Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Loan sharks, the DWP and others who prey on vulnerable people.

Job Centre staff are being trained, at a cost of £8+m, to spot people who may be being targeted by loan sharks.

Jobcentre staff have five minutes to process each ‘customer’ and are rarely positively interested in the lives of the people they manage.
“There’s a fat pig of a man works in the Jobcentre, he comes in the pub and he only has to get slightly pissed to start in on his favorite topic, how much he hates people on benefits. ‘I took her money off her,’ he said and the landlady said, ‘What, you took her money off her and her kids just before Christmas?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. You can't say anything to him, he's a shit of a bully and if you need to go to the Jobcentre he'll make your life hell."
“This nasty tiny little woman who’s been working at the Jobcentre for fucking ever. She owns the place. Some woman kicked off because the computers had broken down and she’d been waiting for half an hour and then she walked out. This woman yelled across the office, ‘See when she came in, let’s see if she was late so we can get her.’ Bitch. You don’t want to catch her eye.”

Any intrusion by the DWP into a claimants life is perceived as a threat, because that is almost uniquely what it is. Have you done any work in the last two weeks? Do you have a boyfriend? Where does he live? Does your elderly mother who’s just moved into your already overcrowded home have savings over £2,000? These and other questions are about finding ways to reduce the amount of benefits paid to you not making sure that you’re receiving the correct ones.

Scambusters and Illegal Money Lending (IML) under the aegis of Trading Standards are already doing this important work pretty effectively resulting in loans being wiped out and imprisonment of the worst sharks (that they’ve caught.) The scheme sounds excellent and I hope it works to bring support and liberation to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. But with the culture of contempt and abuse of power within the DWP I fear yet more money will be poured into another benefits project for no return and a quiet phasing out of the scheme, as happened with lie detectors being used when speaking with ‘customers’ on the phone.

 Nothing would please me better than to be wrong.

In the meantime, here’s some information about Elizabeth Finn Care a charity that offers money to poor people, no strings attached.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

We Live In Interesting Times

Tomorrows protest march is against cuts in disability benefits. Just as the protest against the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (a payment to the children of very poor households) was attended by thousands fewer demonstrators than protests against increases in costs to university students so there are likely to be very few people attending tomorrow. People in receipt of Disability Living Allowance and other benefits aimed at people who are too ill to work have been subjected to dreadful propaganda.

Godwin’s Law normally holds good but in this case I think there’s something to be learned from comparing the rhetoric about the cost of caring for disabled people today and how it echoes that of Nazi Germany.

Helpfully, this article also references the lies of omission around ‘Fraud and Error.’

These are turbulent times, all of us are caught up in it one way or another, it’s impossible to ignore. I wonder if psychotherapy has anything to offer to the understanding of this cycle of radicalism?

Post script Indeed, 20 people turned up in Trafalgar Square. Read a disabled activists perception of the issues.

Monday, 13 December 2010

British Social Attitudes Survey

Interesting news today from the British Social Attitudes survey

Just 27 per cent of the population feels the government should spend more on benefits, even at the cost of higher taxes, compared with 58 per cent when Margaret Thatcher left power 20 years ago

The report is particularly interesting where is suggests that 80% of us are concerned about the gap between rich and poor and about 50% of us want a rise in the minimum wage, a reduction of which is now under review by the Coalition. The propaganda around people on benefits has succeeded in keeping people in work who would be better off on benefits.

It also means that people on benefits will be under greater stress simply by virtue of being on benefits in a way that they weren’t 30 years ago. How might they cope with that? With feelings of shame and humiliation? Overcompensation in order to maintain some sense of self-worth? Lying, keeping secrets?

It’s also worth noting that we’ve taken on board the language around ‘Equality of opportunity,’ but don’t care so much about ‘Equality of outcome.’ Interviewers, please take note: we all know there’s a standardised spiel around Equal Ops, here’s a fresh to approach that moves from what has become a rather mindless exercise to having to think and respond to reality.

Much of this information has been available for some time from research organisations such as Oxfam
Joseph Rowntree,  National Council for Voluntary Organisation.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Government cannot sue for benefit overpayments

"I got a letter from the benefits saying I owed them thousands of pounds. How the hell am I going to pay that back? I'm on £90 a week!"  Darren

A coalition of anti-poverty campaigners had said many claimants were worried and frightened by the threat of legal action. Social security payments are extremely complicated and claimants often do not realise that they are being overpaid.
Campaigners argued that many had spent the money received and had no means to repay. Claimants in receipt of these benefits were likely to be on extremely low incomes, and could be vulnerable, elderly or in poor health, they said.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Campaign Against Living Miserably

Young men are killing themselves at an alarming rate.
Male suicide rates are consistently higher than female. A man takes his own life every three hours in England and Wales.
Being a young man can be a lonely, miserable experience particularly if you don't have the means to distract yourself. Women of all ages are generally more used to discussing their feelings and problems and have networks of other women who can help them through difficult times. Having children helps women grow up, take responsibility for themselves and engage with life, even if that means just getting up in the morning, feeding their child and themselves, getting them to and from school. By comparison, many men don't take responsibility for themselves.
The majority of men drink alcohol at a level that could be harmful to their health. In 2005, 35% of men exceeded the recommended daily limit (four units ) at least one day during the previous week. A further 19% drank more than eight units, double the recommended daily limit.

This isn't a value statement but one of truth for a great many men, which is one reason why they still die before women particularly if they are poor.

Men who are defined as partly skilled or unskilled have a far lower life expectancy. In 2005, the last year for which such comparative data is available, life expectancy at birth for men in social class 1 was already 77.7 years (higher than the average for all men today). For those in Social Class V, it was just 68.2 years.
The Campaign Against Living Miserably is a charity set up by men for men. This is important. It recognises that men are not women and that there are important cultural differences.

Many mothers and female partners manage the health and wellbeing of men, a paradoxical situation which recognises that many men will not take responsibility for themselves and denies them the opportunity to do so. Men are further distanced from their own cultures and from themselves. Most counsellors, nurses, social workers, teachers, most of the professionals that boys and men in Britain come into contact with are women, and whilst there's no doubt that a masculine agenda still dominates every sphere of public life and most areas of private life it's an old truth that patriarchy hurts everyone, women and men.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

"Am I Worth Your While? Am I Worth Your While?"

If you can, track down Simon Israel's film on the Diamond Project

Here's the written report 

James Jarvis is one of the men that's being helped by the Diamond Project.
One of the Diamond team, probation officer Colin Budd swings by his one bedroom flat by at least once a week to help him through a minefield of bureaucracy, housing, job seeking, appointments, and a mountain of  paperwork.

For me, the most poignant part of the film was when Colin Budd was explaining to Simon Israel that if a person on the project reoffends the team assess the situation to decide if it's worthwhile for that person to continue with the project. As he's explaining, James Jarvis is looking at him and finally interrupts the interview to ask, "Am I worth your while? Am I worth your while?" It sounded like something he'd been asking for many years.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Saturday I clean public toilets (though of course my colleagues are unaware of my situation)

A sobering blog on street homelessness from a woman who works a 6 day week.

‘My landlord asked me to move so he could sell,’ writes Aibaihe, 35. ‘I wanted to take advantage of the notice period but he preferred a shorter timeframe. After numerous threats, he simply changed the locks, stealing anything of value and throwing the rest into the street.
‘The police said I could be arrested if I tried to force my way back in. The council refused to assist because I wasn’t on benefits. The solicitor wanted £4,000 to sue him. I lived on a campsite for eight months and then moved onto the streets because free was all I could afford and, having slept rough as a teenager, I knew I could manage.
‘My salary is taken up entirely on a foreign mortgage where my family live. My income has been halved in the recession. All current housing options for the homeless are aimed at those who don’t work and are outrageously expensive.’

