The workshop was attended by over 50 people. We started with a report on what had been happening to benefits for single mothers and a summary of the benefits available. A number of women spoke about the obstacles they faced when claiming. A woman from Single Mothers’ Self-Defence described how they had been informing women that they didn’t have to authorise the Child Support Agency (CSA) to claim maintenance from their ex-partner if they “feared harm or undue distress” and how to press for their right to this. They had also been using the self-help handbook, The Child Support Act: Your Rights and How to Defend Them, published by Legal Action for Women, which also drew on the experience of the Campaign Against the Child Support Act. One of the authors of the handbook described how the book was used by single mothers, new partners as well as “absent” mothers and fathers to defend themselves. Armed with accurate information, many women were able to resist the harassment of the CSA which had to apologise for their often illegal actions in a number of cases. Figures showed that over 70% of women were not giving their authorisation.
Women described how the advice given by other agencies such as the CABs was often inaccurate. One woman in Hull had set up an impromptu advice-line from home, as a result of her own experience, and had told the CAB to refer people to her because the quality of their advice was so poor.
A man who had campaigned against the CSA described that one major problem was that the men who were also opposing the CSA refused to support single mothers even though this would have been in their own interest. Women described that their opposition to the CSA had been hidden. For example, women who had gone to the press to try and get some publicity for the fact that they didn’t want to comply with the CSA because of threats of violence found the press were only interested in fathers who were refusing to pay.
The session on disability benefits followed the same format. A presentation was done on the benefits available. Two women representing Incapacity Action, a network of incapacity benefit claimants, described problems such as: how disability benefit criteria are too rigid when applied to fluctuating conditions, the notorious “all work” test and the discrimination faced by women with mental health problems. A number of women said that medical examinations were intrusive, brutal and sometimes violent. One woman with a brittle-bone disability had broken her arm when she was made to get down on all fours and the doctor refused to help her up saying that she was not allowed help during the test.
Disability benefits are focussed on the bodily functions of each individual claimant rather than what they may need to do for others. Women complained that because caring work is not counted as work and not seen as an essential function, their inability to care for their children or other family members as a result of receiving no help with their disability, did not count towards their entitlement to benefits. This deprived them of the financial means to get help which might enable them to do this caring work. A question was raised about whether the interviews with doctors were compulsory. WinVisible (women with visible and invisible disabilities) described their success in establishing that women can get exemption from these examinations and insisting that a decision be made on the medical evidence already available on paper. Women complained about doctors charging for medical reports and other women described how they had persuaded their doctors to provide them free of charge. Women complained about the racism of doctors, nurses, other medical professionals and Department of Social Security workers. For example, a Black woman who is partially sighted and has a learning disability was refused home adaptations. One suggestion was to contact people in the Church and describe the brutal and discriminatory treatment that people in their community are facing. There are some people in the Church who have committed themselves to the service of others and we should ask for their support.