The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing calls to look at one of the most basic necessities claimants are often left without. It’s something one campaigner believes is worsening people’s “hardship”.
The DWP: unreasonable expectations?
Maria Nelson is an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimant in the support group, but will soon be moving onto Universal Credit. Using public transport is a constant struggle for her, not only because of her illnesses but also financially. She decided to create a petition calling on the government and DWP to “fund free bus travel” for all ESA, Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), and Universal Credit claimants.
You can view and sign the petition here.
Her reasoning is straightforward. She told The Canary:
I think it’s unreasonable for an ESA claimant like me to walk a 12-mile round trip to get to my Jobcentre… The trip, up a motor way and a busy road, is not a safe journey. And if maybe I’m in [muscle] spasm… I simply can’t do it. Even on a good day I believe expecting middle aged or sick people to walk any more than a mile or two… is inhumane and unreasonable… Many claimants don’t drive, don’t have family support or friends that can help.
Currently, some elderly and disabled people are entitled to free, off-peak bus travel. They’re sometimes entitled to train travel, too. But decisions are down to each local authority. For example, in South Yorkshire it’s partly based on what level of benefits the DWP gives someone. Therefore people on JSA; much of Universal Credit, and the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA, generally wouldn’t get one.
It’s this which Nelson thinks is wrong. She said:
Many of us who are sick live on the outskirts of towns and cities, in villages and in rural areas. This makes travel a huge expense. It’s a struggle enough we have to use public transport to manage shopping. But we also need to access services such as health care, as well as legal services such as the Citizens Advice Bureau. If we are hit by sanctions we will need access to food banks and charities.
As University College London noted in 2014, the poorest in society walk the most and are most reliant on buses. So, Nelson thinks free travel should go even further:
I believe even low paid workers and carers should have access to free travel. It doesn’t pay to work part time… I saw a one worker have to pay £8.00 for a taxi to work because village bus didn’t turn up. She literally had to pay her travel out of her benefits.
For Nelson, the issue with the DWP is serious.
People claiming ESA, JSA, and Universal Credit are often subject to a “claimant commitment“. This is where they have to stick to certain rules for the DWP to give them their entitlement. These can include mandatory, regular visits to jobcentres at the claimant’s expense.
The very fact that the DWP expects claimants to pay travel out of their benefit money to adhere to its rules is an issue for Nelson. While she is currently in the ESA Support Group, she’s not subject to a commitment; but will be under Universal Credit. She said:
Meanwhile, the DWP expects us to comply with… rules – from job searches, to appointments via training.
This is all happening at a time when the DWP is actually reducing the number of Jobcentre Plus offices. As The Canary previously reported, the DWP has been slowly closing dozens of jobcentres; meaning many people have to travel further to appointments.
Leaving people in poverty
Ultimately, Nelson believes the need for free travel comes down to the most basic of reasons:
I have created the petition because I believe people are living in hardship – owing to unfair austerity measures which target the poorest in society. Poverty is defined at anything less than 60% of median wage. Many ESA are living on about 43% of this; much less on JSA.
Indeed, this year a committee of the Council of Europe said the UK government had breached its legal obligations. It said that many benefits, including ESA and JSA, were “manifestly inadequate”, leaving people below the poverty line.
The most basic of rights
Nelson summed the situation up:
Human rights state we have the right to participate in politics and community. A travel pass means we can partake in society; in politics; access hobbies, and generally live. The alternative is becoming isolated and financially trapped in our homes, unable to access support, education – and life.
The cost of travel for benefit claimants is a subject often overlooked. But with this petition, Nelson hopes to get it some much needed attention. Funding people to be able to stick to its rules is the very least the DWP could do.
– Sign Nelson’s petition and share it on social media.
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