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Happiness Index

You’ll be pleased to hear that the Government have, conveniently in the middle of a recession, decided that happiness can be measured in more than GDP. The Gross Domestic Product is the value of goods and services that a country produces annually and has been used to calculate how happy (because rich=happy, right?) a nation might be. In the UK our GDP has been growing steadily since 1948 and we are even now the 6th wealthiest nation in the world. Yet very far from the 6th happiest, we come a fairly miserable 74th. There is a distinct link between misery and financial prosperity, with China and India’s growing unhappiness linked to their increasing economic success.

Lord Layard in a government report back in 2005 suggested that

A network of 250 treatment centers staffed by 10,000 therapists are needed urgently to tackle the epidemic of unhappiness that is Britain's "biggest social problem.

Whilst many therapists understand happiness to be elusive at best and philosophically difficult to determine we’re still steering clients towards ways of being that we find acceptable as if acceptability equals wellbeing. It’s become an unthinking cliché that wellbeing and employment walk hand in hand, something that a majority of counsellors swallow carelessly and repeat in all kinds of unthinking manners with each other and with clients, one which just happens to suit the values of a politics which calculates happiness via the GDP i.e. gives extreme worth to employment and opprobrium to its opposite.

In fact, being employed can be profoundly disturbing to and unhealthy for many people. It’s where most adults experience bullying – 1 in 4 employees are currently experiencing it.

Where competition and comparison are part of personal and professional development people are under enormous pressure to ‘perform’ that is, to do stuff that they’ve been trained like monkeys to do, which may be entirely unnatural to them, and which determines their entire system of self worth and personal values. It is positively bad for ones health, for instance, to travel in conditions that are illegal for transporting cattle but which many commuters submit to twice daily.

Individual people - you, me, our friends, colleagues and clients – are only acceptable when we’re producing stuff that has an economic value. Artists are only artists when they sell their products at a profit that allows them to lead a ‘normal’ life: those that don’t are fantasists or otherwise deluded. They can also be a genuine financial drain on their partners and families, another pressure to reject what can be fundamental to their wellbeing to become a respectable, tax paying consumer member of society.

Respectability is a severely powerful force. Counsellors want to be respectable and accepted by our peers only rocking the boat, if at all, in an acceptable manner, perhaps by producing some unthreatening research. Knowing that people are more than machine parts seems obvious and worthy, but to propose that being employed is exactly that for a great many people is threatening and revolutionary for many counsellors. Too many of us grind our way through the BACP accreditation process knowing that most complaints are made against accredited counsellors and not caring because employment as a counsellor is increasingly dependent on being accredited.

For a nuanced understanding of the role of employment in happiness take a look at

Work, Happiness and Unhappiness
Peter Warr
Psychology Press

and imagine if those 250 centers employing 10,000 thoughtful counsellors genuinely empowered individuals to seek what authentically brought them pleasure.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Benefits and Work

Take some time to browse the Benefits and Work site. Join their mailing list. You'll get a couple of emails a month with fascinating links that will help you understand the experience of people who are feeling under threat from all sides, in a fundamental way.

Here's a copy of the mail I received today. From time to time we might ask clients if they'd be interested in knowing about of sources of information and support: this is one that empowers the individual in properly meaningful ways.

£4,000 backdated disability living allowance for ME

"Just wanted to thank benefits and work for all the advice on the site. I won my appeal for DLA and went from being awarded nothing to getting lower rate care and higher rate mobility (for severe ME)!
"The DWP wanted to start my claim from December, but somehow the tribunal put the date as August. I've just spoken to someone who has confirmed back-dated payment of over £4000 - a good day!"
More good news from members at the end of this email

Disabled claimants to be starved into obedience

The welfare reform white paper published today is not just about the new universal credit.  It is also about imposing a harsh new regime of sanctions on existing employment and support allowance claimants before the new benefit is even introduced.

Under the new regime, claimants in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (ESA), and the hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled claimants being forced onto JSA by increasingly harsh medical tests, face potentially indefinite 100% cuts in their benefit for minor ‘offences’.

Members can find out more about the coalition’s plans for a ‘fairer’ system of
starving claimants into submission  (Members only) now and we’ll be doing a full write up of the universal credit in the near future.

Meanwhile, if you’re feeling angry about the cuts then do bear in mind that according to the minister for disabled people the plan to kick one in five claimants off DLA is in order to stop the media attacking claimants and branding them as workshy scroungers.  Oh and she also says that it’s ‘not particularly helpful’ to blame the government for anti-claimant propoganda when
it’s really all the fault of the media.

Elsewhere, we have the news that the
Youreable benefits forum has reopened after almost a year.  But we’re wondering if their threats of huge financial penalties and criminal prosecution for people who repeatedly misuse the site will put off more genuine claimants than troublemakers?

We also have news of a
brand new website which allows private tenants to find out how much benefit they may lose under the coalition’s plans to cut housing benefit.

And it’s not just the DWP and local authorities who are after your money. We’ve heard from the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group that incapacity benefit claimants may soon be receiving demands for underpaid tax from HMRC.  Find out what to do
if the taxman comes after you.

One bit of good news, however, is the announcement by the DWP that they are
abandoning plans to introduce lie detectors for benefits claimants after discovering that they don’t work.

And finally, as always, we’re sharing some good news from our forums.

Higher rate mobility and middle rate care DLA indefinitely

Higher rate mobility and middle rate care DLA in just 4 weeks

ESA up from 6 to 15 points

ESA medical success before incapacity benefit appeal

ESA appeal success on review

Thank you – even though I’ve no idea of the result!

Good luck,
Steve Donnison

Monday, 8 November 2010

Empathy as an economic tool

The long-term unemployed are likely to be pushed into 4 weeks full time voluntary work or lose their entire income for 3 months. The Arch Bishop of Canterbury believes, "It can make people who start feeling vulnerable feel more vulnerable.”

Like so much of our public discourse the arguments are presented out of context and we’re encouraged to polarise, so it may be worth some analysis of this situation.

Many unemployed people already volunteer. This is recognised by the Department for Work and Pensions who limit the number of hours that an unemployed person can volunteer to 16 per week so that it doesn’t get in the way of job seeking. How this squares with 35 hours of full time voluntary work isn't addressed by the new proposal.

Those of us who are angry with people who live on benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ may be interested in the following and the comments afterwards.

The DWP’s own research offers some insight into unemployed people’s perception of voluntary work, one of the most important things to note is that people who are unemployed are also very bored.

For some people this boredom is a spur to action, for others it is the beginning of a decent into depression, mental illness and crime. Being unemployed means that you can’t afford to do anything much. Things that employed people on a decent wage take for granted – taking public transport to a free gallery or museum or a beautiful park – become nearly impossible for the unemployed. Normal social life becomes restricted – you can’t buy a round in the pub, or go on shopping trips or other recreational events with friends. Holidays are out of the question. Children’s normal growth becomes a crisis – a £20 pair of shoes is a quarter of a week’s income for a single parent with one child. (Who are these families with 10 children rolling around in cash in a million pound house? No actual figures are available, which suggests they’re a useful aberration for the right wing media and people who need to whip up hatred.)

Young unemployed men in particular seem to be vulnerable to depression which may have something to do with their parallel poor achievement at school. Prisons are heaving with people who simply cannot read. Please read this report:

Literacy problems in the prison population are often compounded by a wide range of emotional, learning, and/or attention deficits, including:

Child abuse and neglect, linguistic impoverishment in the childhood home, low verbal ability, uncorrected visual and hearing impairments in childhood, unskilled teaching in the junior school and the mistaken conjecture about literacy practice, closed head injury and substance misuse, low non-verbal ability, childhood hyperactivity-impulsivity and inattention, impairments in empathy and social cognition, current anxiety and depression, and – often as a default and catch-all explanation – developmental dyslexia (Rice and Brooks 2004:4).

