Today I'm going to tell you a story.
It's not about me, for once: yes, I receive Disability Living Allowance, and yes, I receive Housing Benefit. Filling out the DLA form was one of the most misery-inducing and demoralising experiences of my life: even with 15,000 words of supporting notes, written in a desperate attempt to give them all the information they could possibly need, it took over six months and an appeal for the Department for Work and Pensions, as represented by ATOS, to realise I'm disabled.
[A grinning person wearing a red top hat sits in a wheelchair, holding up a sign that reads "The government says I'm not disabled." This photo was taken during the Lashings run at OxFringe 2012.]
Today the story is about my grandfather.
My grandfather is in his mid-90s. Until two and a half years ago, he cared for my grandmother; since then, he's been living alone in a house with no full-time neighbours, half a mile and change down a grass-and-dirt road. He qualified as an engineer in the 30s - having studied in the evenings around his day job on a Lord's estates. He served in the Second World War, and picks and chooses the stories he tells us very carefully. After the war, he worked as a civil engineer for local councils right up until retirement.
For the first time in his life, he's applying for benefits: specifically, Attendance Allowance. The form's identical to that for DLA. The way we're working this is: he went through it first, then sent it home with my aunt for her and my mother to look over.
To be clear: both my aunt and my mum hold PhDs in the humanities, specifically in languages. They both work for one of the top ten universities in the world. They're about as privileged as it's possible to be in terms of sheer force of highly-educated middle-class ladies: they were the first in their family to go to university, and my grandfather supported them in that - enthusiastically.
So: they went through his form. They annotated it with places it needed expanding. They typed up their notes in fair; and last week, I went home to look over both my grandfather's form and the notes they'd made on it.
For nearly every single question, I added more notes: you should say this; you need to quantify that; is the other true? - because if so, he should be saying it. For some questions, they'd collectively ticked the box figuratively marked "does not apply" - and I took one look and said "actually, yes, it does."
For the first time in his life, my grandfather is asking the government for financial support. He doesn't ask for help: this is painful enough for him in and of itself.
The form heaps shame and indignity on top of that.
For the DWP, asking isn't enough: you have to beg, and they don't even have the decency to tell you this explicitly.
It's not enough to say "well, I sometimes have a bit of difficulty with getting to the loo, but I suppose I cope?" No: you have to go into gruelling, agonising detail: about how long it takes you to get to the loo. About how much difficulty you have balancing. About how many times a day you soil yourself, and exactly how much clean-up and laundry takes out of you - or how much time you spend wearing dirty clothes because you simply can't face it. About how you can't go to the toilet in the night, so you use a potty or commode - and how hard it is for you to empty it in the morning, because if you're carrying a chamberpot you can't use both hands for walking sticks.
Make no mistake: filling out these forms is gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and humiliating. They force you to give excruciating detail on all of the worst parts of your life; there is no space for reminding yourself that you have coping strategies, that it's not always this bad, or they'll decide you're fine all the time.
But they don't tell you this. They don't tell you that to be in with even half a chance of getting appropriate support, you have to focus on worst-case scenarios. My grandfather couldn't tell that from the form and guidance notes; my mother and aunt couldn't tell, either. The only reason I know is that I've done this before: that I asked friends for help, that I knew people who knew to recommend the excellent Benefits and Work, that I've been here and done this and squeezed blood from this stone once before.
This is not fair. This is not equitable. This is no way for a just society to treat people who've dedicated their lives to it, whether legibly and traditionally or outside the mainstream; it's no way to treat people who haven't been able to dedicate their lives to it.
The Welfare Reform Bill isn't making life easier for the most vulnerable. It's not protecting them. If anything, it's making the entire situation worse.
There is no excuse.