to which I'd made a futile application for another, having a distinctive name, I reckoned it was actually queering my own pitch to write such rubbish.

They don't actually help you, unless you are illiterate. I asked to go on a computer course - they didn't make me, and I went, but like everything else, it was provided by a for-profit company, "Learning Direcct" and tailored very precisely to a particular bunch of products. They provide computers. Their computers do not give you access to websites of things like churches - like the church for whom I now work. Sometimes their staff get ratty - "I could force you to come in five times a week", said handsome young James, one time. "And I've forgotten more than you'll ever know, you ignorant little pig", I didn't respond. You have to be kind and to charm, even when the internet is down and you've walked four miles for nothing.

And here's a little thing - the reason I don't need antidepressants is that I walk. I discovered this for myself - walking makes me feel better. But walking needs to be at least in a neutral mood. Going somewhere horrible to be abused, isn't a therapeutic walk. Idle meandering is the best walking of all. Going there was hell, coming home was OK. My psychiatrist said "so really, they are getting in the way of your cure". And they were.

The job I got, as I said, was with a church. It was a part-time one. I figured after 8 years out of paid work (not idle - I'd been walking, reading, researching, writing, caring for cats, shopping, cooking, doing the laundry, tending to plants, burying the dead, and trying to be a friend, all along) that a 40-hour week would send me back to madness. They told me my new job would leave me £70 a week better off. They lied. In a way, I'm glad they lied because the job is great, the people are kind, there are things that really matter to do and I'm getting them done. But low-paid, or part-time, work doesn't reward you financially.

The lie was because they didn't factor in council tax, for which you receive 100% remission whilst on incapacity benefit or JSA, and for which you cop the whole bill no matter how little you earn when you're in work. So, for a time, my council tax was 9% of my income, when I paid no income tax at all. This month I am having a pay rise. This now means I do pay income tax - and my actual income will fall. It's only 12p a month, and the treasurer says he's blowed if he's changing the standing order for such a pettyfogging amount. But the system is wrong.

So, Mrs May, if you really want to help us, let us work a half ticket when we're not the full ticket. Tax us fairly if we find work. Don't bully us into applying for jobs we'll never get. And let us walk - where we want to go - because actually, in this matter, we really do know best.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2017

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