Those unemployed people who are not already doing some kind of formal or informal voluntary work are, I propose, unlikely to be able move instantly from a long term existence of extreme boredom to a 35 hour week. When they don’t they will lose all their income. Consider what that really means. I know we’re supposed to not think for ourselves and to absorb what we’re told about feckless spongers living a life that many of us envy but it’s not true. It’s not true. When you lose benefits you lose your home. There are not enough hostel places. Begging and street or hidden homelessness or prison will be obvious outcomes. Consider the effects of that on a person. If that's too wishy washy, consider the effects on the economy.

The premise behind these proposals is not a bad one. Getting into a positive daily rhythm, increased physical activity and social interaction are good for all of us. I trust that IDS has offered this proposal based on sound empirical evidence, but it lacks understanding and it lacks empathy. No one involved in this proposal has one pair of worn out trainers and one and a half tracksuits with some ancient underwear as their entire wardrobe. What is this persons self esteem likely to be like? What about their internal locus of evaluation? If this person is the best authority on their life, what might this suggest about their life? How is their self-concept expressed? How much denial and distortion are they indulging in and how much are we?

Rowan Williams is more likely to be correct in his analysis of how increasing compulsion and surveillance may affect the long term unemployed, simply because he starts from an attempt at empathy. Empathy doesn’t have a role in pubic policy and that's one reason why we have so many long-term unemployed people.


In the current furore about making voluntary work compulsory I wonder if counsellors might have any thoughts on the subject? Counselling has a long, unthinking history with voluntary work. We are compelled to volunteer in order to train, something that has never been questioned. ‘Compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ are two ends of a spectrum and various principals support each description. It’s the difference between volunteering to join the army and being conscripted: the motivations and outcomes for each are going to be very different.

Organisations in the voluntary sector – other than counselling organisations – have long recognised this:

But if you force someone to volunteer, it's not volunteering.
John Ramsey, head of volunteering at Age Concern England, 2007

Any future legislation would need to address the distinction between volunteer service that is willingly undertaken and can be completed at will, and community service that is the fruitful engagement of those who may face consequences if they fail to show up.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of volunteering charity CSV, 2007

The Police Service had a brief struggle with this issue too when it became clear that in order to join the Service two years of voluntary work as a Special Constable had become a prerequisite. This was purely because of funding issues i.e. police were needed but the money wasn’t available to pay for them and so civilians were taking on a policing role. There are obvious and historically appalling problems with this, rather summed up in the police recruitment puff reassuring potential volunteers that they will

Whichever Service is doing the recruiting; having the same uniform as real police officers is offered as the primary benefit of volunteering. That this hasn’t resulted in massive objections from every corner of the educated land suggests that our understanding of history and basic civic participation is dead; being part of a society that unthinkingly consumes everything it's fed, perhaps counsellors can't be expected to do or think or consume anything different from the rest of that society. Catherine Bennett offers some analysis of the police and other compulsory voluntary work.

I don’t know what the answers might be to counselling’s current sleepwalking through the voluntary process but a first step might be: Wake Up. There’s no questioning at all of the principals behind the foundations of who we are and what we do: people with good intentions jump through hoops, people with good intentions set the hoops up and we all know what the road to hell is paved with.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Dispatches: Street Kids

 I'd say Robyn's actualising tendency is working overtime:

"I used to sleep in bed at night with a massive blade under my pillow when I was a little girl!" Robyn tells us, "And the funny thing was, all sorts of stuff went on in that bed and I never used the knife. I don't know why!"

One of the truly Great things about Britain is that if you're 15 years old, shoving heroin in your arm seven times daily, living in a graveyard, well, someone has to help. You probably don't want the bloody help: the outreach worker, the benefit clerk, the children's home – they can all quite literally "do one". As Robyn in Dispatches: Street Kids (Mon, 8pm, C4) proves, by the time you're a pile of bones, covered in scabs, carrying everything you own in a small Superdrug carrier bag, you're not in the mood for another grown-up and their "good ideas". You don't want to be in their system. But this is what we do.

Monday, 11 October 2010

How Fair Is Britain?

"A landmark report released today by the Equality and Human Rights Commission paints a picture of a largely tolerant and open-minded society, in which some equality gaps have closed over the past generation.

"But How fair Is Britain?, the most comprehensive compilation of evidence on discrimination and disadvantage ever compiled in Britain, also shows that other long-standing inequalities remain undiminished; and that new social and economic fault-lines are emerging as Britain becomes older and more ethnically and religiously diverse.
  • Men and women from the highest social class can expect to live up to seven years longer, on average, than those from lower socio-economic groups (based on life expectancy at birth). 
  • Black Caribbean and Pakistani babies are twice as likely to die in their first year as Bangladeshi or White British babies.
  • At age five, 35 per cent of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals achieved a good level of development, compared to 55 per cent of pupils not eligible for free school meals.
  • The mean gender pay gap for women and men working full-time in 2009 was 16.4 per cent; and progress today appears to be grinding to a halt. Women aged 40 earn on average 27 per cent less than men of the same age. Women with degrees are estimated to face only a four per cent loss in lifetime earnings as a result of motherhood, while mothers with no qualifications face a 58 per cent loss."

From Feckless Oiks To Malingering Liars.

As the focus shifts from feckless oiks to malingering liars take a look at Bendy Girl’s blog

Note the title.

There are a lot of excellent links to other disability pages on Bendy Girl’s page, in particular But You Don’t Look Sick offers one persons first hand account of being disabled.

In some developing countries people who are fit to work but who can earn more from begging will mutilate themselves or their children, knowing that the more obvious their disability the more money they will receive from charitable strangers. Of course, the terribly ill are unable to beg and disappear which is why religious institutions and later the State decided that a more collective approach to care would be less grotesque. And still we expect the ill to perform to prove how ill they are, sometimes to us and more often to someone from ATOS Healthcare the company which interviews people who need disability benefit. They’re notorious for their abuse of power.

There’s a great deal of information in these few webpages and they give some indication of the complexity of the system that a person who is physically ill or disabled must contend with. The person with a mental illness, who can indeed take a pen from a pocket, turn on a tap and sit for 30 minutes but will be entirely unable to work within the employment culture we have now has particular problems with a system that doesn’t welcome people in wheelchairs, let alone a hidden illness.

MIND offers analysis.

along with the LSE

Friday, 8 October 2010

You Are A Bloody Moron

The media is entirely consumed with people who claim benefits, with people who make claiming benefits a lifestyle choice, with benefits scroungers and benefit thieves. The benefits bill is indeed enormous, and more money is lost through DWP incompetence than through fraudulent claims. Note that what little information is available comes under the banner ‘Fraud and error.’ They are two separate issues but linking them feeds a useful prejudice.

Ian Duncan Smith meanwhile, describes the issue succinctly:

"The present benefits system is so complex and unfair that no one understands it. It leads at the bottom end to one of the most regressive tax and benefit withdrawal rates that it is possible to imagine.

"We ask people to go to work for the first time and then tell them to pay back 70%, 80% and 90% back to the state. These are levels none of the wealthiest bankers are asked to pay – they are moaning at 50%.

"If you are unemployed, and you come from a family that is unemployed, all you can see when you think about work is risk. It is a real risk because for all the efforts you make the rewards are very minimal and in some cases none at all.

"Socially, everyone says: 'You are a bloody moron – why are you doing this? You don't have to do this.' So taking responsibility is a real risk for you."

That he misses the single most important aspect of this mindset is testament to how deep our Hard Working Families rhetoric goes. If you’re a poor person and unemployed you keep a roof over your own and your family’s head. If you’re a poor person and you swallow propaganda you are very likely to become homeless.

Which person is taking responsibility?

What can we say about the messages being sent to the very poor?

How might this affect an external locus of evaluation?
Of the person on benefits?
On the working person who earns less than a person on benefits?

