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Fear of the brown envelope: long-term sickness benefits recipients and welfare reform. Kayleigh Garthwaite k.a.garthwaite@durham.ac.uk Hardest Hit symposium, Leeds University September 20 th 2012. Context.

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fear of the brown envelope long term sickness benefits recipients and welfare reform

Fear of the brown envelope: long-term sickness benefits recipients and welfare reform

Kayleigh Garthwaite


Hardest Hit symposium, Leeds University

September 20th 2012

  • Currently, in the UK there are 2.6 million people with health conditions or a chronic illness who are claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)
  • Government rhetoric and many newspapers headlines brand IB recipients as ‘workshy’, ‘cheats’, ‘scroungers’ and ‘lazy’ (Garthwaite, 2011)
  • Yet latest DWP evidence shows that only 0.8% of the total benefits bill is due to fraud. A further 0.8% (£1.2bn) is lost in customer error, plus 0.5% (£0.8bn) in official error


  • Qualitative semi-structured interviews with 25 long term IB recipients in the County Durham and South Tyneside areas of North East England
  • 18 semi-structured interviews with individuals working with IB recipients – DWP, GPs, PCT, welfare to work organisations
  • Recruited via Jobcentre Plus ‘Choices’ events
experiences of the wca
Experiences of the WCA
  • There were only two participants, Kevin and Terry, who had been assessed at the time of the research in 2011.
  • Kevin, a former Army recruit and taxi driver, suffers from arthritis and cardiovascular problems. He had been receiving IB since 2006 but was reassessed two years ago and was found fit for work. Kevin and his wife Jennifer described the difficulties they had negotiating the assessment and appeals process:

KM: I got reassessed two year ago and this nurse assessed me that I was fit enough to work. In that interview she’d seen us hobble to the changing room, try and get on the bed and virtually be lifted on the bed, I was asked to bend down and pick something off the floor which I couldn’t do and she said I was able to work

  • JM: I mean she saw him for what, 15 minutes for this medical? Its nurses, retired doctors looking for extra money that are doing these medicals, they shouldn’t be doing them
  • KG: So what happened after they said you were fit for work?
  • KM: They took us off the sick and I had to go for a tribunal and it took three tribunals to win the case in the end...I was still getting normal dole but it’s less so I mean really it was a heck of a fight and it put more strain on us.

Terry, 53, is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had recently undergone a WCA with Atos when I interviewed him in August 2011 and was awaiting his decision letter. Terry said:

  • “I've been on Incapacity for quite a while, for the last 10 years and it’s as if they’re trying to trick you into admitting that you’re well are you with me? They don’t...the system doesn’t care about you, you’re just a number there’s no leeway so I’m waiting for a letter now saying I've been failed, more hassle. They send a letter to say I've passed or I haven’t passed, if it’s passed then all well and good but if its failed...I’ve got a worker, a something officer I have to see at the psychiatric hospital and she does appeals and claims against decisions and she will handle my case. She’s assured me that I’ll be ok because my consultant will write a letter to them saying I’m unable to work but all this rigmarole you have to go through...they don’t realise how stressful it is, just waiting and waiting for a sword of Damocles hanging over you.”
awaiting the brown envelope
Awaiting the ‘brown envelope’
  • The majority of narratives revealed a huge amount of fear and trepidation over ongoing welfare reform. Participants spoke about worrying about the assessment on a daily basis, accompanied by a deep mistrust of the entire system. Below, Fred, 53, gives his thoughts on the process:
  • “I think a lot of people in my situation that are genuinely ill are gonna be pressurised and it’s gonna cause breakdowns, possibly even the worst case scenario y’know topping yourself but there again what can you do? If they could cut a penny in half they would. I think if they could bring euthanasia in, they would. If they could find a way of getting round all the moral outrage they’d probably do it. Take all the lame ones out, just like a sick animal.”

