The Canary recently visited a community group which is fighting back against changes to Britain’s benefits system. And what we heard was that government cuts are leaving children in utterly desperate situations.
It’s hard to imagine that these stories come from 21st-century Britain.
The stories that pushed a community into action
The Bradford-based Hope Rising Action Group (HRAG) has pieced together a number of stories from its members, who are on low incomes and have suffered significantly as a result of either the benefit cap or other recent reforms to Britain’s welfare system. The group is sharing these stories to give parliament, the media and British society a greater understanding of what some of the UK’s most vulnerable citizens are going through as a result of government policy.
Below is a summary of three of these stories. Because of their fear of demonisation and judgement, we don’t use their real names.
Helen says she is suffering as a result of the benefit cap. She has children ranging from two years old to 12 years old. The father is absent, has no contact with the family, and offers no financial support.
As a result, Helen says she has really struggled to find work that fits in with her childcare needs. Her children are malnourished, poorly clothed, and very stressed – both because of their parents’ separation and as a result of bullying at school. This situation is in turn affecting Helen’s mental health, as she struggles to look after her family and home.
Louise lives with her partner Jack and their four children. She says Jack had always worked, but had significant mobility problems after suffering a lower back injury at work in 2016. He found it hard to put his own clothes on and needed help getting out of the bath. Because he couldn’t go back to work, he lost his job. Becoming increasingly depressed and isolated, he put on weight. This made it even harder for Louise – a petite woman – to support him.
After the housing benefit cap came in, the family went into arrears with the rent. Louise says this had never happened before. She insists that their council home was also in a bad state of repair, and had faulty central-heating. Then, despite her partner struggling to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time and taking up to 30 tablets a day to manage his pain, he failed an Employment Support Allowance (ESA) assessment. The assessors deemed him ‘fit for work’.
Louise says she’s constantly looking for jobs, but has found it hard to find an appropriate one given the needs of her children and partner. This situation has left the family with difficult decisions to make. Pay the electricity bill or buy food? Replace the kids’ old clothes or pay the rent? They have provided for their children thanks to loans from family and friends, the support of food banks, and cutting down what they eat themselves. But their situation is desperate.
Marie grew up in poverty and in an abusive family. She left home young, and then had three children with a physically abusive man who was suffering from heroin addiction. She became a single mum and had to rely on benefits to get by. Together with financial and emotional struggles, she says she also suffered from malnutrition; she was feeding her children first and getting by herself with support from food banks and a ‘pay as you feel’ café.
She recently took up volunteer work and started to study. But she says that finding paid work has remained a challenge, because other candidates always seem to have better references and experience. And the kids’ father gives little support, in large part due to his addiction.
Marie says that the benefit cap has now forced her to leave her studies and get paid work. She fears she will have to leave her children to ‘roam the streets’ after school until she comes home from work, which would risk them getting in with the wrong crowd. Her eldest child, meanwhile, suffers from anger-management issues. Adding to this situation, his school has introduced a new uniform, which Marie can’t afford to buy. And if her son doesn’t wear the correct uniform, she says, the school has threatened to separate him from his classmates and send him into isolation. He also has no chance of going on school trips, which isolates him even further from his peers. Marie’s three children, meanwhile, all go to different schools.
At the moment, difficulties paying the rent mean that Marie fears her family will have to move house, change schools, and start again wherever the local authority offers to move them.
The government line
The Canary asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to comment on these cases. A spokesman said:
Work is the best way to raise living standards and our latest figures show, 45,000 households previously capped have moved into work. The benefit cap restores balance, makes the system fairer to the taxpayer, and provides a financial incentive to move into work for those who can.
In June 2017, the High Court ruled that applying the benefit cap to lone-parent families with children under two could [pdf] do “real damage” and cause “real misery” with “no good purpose”. A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson responded by saying:
Work is the best way to raise living standards… The benefit cap incentivises work, even if it’s part-time, as anyone eligible for working tax credits or the equivalent under Universal Credit, is exempt. Even with the cap, lone parents can still receive benefits up to the equivalent salary of £25,000, or £29,000 in London and we have made Discretionary Housing Payments available to people who need extra help.
The DWP repeated the exact same words in its response to this article.
HRAG: empowering people to fight back
The stories above, however, suggest that the government’s line is both overly simplistic and apparently detached from reality.
Fortunately, HRAG is already having an impact locally. It is also garnering the attention of sympathetic Bradford politicians.
The group’s aim is to enhance the political understanding of people being targeted by the benefit cap, and thus empower them to fight back against the destructive policies of the Conservative-led government. As it explained to The Canary:
This campaign group is about middle-class people backing the ideas of working-class people and supporting them to use their power to fight back. Fostering unity in the face of very divisive government policies is a statement of ‘power to the people’.
HRAG is pioneering an inspiring community-led approach to ending the demonisation and suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in the UK – including children. It is very much a model which other communities seeking change can follow.
And the bigger the movement, the greater the impact.
– Would you like to help build a unified movement? To learn from HRAG and set up a sister group in your local community to help challenge government attacks on the welfare system, please get in contact with Julie Longden on 07783 946300. Alternatively, see the Hope Rising Action Group page on Facebook.
– Read the article Faced with government attacks, one community is taking matters into its own hands.