On you?

Finnoula’s experience with the DWP

“I went to sign on like normal and the woman said ‘You’ve got an appointment at 10.30.’ No one had sent me a letter but when I went over to the other side of the office there was about 10 people all waiting to see the man for the appointment and none of us had been sent the letter.

If you’re late for an appointment you get the third degree but they can keep you waiting as long as they like and you have to keep your mouth shut. The man didn’t know what he was doing and after waiting an hour he was very nice but there was no apology and at the end he handed me a letter that said that because they were doing something with national insurance numbers my benefits would be delayed by at least a week. I didn’t know this so instead of making £60 last 7 days I should have made it last 14. Now I’ve got no money for at least a week.”

NB when people on benefits say they’ve got no money they mean they’ve got no money.

Monday, 20 September 2010

No Man Is An Island

Psychotherapy tends to consider itself discrete from the non-psychotherapy world. When we’re being psychotherapists and discussing psychotherapy we don’t also think about the gross domestic product of the country in which we’re working, or labour relations or what’s on television. There’re good reasons for this, not least being absorbed in the relationship between ourselves and our clients and yet we bring all those things – concern about paying bills, images from the news of war and mayhem, conversations about reform of the benefits system – with us into the room and so do our clients. Like our clients,  psychotherapists are individual people living individual lives that overlap into many different areas.

The life experiences of the psychotherapist – who has to fit too much in to the day in order to pick up her children from school (just) in time; who has to walk home at night through a potentially hazardous area; who worries about how to afford the car tax and mortgage repayments – will all inform the ways in which she is with people from different income groups as will the culture of the country in which she is born, raised and works, and lives.

I trained as a psychotherapist in a university where class and income were not covered at all and the make up of the group was such that only two of us from a group of 27 had any experience at all of living on state benefits or in social housing. This is inevitable in a system where training as a counsellor has moved almost entirely into higher education; where higher education is only available as a commodity that must be paid for; where universities are subject to market forces which are determined by the political processes in which we live and which we as individuals vote for.


Counsellors are expected to be reflective and reflexive about our work, we’re expected to reconsider our thoughts and feelings about ourselves, our clients and the relationship that develops between us. We’re given a vocabulary and specialized terms in which to frame reflexivity, which is undoubtedly helpful and can also serve, as all specialized language can, to obfuscate true meanings even from ourselves. This is especially likely when thinking about and working with people who are on state benefits.  A search of the literature shows that there is a paucity of research or even commentary on what has become known as The Underclass, itself a derogatory term, rather like calling gay men ‘Confirmed Bachelors,'

The socio-economic boundaries around counselling mean that counsellors are only ever likely to encounter people on benefits as clients rather than as peers which means that teaching about class, where it is rarely attempted, is purely theoretical. Although there are proportionately few non-white counsellors, non-white counsellors exist and can speak directly to the experience. The same can be said for gay, lesbian and transgender counsellors, counsellors who have experienced child abuse, domestic violence or drug and alcohol abuse. Those people who have the experience of long term poverty remain unrepresented and thus unheard.

This blog aims to offer an experience of living in poverty to counselors who have not had that experience. I hope that, if it doesn’t directly alter some of the commonly held opinions about the poor, it will add to the complexity of the so far very limited debate on how best to understand and work with an enduring experience of poverty. I don’t aim to be an apologist for every person who is living in poverty since every individual will have an intricate and complex multifaceted existence. There are, however, important parts of the life of being a person who lives with poverty that have a direct effect on our wellbeing, our view of ourselves, our view of others. Having an insight into some of these aspects will, I hope, offer food for thought.

A Short History of British Poverty

Historically, social responses to poverty tend to fall into two groups:
  • ‘relief’ of beggars and paupers
  • a profound mistrust and fear of the poor.
Queen Elizabeth the First was the first lawmaker to recognise the need for poverty to be addressed by society rather than by individuals. Prior to this, individuals who felt moved to help their neighbors did so but there was no obligation to. The Church, mainly through convents, abbeys and other religious houses, had offered shelter, food and at times work for the destitute but the Reformation broke this chain of support.

In 1563 the first Poor Laws were introduced which recognized for the first time that poor people were part of a community and that the community, in the form of the parish, must help support them. The system was funded by taxation and each parish was required to provide employment.

The poor were categorized into the deserving poor – infants, the very elderly, the very infirm and families who had temporarily fallen on difficult times; the undeserving poor who were considered a threat to society – beggars, travelers, migrant workers; the deserving unemployed – people who were able to work but unable to find employment.

It’s worth noting the political and social circumstances that preceded these laws. More people were simply remaining alive and there was less food. The Enclosures Act devastated the peasant farming tradition as private landowners found it more profitable to have sheep on their land rather than people, or to increase their personal area of farmland and decrease the number of individuals working it. Prior to the Enclosures Act individual family groups grew their own food in what we might call a smallholding, now they were simply turned out of their homes and made vagrant. Those that didn’t die of starvation or illness came to the city. The numbers of the very poor, the very weak, potential carriers of disease and the very angry increased and it was the fear of civil unrest that caused the Poor Laws to come into being rather than any inherent concern for individual welfare.

Laws altered over time, becoming more or less penalizing. Beggars could be whipped and have their earlobes burned through, be imprisoned and executed. They were returned to their own parishes, limiting where they could live. Houses of Correction, established prior to Elizabeth I and continued well after, were variously places where the poor were punished or rehabilitated: whatever the case, poverty is perceived as a fault that requires correction.

Reflections on Economic Theory

Economic theory is intimately bound up in how the poor are perceived and treated. Thomas Malthus published his hugely influential Essay on the Principal of Population in 1798. It went through a number of reprints and revisions but basically suggested that an increase in population must result in an increase in suffering of the poor via a depression in wages and decrease in food production. The book had a direct influence on how government treated the poor: famously, Pitt the Younger withdrew his bill for the extension of Poor Relief, something that Malthus advocated. Malthus was criticized for only applying his principals of reducing birth rates to the poor and, by extension, being uncaring of the poor. He replied:
I have written a chapter expressly on the practical direction of our charity; and in detached passages elsewhere have paid a just tribute to the exalted virtue of benevolence. To those who have read these parts of my work, and have attended to the general tone and spirit of the whole, I willingly appeal, if they are but tolerably candid, against these charges … which intimate that I would root out the virtues of charity and benevolence without regard to the exaltation which they bestow on the moral dignity of our nature…. (p. 607)
Malthus is clear that individual charity is necessary but doesn’t retract his stance that the population of the poor must be checked if the entire population is not to suffer starvation.

Victorian responses to poverty are well recorded by authors like Dickens. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol speaks for the general consensus:
Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation? The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? I was afraid, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course. If [their occupants] would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
The pre-Christmas Scrooge pays his taxes which in turn pay for the prisons and workhouses and so he feels that he has done all he should for the poor.

The Industrial Revolution occurred around the same time as a further increase in farm size and a resulting decrease in numbers of farm workers. There were fewer jobs in rural areas but a massive increase in industrial jobs. Housing was at a premium and the simple economics of this situation resulted in huge areas of slums. Factories swallowed men, women and children at subsistence wages and with no employment rights. Abject destitution, starvation and disease flourished.