Some participants specifically mentioned their fear over receiving an official-looking brown envelope through their letterbox – a possible indicator of a communication from the DWP. Sarah said of her daily fear of being selected for the reassessment:

  • “When the postman comes with any sort of brown envelope it is really worrying...I try not to read about it cos it’s so frightening, it’s like oh my God they’ll send you to the dole straightaway is what’s in your mind. Who will employ you, and what jobs are there? Where are the jobs? If they send me for a job in Darlington, how do I afford the bus fare on minimum wage? I mean who is gonna employ me, I’ll be between an hour to two hours in the middle of the day doing my eyes, it’s at least 20 minutes between each drop so that’s an hour, then I can’t guarantee that I can see for an hour, I cannot see who will pay me to do that. My arm – will that ever work properly again? I do not know. I have absolutely no idea.”
language and stigma
Language and stigma
  • Deriving from the language surrounding sickness benefits receipt, a feeling of stigma and shame was described as being created by political representations of the reform process, as Mick shows below:
  • “I haven’t had that assessment yet and that worries us, definitely but when David Cameron said all that saying there’s a lot of scroungers I mean I do recognise there’s a lot of people who shouldn’t be on it but its generalisation and it’s just upsetting. It does upset us there are genuine people like I said before...but yeah it is stigmatisation when you’re on benefits it does upset us it’s not fair but I just get on with it basically. I feel under the Labour government they were more sort of friendly towards people with social problems and disabilities etc but I think the Tories have come in at a difficult time and it’s an easy group of people to target.”

When asked about media representations of IB recipients, Alice said:

  • “It worries us and it’s annoying like these riots they’re trying to blame people on benefits like me. David Cameron is an arsehole - I can hardly walk to the doctors but he doesn’t know that, I cannot stand for 8 hours a day, and then he has the gall to say things like that. He really has no idea whatsoever what it’s like to be me.”
  • Terry said:
  • “I’d say when you look at it in the press there’s always that scrounger element, the government, the media, they always use the word scrounger and people on Incapacity Benefit are tarred with that brush, all of them. A lot of people are genuinely ill y’know and they don’t realise, they can’t empathise. They’ve never travelled a mile in my shoes and they make no effort to, so until they change their basic premise by which they go about these things, they’ll never change.”
no fear of reform it ll separate the wheat from the chaff
No fear of reform: ‘it’ll separate the wheat from the chaff’
  • Jacqui believed welfare reform was positive as it could help to alleviate the stigma she feels of being associated with other ‘scroungers’:
  • “I think it’s a good thing. People like me who’s genuine are getting stigmatised for the people who are just layabouts, you see them digging gardens or changing wheels on their car and it’s not fair...it’ll separate the wheat from the chaff, definitely. You can tell when somebody’s not genuine, it’s not fair for the genuine people. I’m wanting to do something with me life, not just sit about pretending I’m bad y’know?”
  • Interestingly, whilst IB recipients spoke of how they felt stigma about receiving IB, they also identified other IB recipients as ‘scroungers’, ‘fake’, and ‘lazy’. Jackie, 50, said:
  • “I hate being associated with them no hopers, they don’t even want a job and it’s like ‘God, this is not me’ and you’re stigmatised, claiming benefit cos you’ve got a bad back. I’d love to go to work but I can’t, you can’t tar everybody with the same brush.”
  • The same sentiment was found in Linda’s interview:
  • Well there is a lot of people that milk it, there’s a bloke down the street does it, says he has a broken back then he goes out on his motorbike three times a week, mows his garden. I mean I've tried to get the mobility for the car but apparently I’m not sick enough for that. I can’t walk along that road without extreme pain but I’m not sick enough for a car apparently.

Yet this discourse can impact upon people’s daily lives, as Shaun’s interview shows:

  • “It’s not so much being on benefits it’s when you’ve got an illness and you’re on benefits cos they always think you’re fiddling. The amount of times I’ve heard the neighbours saying ‘He’s supposed to be bad but look he’s going out for the night’. I hate it. Now that I’ve moved again I deliberately keep meself to meself and no matter how much pain I’m in I always walk to the car unaided, I keep all me sticks in the car because I don’t want people to see my sticks and think ‘Oh what’s the matter with him?’ I’ve never fiddled anything, I’ve worked all me life.”
  • The research reveals a dichotomy of responses – firstly, a deep seated fear of reform and what it could mean for participants in the study, and secondly, a belief that reform is a positive shift that will not affect them as they are, in fact, genuinely ill.
  • Fears over welfare reform can evoke extreme anxiety and apprehension
  • These fears, coupled with government, media and public perceptions, appears to be creating a worrying undercurrent amongst sickness benefits recipients themselves that perceives other sick and disabled people as ‘undeserving’.