Reposted from the Guardian
Excellent article about Nick Dilworth, expert welfare rights advisor who blogs on Ilegal.org.uk
Make no mistake, warns benefits specialist Nick Dilworth, it is a gruelling time to be a frontline welfare advice worker and no less arduous to be a campaigner. Recalling a recent client who was desperate for help with benefits, he says: “He didn’t turn up for his appointment. Then his father rang to say he’d been found dead. That is not the first time that’s happened to me. I had another case where I was expecting to see my first client of the day and instead it was a detective inspector from the local police telling me that he had been found dead. He was only in his 20s.”
According to Dilworth, 54, the collective stress and individual tragedies that have piled up since the government began rolling out welfare reforms in 2011, coupled with cuts to grassroots advice services that have eroded the assistance available, amount to a national scandal. “I don’t think the public knows how bad it is. In the past we’ve nearly always been able to find a solution [to people’s problems]. Now you come across situations where there is no answer and you can’t do anything.
“People are coming in with multiple problems,” he adds. “You get grown men crying. What you see are broken lives. It means we are seeing people for whom all you can do is give short-term answers like food-bank vouchers. Then your problem as a frontline worker is, ‘how am I supposed to solve this?’”
During the past few years, he and colleagues have wrestled with the deluge of enquiries and diminishing resources at citizens advice bureaux. Dilworth was made redundant at one point due to legal aid cuts ending a large contract with South Hams CAB. As a result, he has transformed himself into a campaigner and vocal critic of the government’s austerity policies. Spurred into action by a belief that handling individual cases “while very important and necessary” was no longer enough, he uses social media and other activism to skewer the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). His critiques stem, he says, from what he sees on the ground day in, day out, including the fallout from “misconceived” policies, such as the “toxic” fitness for work tests.
On top of his day job at Plymouth Advice – a partnership that includes Plymouth CAB and Age UK and is commissioned by the city council to deliver advice services for local residents – Dilworth spends a sizable chunk of his time analysing numerous aspects of welfare reform on the popular online forum ilegal.org.uk .He also exposes flaws in the government’s use of statistics.
He reserves particular ire for work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, the ministerial architect of welfare reform. “I think there is a need to shame Duncan Smith. He is running amok,” Dilworth declares. He lambasts the secretary of state for using what he says are specious figures to peddle myths about claimants, including, for example, that 2.6 million people have been “parked” on incapacity benefits for decades “unseen and with nobody helping them”. Dilworth doesn’t buy the minister’s entrenched worklessness theory. The overall number may have stayed roughly the same for decades (“since the Tories under Thatcher first moved people off unemployment on to incapacity to keep jobless figures down”), but millions of people come on and off benefits as their condition changes over any significant period, he points out.
Dilworth is far from alone in his critique of how the DWP deploys statistics. It has been rapped by the UK Statistics Authority for misusing data.
Dilworth also accuses the government of conflating figures for benefit fraud and error to provide ammunition for cracking down on so-called “benefits cheats”. Fraud across the entire benefits system runs at under 1% but it ties neatly into advancing a narrative that vilifies people on benefits as scroungers, Dilworth argues.
“You have to ask yourself, why did the DWP call in a Murdoch man[former Sun managing editor, Richard Caseby] to run its press operation if it wasn’t to get out its strong rhetoric?”
On the upside, he thinks having a strong success rate in appeals cases for people wrongly declared fit for work is a crucial countervailing force to what he calls the “wickedness of tick-box testing” that now dominates benefits claims by disabled and sick people. Yet, a huge worry on the frontline for the future, Dilworth says, is that only a fraction of the welfare reforms are in place. The rollout of universal credit – the government’sdelayed flagship welfare shakeup – which is intended to merge multiple benefits into a single payment, will put additional strain on an already overstretched advice sector, he says.
With so much upheaval, does he ever feel he’s facing a losing battle? “It’s something I say to people I’m training: ‘There is a commitment here not just to solving the problems you see … you must embrace the need to do something on social policy or you’re not actually going to address the situation or to reduce your own workload.’ Ultimately, that’s what it’s about.”
He says he would “love” to meet Duncan Smith and put some questions directly to him. “As it says on my social media biog: ‘I won’t be silenced’.”
Lives Torbay area, Devon.
Education Churston Grammar School; King Edward V1 Totnes sixth form; South Devon College (arts foundation/architectural and industrial design); Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, (part 1 law); fully accredited welfare benefits specialist and debt adviser as part of continuing professional development.
Career 2013-present: benefits advice specialist, Advice Plymouth; 1999-13: Legal Aid contract supervisor/manager, South Hams Citizens Advice Bureaux, roles included expert witness in fraud benefit cases, acting bureau manager, executive member on CAB trustee board; 1999: tribunal advocate South Hams CAB; 1996-98; volunteer, Torbay CAB; 1982-95: engineer working on gas turbine overhaul and motor industry body crash repair.
Interests Boats, house restorations, drawing, social media, the law.