Adam Smith is best known for his Wealth of Nations, an economic model that has been interpreted in various ways. Before Wealth came a paper on the Theory of Moral Sentiments which seems to go against the popular concept of of Utility (The greatest pleasure for the greatest number) to suggest that
The ability to appreciate other people’s agony is achieved by the same parts of the brain that we use to experience pain for ourselves.
(Chapter 1)
Smith describes empathy in a curious, if unknowing, precognition of modern neuroscience.
He also famously advocates the free market. It’s well worth reading his work and commentaries on it, since his work has been ill-interpreted to suit political agendas. He absolutely does not promote a ravenous form of free market in which the sole aim is for the individual to become as rich as possible as quickly as possible without any concern for the consequences. Smith was deeply concerned with poverty.
. . . poverty, though it does not prevent the generation, is extremely unfavourable to the rearing of children… It is not uncommon… in the Highlands of Scotland for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive… In some places one half the children born die before they are four years of age; in many places before they are seven; and in almost all places before they are nine or ten. This great mortality, however, will every where be found chiefly among the children of the common people, who cannot afford to tend them with the same care as those of better station.
1:8 para 37.
Charity, that is, the sympathetic involvement of the individual who is better off in the lives of the less well off, is a central aspect of his economic theory. Whilst individual charity was a central part of his own life and one that he advocated he also understood that
Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.
part 6, section 2, chap. 3, para. 18
He suggested, therefore, that the nation should also use its wealth to provide public works and in support of vulnerable groups.

It’s natural that when the economy is strong legislation around poverty is less punitive. Ruling groups, whether monarchy or government, have to be seen to be addressing a particular political issue. We see it in our own time, with debates about asylum seekers and an ‘indigenous population’, the rapid increase in numbers of unemployed people and an increasingly fractious debate about people on benefits. In the 1970’s when jobs in industry and manufacturing were decimated it was important for the unemployment figures to be reduced by almost any means necessary and a number of the long-term unemployed were put onto sickness benefit.

Psychotherapy and Money

Psychotherapy began as a private practice and thrives in a free market economy. A good number of psychotherapists treat their practice as a way of making a great deal of money from the unhappy wealthy. Every psychotherapist with a private practice will have come up against the ethical dilemma of wanting to be with the client in a particular way but hesitating because the client is a source of much needed income.

It is a fact that the profession is absolutely dependent on the poor as clients and that the poor are denied the opportunity to join the ranks of the profession. As the professionalisation of counselling becomes the dominant model so courses move from local colleges and into universities. University courses are obliged to become accredited by the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) so tutor workload increases which in turn means that they can justify higher wages and so the cost of the course increases.

Students are required to gain at least 100 client hours and those hours are gained via counselling agencies that offer a low-fee or free service to clients – that is, those people who cannot afford private counselling. Which in turn means that people on a low income in need of counselling are also most likely to encounter the least experienced counsellors.

Agencies offer some supervision but a majority don’t offer adequate supervision, in some cases requiring that volunteer counselors first prove that they have a private supervisor before they’re allowed to offer their services. In addition, some agencies also require volunteers to show proof of personal insurance cover which costs at least £100. BACP membership at the time of writing is £60 a year for student counselors in receipt of state benefits. Psychotherapy courses start at around £2,000pa and can be as much as £15,000. A single person on Job Seekers Allowance gets around £60 a week.

Once qualified, many counsellors will continue to volunteer in order to gain experience as well as client hours towards BACP accreditation. Some of us will feel a kind of duty to continue offering a service to clients who cannot afford private counselling, and some of us will not. There are counsellors who on qualifying are given a Harley Street practice as a congratulatory gift from a spouse. In therapy today, the magazine for members of the BACP, there is the occasional classified advert for ‘Prosperous Private Practice.’

The Byzantine BACP accreditation process has created a new way of spending and making money: BACP accreditation workshops, paying supervisors or counsellors who are already accredited to help the applicant complete the process; the cost of the BACP administrative process which is at least £90 and which takes around 3 months for them to process, plus £110 more if one mistake is made. The ads at the back of Therapy Today have 2 pages of jobs, some voluntary, and 27 pages of CPD: counsellors making money from each other.

So money is absolutely central to the profession of counselling and psychotherapy and one that remains taboo. As one of the founders of  the BACP noted, it is the elephant in the room. Intimately entwined with this taboo is the way in which counselling perceives and works with ideas of poverty, class, income and what a ‘good life’ might be. This is so taboo that the BACP campaigns manager can write
. . . access to psychological therapy and/or support, with the aim of helping people achieve improved mental health and wellbeing, thus improving their ability to gain and/or maintain employment.
Robinson 2008:5
The above is from Therapy Today and as such represents the BACP’s opinion on the importance of the links between employment to mental health. Importantly, it also places the BACP in political relation to the importance of employment, suggesting that getting people to work is a positive thing for counsellors to work towards with their clients. Interestingly, this conclusion is not the one that the Royal College of Psychiatrists drew from the joint Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Medical Research Council and Royal College conference.
Work is broader than ‘employment’ and should encompass voluntary work, home making etc. The majority of the research evidence refers to full time work whereas it might be more informative to consider ‘activity’.
Waddel 2007:5
Of course, what a client chooses to do in terms of employment or unemployment is none of the counsellors business, just as what a client chooses to do with an intimate relationship is none of our business. If the purpose of counselling is to allow a person to explore their lives and relationships in order to gain a better understanding and perhaps better mastery of their life then the counsellor must be very clear in their own mind about what their own expectations might be.

This can be difficult when the counselor lives in a society that equates poverty with victimhood at best and more often as badness, a position that isn’t helped when it’s 'common knowledge' that good mental health is helped by being employed and that the reverse is also true, that being unemployed results in poor mental health. When the BACP reinforces this, clients on a low income are doomed to second class work from counsellors.

Context Is Everything

A man is hanging out of the windows of the block across the road, he’s quietly telling a couple of children which door to go to and what to say. One the children, polite, neat and apparently confused, goes up to a door, looks back over his shoulder towards the man and says: “Is this the one?” I don’t hear any answer but the child raises his voice and says: ‘Excuse me. Excuse me. Do you live here?’ to the person going into the block. She doesn’t answer and the children wander off, back towards the other block where the man says: ‘See that car? Yes, that blue one, that’s it. Spit on it. Spit on it.’ The children, confused enough now to feel fear, walk away.

The man continues in his low, not unfriendly tone. ‘I want to fuck you. I want to fuck you. Oh, is that how it is now? Don’t you love me any more? I want to fuck you.’ My neighbours’ adult daughter comes into our block and we say hello. “Do you know that man?” I ask. She doesn’t, but he somehow knows her name and she’s more bemused than aggrieved. She goes inside, I carry on gardening, the man continues his monotone commentary. The children have long gone.

My daughter and I are walking home and we hear a cacophony of bird noises then see a blackbird fly out of a bush. There’s a nest in there with a second brood of fledglings and I take my daughter over to see it, high up above our heads in the municipal bushes. We listen to the young birds then hear an outraged: “Do you mind?” We can’t work out where it’s coming from, and again “Do you mind? I’m trying to go to the toilet.” And there, 4 feet from us squatting behind the large communal bins is a woman with her skirt pulled up around her hips. I am so shocked that I can’t find the urge or the words to reply and just leave, with no sense of threat but with the feeling that I’ve moved into a Kafkaesque world where squatting, shitting women are outraged that I’ve interrupted their public ablutions.

Across the road there’s a camper van, one of the cheaper ones and very old. The locks aren’t any good and a group of 10 year olds has broken into it. They throw everything out of it onto the street, bedding, pots and pans, a television, reams of paper, tea towels, everything. Then they cross the street and begin ripping a young pear tree apart, bending it under their combined weight, screaming loudly and intensely until the tree suddenly snaps and they land heavily. One boy is hurt and they begin to kick him. He has to get up or be beaten, staggers to his feet, laughs, throws a punch which misses and the lot of them move off down the street, leaving the road covered in the strangely unsettling contents of someone’s holiday life and the young tree. A number of us called the police who never arrive.

A family just up the road allowed their two elder children to smoke dope when they were 12 and 14 years old. The parents often went away leaving the three children alone, the youngest being 10, and they would have parties in which alcohol and illegal drugs contributed to the house being trashed, time after time. The 15 year old daughter started a relationship with a 30 year old whom her parents welcomed into the home and he tattooed her at 16 with her parents consent. On a school exchange the elder son made constant Nazi references at the two young German people staying with them which the rest of the family found amusing, and at 15 the youngest daughter put up pictures of herself on Facebook snorting coke.

