The Benefits Project in Covid times

Will increased exposure to the benefits system in the wake of Covid-19 increase empathy for claimants? Kelly Camilleri, Katie Voss and Vicki Weare.

Of all the tools and skills acquired as a practicing psychologist, the most important is empathy. Empathy is the magic dust which, when sprinkled liberally, allows exciting things to happen. Rigid, dictatorial systems limber up and start thinking about a person’s behaviour as a communication of distress rather than an act to be punished. Families who have felt nothing but a critical eye on their care start to recognise their own strengths and the huge demands placed on them. Empathy can enhance and build relationships.

It was with this framework that we attended Stephen Weatherhead’s ‘Time to Get Off the Fence’ conference in October 2016. For the three of us who travelled from Devon to Manchester that day, our eyes were opened to the degrading and hostile environment created by systemic changes to the benefits system within the context of austerity. Indeed, the UK’s benefits system has been subjected to numerous UN reports with concerns that successive policies have violated human rights, and that people with disabilities are most at risk. The roll out of universal credit in 2010 reinforced a societal narrative around benefits claimants as either deserving or not (Garthwaite, 2014), increasing perceptions that there are a high proportion of fraudulent claimants – an attitude heightened media portrayals of benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’. This belief is so widespread that between 2015 and 2017, 332,850 benefit fraud tip-offs were received from the public. Of those, 87 per cent were unsubstantiated (Cowburn, 2018). Empathy for the vulnerable has been replaced by mistrust and vilification.

At the conference, speakers with lived experience of the process described unrelenting hurdles before being awarded, if you were lucky, a meagre amount of money. The majority of initial claims were rejected, with claimants then having to endure an up to 18-month tribunal process, where approximately 70 per cent of rejections from the DWP are then overturned. My Devon colleagues and I agreed that we were not going to simply ‘sit on the fence’, and by December 2016 the ‘Benefits Project’ was born. We run pro bono clinics providing psychological assessment and reports that could be used as supporting medical evidence for claimants, and also attend tribunals and face-to-face assessments when required. Additionally, with approximately 30 members, the Benefits Project also focuses on research and activism. The project has now seen over 100 clients, supervised four research projects, and completed awareness raising with community partners.  

Individuals who need to claim benefits have many hurdles to jump even to receive the initial application. Once received, this document is laborious and confusing. The claimant will then often have to undergo a ‘work capability assessment’. The ‘health assessor’ does not have to have any relevant experience of the condition impacting the claimant. These assessments last up to two hours and include extremely personal questions about how health conditions impact daily life. By accompanying people to their assessments, we have witnessed first-hand extremely distressing and demoralising events. We accompanied a claimant who had attempted suicide three times who was asked to recount in detail these experiences while the assessor, making no eye contact, typed into her computer. At the end she said, again without eye contact, ‘I’m confused, was the first one the hanging or the overdose?’. The claimant cried for most of the assessment. Recently, we accompanied someone with five different mental health conditions to their work capability assessment. Her assessment lasted two and a half hours on the anniversary of her child’s death. If she had altered the appointment, she would have been sanctioned. The assessment was so long because each mental health condition was subjected to separate questioning. Towards the end of the assessment it was clear to that the claimant had dissociated.

Our aim in supporting people at these appointments is twofold. One, we want to ensure the ‘health assessor’ understands the mental health and neurological conditions the claimant is experiencing. Two, we want to help the person to objectify the experience as much as possible and for the process itself not to result in additional harm. Studies have illustrated that people claiming benefits experience shame, stigma, and financial hardship, and there have been numerous deaths and suicides attributable to the benefits environment described. The National Audit Office (2020) revealed that the DWP have investigated 69 suicides of benefit claimants since 2014. They highlighted this number is likely to not represent the total number of cases it could have investigated and found no evidence the DWP has acted on any previous recommendations. Twenty mental health organisations and charities, including the Royal College of Psychiatry, came together this March to call for an independent inquiry into avoidable deaths as a result of failures in the welfare system. 

It feels we have an opportunity to build on the connection and kindness being shown by many communities towards those most vulnerable in the wake of Covid-19. Austerity has relied on the societal vilification of benefits claimants. Now more people have experienced sudden, uncontrollable changes to their circumstances, and face first-hand the challenges and unpleasant realities of claiming benefits, might this increase understanding towards those who have been victims of this system for much longer? 

We don’t know what a post-Covid society will look like in the next few months, let alone years, but there is one thing we can anticipate: those who were already vulnerable will have been disproportionately impacted by this crisis. The Benefits Clinic has seen people disempowered and terrified by the current benefits system, and given them space to feel listened to and understood without judgement such as this. We encourage psychologists who are interested in setting up their own benefits projects to contact Psychologists for Social Change Southwest branch for more information. With more than two million additional universal credit claims since March, will additional exposure to the benefits system reduce vilification and finally enable empathy in the system? We certainly need some of that magic dust. 

- Dr Kelly Camilleri (Clinical Psychologist), Katie Voss (Assistant Psychologist) and Vicki Weare (Trainee Clinical Psychologist), on behalf of Psychologists for Social Change Southwest


Cowburn, A. (2018). Benefit fraud “witch hunt”: 280,000 public tip-offs led to no action taken due to lack of evidence

Garthwaite, K. (2014). Fear of the brown envelope: Exploring welfare reform with long‐term sickness benefits recipients. Social Policy & Administration48(7), 782-798.

National Audit Office. (2020). Information held by the Department for Work & pensions on deaths by suicide of benefit claimants.  

Nielsen, E., (2020) Small-scale Service-related Research Project: Experiences of Participants of the Benefits Project. Unpublished manuscript.

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