Monday, January 24, 2011

Kate Belgrave: Women and the cuts

Continuing my series on the ABC of feminism guest posts we have this fantastic piece from Kate Belgrave who has been interviewing women up and down the country about the impact of the cuts in their area.

There are times when I wonder if being an old woman without money will be as funny as all that. It seems likely that I'll find out first-hand in the near-ish future.

Right now, I get to watch.

I'm in a room in Gateshead with about 15 older women at a Personal Growth - Take Individual Steps session (known as PG Tips here at the Tyneside women's health centre). I wouldn't describe the group, or the session, as a touchy-feely waste of public money and focus, although I
imagine George Osborne would without looking round the door. Older and sick people aren't above criticism or suspicion in these censorious times, and hell – what would I know? Perhaps George is some kind of life-science genius. Perhaps it's unfair to give a group of unwell old girls like this a free pass for sharing a pot of tea together when they could be out on all fours in the snow cleaning something. It's not like anybody else gets to enjoy life.

These women are getting on in years, though. Two or three of them are about 40. The rest are in their 50s and 60s. Faces are lined, bodies are soft, and hair is thinning and grey.

I'm sitting with them, because I wanted to talk to Newcastle women who were likely to be affected by the coalition government's cuts. I've done well on that front, if I can put it that way. A lot of the women in this room collect incapacity benefit – a means of drawing income which the Murdoch stable would have us believe is leapfrogging politics, pimping and web paedophilia to top the list of pestilent ways to source a buck. Not that these women will be sourcing income
through incapacity for long. Their days of drawing incapacity (and perhaps any) benefit are numbered. Incapacity is being phased out, along with any notion of genuine need. Everyone who collects incapacity is being assessed for fitness for work. They're being moved to the smaller job seekers' allowance, or to the employment support allowance if they're deemed to need support to work. Some will be found ineligible for support altogether.

Nobody I've spoken to likes their chances. I've even met rightwingers who are worried about assessment. Only ten days ago, I interviewed a physically disabled woman called Mel Richards who felt that the coalition (which she generally supported) was wilfully failing to recognise people she referred to as “deserving poor.” She insisted that her good work record and national insurance contributions entitled her to support when illness struck (and was technically correct – incapacity benefit recipients must generally have paid national insurance).

She'd run a campaign called “I'm Right – but cuts are wrong.” “I still believe there is such a thing as entitlement. I paid, so I was entitled. The government is not acknowledging that.”

Most of the women in this Gateshead room worked, and paid tax and national insurance, for years – 30 years at the HMRC in one case, 20 and more years at BHS in another – before age and ill-health queered the pitch, as they do. Some say they were eased, or bullied, out of jobs and/or better places in the work hierarchy and that their problems with depression set in around then. Depression sets in for me just talking about it. I've been in the workplace long enough to know how women are rated once they've past the age of sexual attractiveness
and use. Miriam O'Reilly is, alas, not the only one. She's one of the better looking.

I wonder, too, about the likelihood of employers giving these already-discarded older women a chance.

Let's take Diana Shearer, who is 51. Her last job was in IT. She was there for about 14 years. She is incontinent and suffers from severe depression: the two problems aren't unrelated. She is furious about the pressure she's under as she waits for reassessment. “Every time there's something comes through the post, I'm wondering is it going to be that letter? It's every day for me [at the moment]. How dare these people stop my benefit? Who going to decide?”

Chris Swales is probably in her 50s, but her seamed face and thick glasses make her look elderly. She worked for 30 years the public sector before she was retired for ill health. “I got a letter and a medical assessment [when I was retired] so I rang Incapacity (the DWP) and told them that I had been ill-health retired. I still had to go for a medical (she had her assessment last week, although she struggles to recall it - the other women in the room have to remind her when I ask). I'm just concerned that I'll get a letter saying that I'm not entitled to it.”

It seems highly unlikely that employers will pick these two from Newcastle's large crop of jobless. Newcastle council is due to jettison 2000 people. There will be long queues for jobs, and old, shaky women will be at the back of them. I've worked all my life, but have never made the kind of money you need for complete security today. I look at these women and see me.

NB Names of women at the Gateshead Centre have been changed – they were concerned that publicity might affect their benefit assessments. I'll upload the audio from these interviews to my site when I get back to London next week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's frightening.

Your pieces are brilliant, but in a way I hate reading them, because the bare reality of it is just awful.