Dee had what used to be called ‘emotional incontinence'. She felt she must share the most intimate aspects of her life with anyone who’d listen. Her partner who was over a decade older than her and demonstrably didn’t love her; her multiple, dramatic affairs; her children both of whom were taken from family home at the age of 8 to spend the rest of their childhood in special schools; the fact that her younger child has a close resemblance to one of her lovers; her eating disorders and self-harm. She had one job working as a nursery assistant and the rest of her life was spent supported by the State. Dee was killed in a high-speed, late-night, alcohol-fueled crash.

Context is everything. Dee is, of course, Princess Diana who is still treated with the veneration afforded to a saint. The family with dope smoking children live in a detatched home in huge grounds which means that neighbours don’t need to call the police to their rowdy parties and the underage sex and drug abuse is ignored. All of these people and families are worthy of our care and concern, but the woman who, with great dignity, squatted down in the hedge, the man in the council flat, the ‘feral children’ are much more likely to be dealt opprobrium, low-quality interventions and incarceration.
Why is that?

Them And Us

Counsellors function as part of society: as individual practitioners we hold differing political, social and personal opinions, if we didn’t there would be one psychological model and no professional debate. As members of society we are not immune from the concerns, interests and zeitgeist of that society and of course we bring all of that into the counselling room with us which is why counselling trainings are expected to address issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and disability awareness. Amidst the many anti-discriminatory trainings, class and income come very low down in training establishment priorities.

And yet counselling as a profession depends on people on low or no incomes. All of the agencies that student counsellors attend to gain experience and hours are attended by low or no income people because of the simple fact that they can’t afford to pay very nearly an entire weeks income for 50 minutes. In effect, low and no income clients service an industry that has demonstrated no real interest in them.

One of the reasons for this lack of interest is that low income people don’t train as counsellors.   All training establishments will all have some kind of equal opportunity statement along the lines of
It is our policy to contribute to equality and social justice by ensuring that all members of staff and applicants for employment shall receive equality of opportunity irrespective of sex, gender (including gender reassignment), sexual orientation, sexuality, race, colour, creed, religion, political beliefs, ethnic or national origin, age, marital status, disability.  [This university] is striving to break down barriers, extend opportunities and improve access to the resources of society.  It aims to reach out to all sections of the community as employees, students, clients, partners and suppliers.
People on low or no incomes are excluded from this statement. If an individual has the qualifications, aptitude and life experience perfectly suited for counselling training but cannot pay for the training she will not be accepted onto the course soley and absolutely on the basis of her income. People of colour, disabled, gay and elderly people do train as counsellors, have brought their experience to the training and challenged negative attitudes: there is no such challenge from poor people.

The experience of being in counselling has been researched over many years. We have some concept of client outcome, drop out and compliance based on statistical evidence and there is some – though very little – academic writing on the experience of the client herself. We all know from our own experience that when faced with people who have power over us we have to behave in a particular way. Incredibly, power dynamics in counselling are very seldom discussed in any detail in training or in academic literature though some counsellors will have some idea that this will be at work in all of our relationships. The experience of low income clients in counselling has been totally unresearched. Yet the low income client must contend with grotesquely unbalanced power dynamics in their everyday lives, simply to live indoors or to feed their children or buy sanitary towels. Behaviours and attitudes will form around this dynamic and these, consciously or unconsciously, will be brought to the counselling relationship.

The poor have always been discriminated against, in every period of history and almost every society. We hate Them. They are not Us. They function as something We can form our own identities around, defining what We are not. Despite being most often cited as a reason to be concerned about the poor, behaviour is certainly less important to society than economic status.


Francis looks 60 but is 42, a year younger than me. He wears the same clothes – clean and neat – to every counselling session and reeks of cigarettes to the point where I can barely endure 50 minutes in his company, the cigarettes taking up more space in my head than what he says. Over three sessions he talks about the damp kitchen and how the Council refuse to do anything about it, how he needs to be moved not only because of the damp, his asthma and sensitivity to noise but also because the house is such a mess. He can’t tidy it up because it always goes back to how it was. I ask him what he expects from counselling. “Can you get me a little holiday out of London?” I explain why not. “Can you write a letter to the Council, to get me a transfer?” I explain why not.

We don’t like each other at all and I can’t make much sense of the tension between us despite focused and helpful supervision. In our next session the client does something I find repellent: he pretends to cry. There are no tears and no snot but lots of sniffing, many tissues and glancing up to see my response which is to become more and more punishing. I become stiller, my face seems frozen into impassivity and I feel cold towards this man. I absolutely do not prize him let alone feel unconditional positive regard. Although not verbally congruent my feelings must be apparent and somehow I am unable to do anything about them.

If you need to access state benefits or get a roof of your own there are a number of things you must do, perhaps the most important of which is to learn to demonstrate how honestly pathetic you are. You must dress respectably but in worn clothes and keep your voice and eyes low. At the same time as filling in incredibly complex paperwork it’s necessary to do the equivalent of tugging your forelock, bobbling and cringing to demonstrate how worthy you are. Tears are part of this charade. You have reached the end of your tether, all is lost, please, please help.

Stereotypes of cringing, begging, whining people who are in reality prosperous because of their calculated undermining of the State while laughing at upright, hard working families, have a long and terrible history.
When we see the redundant population (as it is fashionably called) selected as the butt for every effusion of paltry spite, as the last resource of vindictive penal statutes, – when we see every existing evil derived from this unfortunate race, and every possible vice ascribed to them – when we are accustomed to hear the poor, the uninformed, the friendless, put, by tacit consent, out of the pale of society – when their faults and wretchedness are exaggerated with eager impatience, and still greater impatience is shown at every expression of a wish to amend them – when they are familiarly spoken of as a sort of vermin only fit to be hunted down, and exterminated at the discretion of their betters: – we know pretty well what to think, both of the disinterestedness of the motives that give currency to this jargon, and of the wisdom of the policy which should either sanction, or suffer itself to be influenced by its suggestions.
Hazlitt (1821)

Francis and I didn’t last long. I was unable to be compassionately congruent and found myself too close to repeating behaviours that I believe this client will have encountered before: disdain, dislike, swift and negative judgement. I came close to wanting to bully him. Counselling is a very different paradigm from central government support but whether we like it or not we remain in a perceived and often actual position of power over the client. Clients like Francis will have learned that people who are in power very often like being in power and have the power to block their client or to open doors.

My fantasy is that Francis, being under nominal attention from the mental health team, had learned that when he is depressed and cries he gets more attention than when he doesn’t. Because I wasn’t skilled enough to offer sufficient basic UPR or congruence a positive relationship wasn’t possible. It may be that Francis also lost interest once he realised I wasn’t able to support him in getting his external and genuine needs met. And I suspect he was as aware of the disdain that the ‘redundant population’ are held in as Hazlitt was.

External Locus Of Evaluation

Everyone knows that a person on state benefits is a bit shifty. Spongers, parasites, lazy, untrustworthy. Probably fraudsters. Everyone knows someone – or knows someone who knows someone – on benefits who has a huge television, buys designer clothes, has children littered about, has many children with different fathers, and who goes on international holidays at least once a year.

This is the overwhelmingly dominant paradigm in the discussion of people on benefits, and this group is treated in ways which, were they black or gay, would be simply illegal. It’s illegal to offer a flat for rent with the proviso of ‘No Blacks, no Dogs, No Irish.’ But it’s normal for a landlord to have the proviso ‘No DSS’. It’s absolutely acceptable to discuss people on benefits with as much hatred as you like, in the media, in the pub, at dinner parties, and in coded terms within education, medicine, social services, at the hairdressers, in a bus queue.

It’s acceptable to put a person on benefits under surveillance. Anyone, without the need for proof and anonymously can call the Benefit Fraud Hotline to report a ‘benefit thief.’ (How often is this done after an argument or relationship breakdown, spite being the motivation? The DWP keeps no figures on malicious reporting but the internet is full of anecdote.) DWP officers can put a person on benefits under covert surveillance taking long lens photographs of them, their children, their friends and their home life. They’re allowed to gain access to your bank account. Even if there’s no proof of fraud, a permanent note will be made on their records. People who have never had anything to do with the legal or judicial system or read a history book pompously reiterate the inane cliché ‘You’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong,’

Imagine other groups under the same conditions: University lecturers’ bank accounts are accessed. Journalists are put under surveillance. The children of doctors are covertly photographed. The neighbours of Polish people are encouraged via advertisements on bus stops and on the television, to keep an eye on them. Just in case. It’s unconscionable. But counselors live and function in a society where we know that people on benefits are treated in this way and we don’t really care, even though most of us will work with people on benefits from the beginning of our training. 

How does living with the knowledge that you should be ashamed of yourself, that other people detest you simply because of your income, and that you are at threat of surveillance if you annoy someone, affect a persons self-concept and loci of evaluation?

This Pathetic Little Saga Of Mine

From a friend . . .
When I knew I was moving I rang income support and explained, they sent out a form (can NEVER remember the numbers they call them) but it was very brief, just a couple of pages to notify the new office in the area I was moving to) and that was all I was lead to believe I had to do, I was very relieved. Anyway it arrived promptly (Glasgow are pretty good, generally civil and competent) just before I moved.
Posted it off to the office they advised on the Monday (I’d moved in two days before). I also registered for housing benefit (they’d enclosed that form for me too). It was accepted but I was sent away with requests for proof of this, original of that . . . etc which I duly did. It took approx five weeks, included a surprise visit from a housing benefit inspector (who was serious but polite and conscientious) to verify everything and ask me a large number of the questions I’d already answered on the form before it arrived.
During this time, I phoned income support (twice)  to check the progress of  the transfer of my claim, they had no knowledge of it at the central office as the local one had not processed it, I was advised to give it a little more time and told he would look into it. A week later a completely new full claim form arrived for completion (three and a half weeks after sending the original notification). It is vast, more detailed than in previous years, soul destroying stuff but obviously I did it and sent it off. I waited . . . waited some more, received a letter advising me that my housing benefit had been suspended and I had x amount days to rectify the situation or reclaim (another form enclosed) before it would be cancelled…..urgh, what was going on?
I usually feel – having had to do a number of times over the years, due to the loss of a job or having another child – anything from victimised or unlucky, frustrated to paranoid because you do what you’re asked but inevitably it never seems enough, delays, being made to feel like a burden or a waster, repetition of previous information provided…..god, I’m tired just thinking of it!
So yes, no housing benefit because I was no longer in receipt of income support, a situation which I had created because I was the only person following things up and notifying the various department in the areas concerned, so NO rent, NO council tax and NO INCOME support. Child benefit yes but hardly enough to sustain us or keep my landlady happy and a roof over our heads! I phoned again, explained the situation again, was told to give it another week as they didn’t appear to have received anything, I wasn’t on the system…OH GOD! No question of if I could manage, wait til then etc. The following week, I phoned again, I explained again, and was told (again!) that they hadn’t received my claim, I was however, located on the system and there was a note advising that a claim for had been sent out on.
I stressed my situation, tears welling up, explained that I didn’t think I could manage any longer, she talked, I started to cry, I was in in luck, she was sympathetic enough to respond, took my telephone number, and offered me a choice of two options but because I was in such a state on the phone by this time, I can’t for the life of me remember what they were, suffice to say she was trying to prompt me to request (without actually saying outright) the option that meant they had to treat my situation as urgent and respond within 5 hours.
I was on the bus, three hours later when I got a call from a rather ‘sniffy’, ‘short’ woman who verified who I was and stated that my claim had been processed and a cheque was prepared, did I want to come into the office or have it sent out 1st class. I request 1st class, I couldn’t have faced going into them having cried down the phone earlier.  Anyway the cheque arrived the next day and I could breath again!
So, it took three hours to find, process and action my claim, after a period of 8 or 3 weeks, depending on which form you count from. All because I got someone who listened, and realised that something had to be done as I’d reached breaking point.
The bottom line is I didn’t shout loud enough, or hassle them frequently enough, if you are too polite, not assertive enough or just plain feel embarrassed or demeaned by the whole process then I don’t believe you get dealt with as quickly.
Does this all make sense? Tired and cold and thoroughly fed up by this pathetic little saga of mine!

Self Awareness

. . . the highly peculiar nature of the therapeutic project, whose very essence is typically that of self-interrogation and awareness – but which typically and uncritically takes the pursuit of that very process itself as an unproblematic given . . . therapy can be routinely and intrinsically abusive to the extent that it self-fulfillingly constructs a framework – professionalized therapeutic discourse and practice – which serves to guarantee the legitimacy of their own existence within a discursive regime of truth, and outside the confines of which it can become very difficult for clients and therapists even to think.
There is a long and intricate dance between the forces of standardisation and dissent and this dance is, I believe, central to the manner in which psychotherapy perceives itself and is perceived; its role in the voluntary, private and public sectors; the manners in which it offers itself to vulnerable people; and the manners in which vulnerable people are used to fulfil the training and accreditation needs of psychotherapists; the targets of the Health Service, the Department of Work and Pensions and central government; and the relationships between government and psychotherapy. It would appear that counselling is uncertain about its own societal status and purpose.

In a profession which holds relationship, empathy and positive regard dear discussion around the casual exclusion of people on a low income from being able to enter the profession, and the use of people on low income to facilitate the training and accreditation needs of counsellors is deafening in its silence. This is simply – as always in issues of discrimination – a consequence of the uses and abuses of power. It covers every aspect of the counselling relationship and is not limited to people on low incomes.
The counsellor just couldn’t understand what I’d been through. I spent 6 of the eight sessions just explaining what the religion was about and the way it worked.
Underhill 2008
I was given 6 sessions but I only went to two. She couldn’t offer me a time when I could go.
Personal  conversation

I couldn’t go, they didn’t have any childcare.
Personal conversation
One of the BACP Ethical Framework  ‘Values of Counselling and Psychotherapy’ is
Striving for the fair and adequate provision of counselling and psychotherapy services.
2007: 2
The ethics and practicalities of ‘fair and adequate provision’ is very patchily covered in the Framework and then only in terms of statutory provision and does not include the practised (rather than expressed) values of individual counsellors, training facilities and placements.

One source of information about the performance and behaviour of counsellors is clients, the people most directly affected. A lot of research has been done on clients – what variables affect their continuation in therapy, how their personalities change, compliance in rehabilitation – but I could find very little on what clients actually said rather than what the researcher thought they were saying. Further, psychotherapy publications tend not to focus on the clients experience of the world but on ways of managing the client.
Although there has been a steady interest in the client’s point of view it is still unusual to begin an investigation into the nature of counselling and therapy by looking at the world from the perspective of the client. Traditionally, one starts by describing the theoretical position of the therapist, or one begins by outlining the basis on which the client and her or his difficulties can be explained and treated.
Howe 1993:2

Self and Society

Person centred counsellors are members of a wider society and just as likely as non-counsellors to hold prejudices and beliefs about sections of society. We are taught a language and manner of approaching clients which may alter our way of being with people but which may not fundamentally alter our private beliefs about people. If this were not the case there would be no professional debates and there would be one approach to PCT. As it is there are differences of opinion, some polarised, about how counsellor and client should be together. (Saunders, 2003)

Further, counselling thrives within developed countries all of which operate a particular understanding of money and people. Although some counsellors might be emotionally content to exchange their time and expertise for food or services this is unworkable in a world where the counsellor cannot pay her rent in carrots.  An exchange of expertise, of counselling in return for, say, plumbing or accountancy, opens a chasm of ethical dilemmas some of which might be satisfactorily addressed if the imagination and will existed but would still isolate the unskilled. And counsellors charge very different fees for the same service.

British culture has historically had a punitive response to poverty and this remains the state of affairs today. Counselling as a culture discriminates against the poor at every level: do people who function within a milieu of reflexivity discover new ways of being or repeat the attitudes of most powerful voices around them? How? Why?

Counselling doesn’t occur within a vacuum and the life of the client outside of therapy is recognised as an important aspect of his wellbeing. (Sotsky 1991) Person centred authors all agree that equality and client autonomy are important but few address the foundations upon which this might be based. I’ve found that this discussion is most reliably to be found in Rogers original writings and in the work of those who worked with him. Rogers himself is clear that
. . . knowledge needs to be supplemented by experiences of living with or dealing with individuals who have been the product of cultural influences very different from those that have moulded the student.
1952: 437
Guilfoyle argues that

therapist and client are institutionalised “primary positions” that significantly, though often invisibly, regulate the circulation of power in the interpersonal dialogue, and thereby influence the production and shape of “secondary positions” in the client’s dialogical self.
Institutionalism is central to the issue. Old paradigms die hard.
Therapists are more likely to be white and middle class whereas clients are generally poorer, more disabled mentally and physically, older, younger, more dependent and less socially supported . . . people from oppressed groups who become therapists may take on characteristics of the mainstream group in order to survive and ‘pass’.
Proctor 2002:19
The introduction to the chapter Class Distinctions in Pilgrim’s book Psychotherapy and Society asks
. . . not whether psychotherapy is an elitist practice, but why 
The answer is, he suggests via historical, sociological and broad political discussion, that
The inertia in individual psychotherapists is part of a wider, cultural inertia within psychotherapy about lower class patients. The latter were rejected from the outset or were treated reluctantly or paternalistically as an addendum to the ‘proper’ work of engaging with fee-paying, middle-class neurotic clients and (later) special soldier patients. Ordinary working class civilians were rarely of any interest to psychotherapists of this century and their ability to pay shaped this to a large extent.

Job Centre

Counsellor training should include a mandatory trip to the Job Centre, not as an observing group but as individuals going in on their own, sitting in the waiting area, using one of the job search computers, experiencing. Very few counsellors will find themselves on the receiving end of the Job Centre and yet we train on those people who can’t afford to pay for counselling – largely the unemployed. Read the following for a vague idea of the experience.

Job centres have changed from the filthy, vicious halls of humiliation they were, spit guards protecting ill-trained people from the frustration of those they shamed. The proposal that spit guards be removed was greeted with howls of fury and fear from those civil servants who believed claimants were wild beasts. Strangely enough when the spit guards went the spitting stopped because the civil servants started behaving better.

Now, the physical environment isn’t bad at all: pleasant, open surroundings, staff with name badges happy to point you in the right direction and help when you’re kept waiting for your appointment. (If the claimant is late for their appointment they will be treated punitively. If the staff are running behind time it doesn’t matter.) But there are always people there who should not be. The levels of florid mental illness can be extreme. Confused shouting, attempting to comply, failing. Wandering weepers, being gently led outside. The staff have learned to treat these people gently because confrontation swiftly leads to often catastrophic (and entirely avoidable) violence. On one occasion, a demonstration of a peace pipe ceremony which brought out all kinds of staff outrage about indoor smoking.

People this confused or distressed are not suitable for work, they are probably entitled to much higher levels of benefit and certainly mental health input but because they haven’t accessed the appropriate service they just keep getting put through the unemployment system. Being unwell, they will miss appointments and get their benefits cut to £40 a week adding to their distress. Only when they become dangerous to others will they be given access to the mental health system.

Job Centre staff get 5 weeks training which evidently contains no discussion on not abusing power. Most are perfectly pleasant, happy to have a quick conversation about how optimistic you are. Never, ever be anything other than optimistic. Being realistic about your poor education, your inability to speak English, your depression simply switches on the disapproval. There are always one or two staff, very well dressed and with what they believe to be a professional manner, who make a point of being unpleasant. They’re bullies. The only way to get past them is to optimistically agree that you’re not doing enough, accept their banal advice and not point out that there is no ‘w’ in ‘counsellor.’

Job Centres do not exist to help anyone find a job. They are processing centres for the correct distribution of state benefits for the unemployed. As long as you go through the processes you will continue to get benefit. If you step out of the process you will lose entitlement. Getting a job is not the point, being processed is.

7 Days On The Breadline

Watching 7 Days On The Breadline last night was pretty depressing. The only adult man other than Keith Allen and Austin Healy was a 73-year-old grandfather. Young men, collapsed on broken chairs or in their un-linened childhood bunk beds, catatonic with depression and ennui, were frightened, conservative, finished before they’d begun. I found myself beginning to groan, “He can’t be bothered to sign on?! He can’t be bothered to give his mother some rent?!” and caught myself, just before “Bring Back National Service.” 30 years ago, these young men would have had a job in one of the manufacturing industries; now, they are entirely out of action. Without the educational and social background, there really is nothing for them to do.

(How is it possible for a child to go through school for 11 years and not be able to read, write and do basic maths well enough to get him a job? Yet this is increasingly the case for any number of children. Who has responsibility for them? Their parents certainly, but the reason we have schools is in recognition of the fact that most parents aren’t qualified to teach. Teachers have an endless litany about unruly children and lack of funding, local authorities will point to reduced funding and social problems as reasons why some children can’t be taught. And who is most affected by all this? The child who is left flapping at the end of everyone excuses, who then goes on to repeat the cycle.)

A mother of 6 in a three-bedroom house is shown to have no real desire to move. Stupid cow. The reasons for her reluctance aren’t discussed, possibly because the production team have no inkling that she’s anything other than a stupid cow. The reality is this: when you are on a very low income, change means disaster. Something always goes wrong in a move, the utilities aren’t turned on, the removals costs spiral, and if you have money you can deal with these things yourself. When you’re a tenant of a Council that doesn’t particularly care if you’re hideously overcrowded and have rats, you’ll probably have to live in the dark with no heating, lighting or hot food for some time. A friend of mine has been living without a kitchen for 3 months while the Council and the British Gas argue over who has responsibility for the meter.

Trinny takes the disabled pensioner to the Housing Trust so that she can move from her unsuitable home to a bungalow. She was put on the waiting and transfer lists. Result! Clever Trinny! Stupid old woman. No mention that she may well have to wait 10 years for a move.

It seems to be an accepted fact that the poor are lazy. Or is it simply a fact that when you have no money there is a severe limit to what you can do. You can’t go to the cinema. Going to a free museum or gallery means paying fares to get there and back, minimum, never mind having a cup of tea or lunch. You can’t buy decent clothes. You can’t pay for a decent haircut. You wait longer than usual to do the washing because going to the launderette is a pain in the arse and costs so much. The pointlessness of life closes in very quickly when you see your parent listless on the sofa, doing the cheapest thing possible – watching TV, usually without the license that costs more than a weeks income. (Would you pay over two weeks income to watch telly? Why should the poor?)

This programme simply serves to reinforce stereotypes of the stupid, feckless poor who can only be sorted out by the clever middle class. No concept of failed education, failed housing, failed healthcare, obvious depression remaining unaddressed. It would be fantastic to have a programme that gives a poor family a decent home, a good school, a fair income, a reasonably paid job and the mentorship to maintain this astonishing, unheard of state of affairs. But that might shake a few of our dearly held beliefs about the poor and how much better we are than they.