Watching the fallout of the EU referendum over the past fortnight, one phrase keeps coming to mind: a good time to bury bad news. If it sometimes suits governing politicians – eager to hide a failing policy or a damning report – for the public and media to be distracted, Brexit is the political equivalent of a never-ending magic trick. Like with all smoke and mirrors, this doesn’t mean no one is watching what’s happening – currently, it feels as if we’re glued to an endless stream of seismic news – but that whilst we are focusing on one spectacle, it’s hard to see what’s going on anywhere else.
As the country settles into months of Brexit announcements and the unfolding Tory and Labour leadership battles, the government’s actual policies will receive increasingly less attention. And without the headlines pressing it – and less of the electorate aware of it – no one will be held to account. If that feels a little chilling, it’s because it should.
For The Guardian this week, I discussed five things that have happened since the referendum result you may have missed… Read it here.
“Leaving the EU might make my life shit, but it’s shit anyway,” Martin Parker, a 62-year-old jobseeker says, bluntly. “So how much worse can it get?”
On the outskirts of north London, sitting in his rented box room (“the size of a cell”, as he puts it), Parker could be said to represent a section of the country the remain camp failed to reach. The voters who weren’t swayed by fears of the economy failing – not because they didn’t believe them – but because, as Parker puts it to me: “I’ve got nothing to lose.”
For this week’s Hardworking Britain, I looked at the betrayal and anger behind some of the Brexit vote. Read the full column here.
The Conservatives may like to lecture on the value of work, but since Sarah Jones – paraplegic, with chronic rheumatoid arthritis – took on a part-time job she has found herself under investigation for benefit fraud, and is struggling to feed her children.
Jones is not her real name. She tells me she feels as if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is “hounding” her, and she’s afraid speaking out will only make her more vulnerable.
Worry and shame are constants for people in her situation. She sits in lingering nerve pain, but when we talk the first thing she wants to stress is that “being on welfare isn’t a life I chose”. Six years ago she was a comfortable, healthy mother of two doing a job she loved as a teaching assistant. Then, at only 40, she broke her back. Overnight, she was paralysed from the waist down. Now she lives by stretching her out-of-work sickness benefit – employment and support allowance (ESA) – to cover bills, rent, and clothes for the boys.
As part of my Hardworking Britain series, I exposed the reality behind the government’s ‘permitted work’ agenda. Read the full column here.
When does reform become dangerous? Over three years ago the Conservatives began to roll out personal independence payments (PIP) – in essence, the mandatory, mass re-testing of disabled and chronically ill people – and the answer is getting stark.
A report released by Muscular Dystrophy UK is the latest piece of evidence to expose an administrative catastrophe: appointments cancelled at the last minute, lost applications, year-long delays. Two in five respondents report being sent to an assessment centre that wasn’t accessible for disabled people. That’s in order to be tested for a disability benefit.
Make it inside the building and the picture is as dire: widespread reports of assessors – employed by private firms hired by the Department for Work and Pensions – who showed no respect for disabled people, while some didn’t even understand the condition they were testing (one man, with muscular dystrophy, pointed out that the word “progressive” means “muscles don’t come back”).
The result of this chaos is anything from rent arrears and credit card debt to mental scars. One woman, with a muscle wasting disease, said that she developed panic attacks after her assessment. She is now under care of a mental health team and doesn’t leave her house.
For The Guardian, I highlighted the reality of PIP – disabled people having their accessible cars taken away. Read the full piece here.
For politicians and commentators, “heating versus eating” has come to be an idiom for the austerity era. For Claire Matthews, a car showroom worker and mother of three, sitting in a friend’s cold front room in Christmas 2012 was a spur to do something about it.
“She was complaining about being cold,” Matthews says. “And I said, ‘Turn the heating on.’ She said: ‘Today’s an eating day, not a heating day,” the 43-year-old tells me. “I could see the kids’ breath.”
Matthews wanted to help her friend without embarrassing her, so she gave her a leftover seasonal hamper packed with food. “The family lived on that over Christmas,” she says.
After doing the same for another friend, Matthews was approached by parents from her children’s school in Bournemouth – each of them struggling to afford food, clothes, rent, and heating. “You help one and then others ask, ‘Where’s the help?’”
By the start of 2013, Matthews had set up Hope for Food, a small charity run entirely on donations for anyone in the area in need of “life’s basic essentials”. Three years later, she has a team of 150 volunteers.
For this week’s Hardworking Britain, I look at the new level of class inequality: not simply between the wealthy and the poor, but between people who have enough money to buy toilet rolls and cook a hot meal and people who don’t. Read the full column here.
A fear of brown envelopes is now familiar to anyone unlucky enough to be acquainted with Britain’s benefit system. For Sharon Linford, who has rapid cycling bipolar, as well as depression and borderline personality disorder, receiving a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) last month didn’t simply cause panic. It threw her into what she describes as a mental “spiral”.
The 48-year-old has had severe mental health problems since her early 20s when, as she was training to become an accountant, a nervous breakdown led her to spend three months in a psychiatric unit. Sharon’s made multiple suicide attempts over the years. Her wrists are covered in scars from self-harming.
“A single letter can have an impact on a person like Sharon,” her husband, Tony, says from their home just outside Great Yarmouth. “Whenever we see a brown envelope, my pulse literally quickens.”
For this week’s ‘Hardworking Britain’, I argued the time has come for an honest conversation about suicide, mental health, and benefit cuts. Read the full column here.
It’s frightening how life can change. Over a decade ago, Thomas Hemingford, now 45, was on a comfortable wage as a software development manager. His family – his wife Helen and their three children – lived in a home they owned on the outskirts of Harrogate in North Yorkshire. They went on holidays abroad, had two cars – and even bought a convertible as a “Sunday car”. But in 2002, bad luck hit: Helen became severely ill with ME and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a progressive disability that affects her legs, arms, hearing and sight.
Helen, now 41, had to give up work as a financial consultant and Thomas left his job to become his wife’s full-time carer. Because they were unable to make the mortgage payments they had to sell their house. At first they downsized, but within two years they lost that too. The cars went next. By 2007, Thomas says they’d “lost everything”, including savings.
Despite it all, the family got through it – applying for benefits, stretching each pound, and juggling bills. Then the ground was moved from under them: in 2010, Britain’s austerity measures hit.
Read my latest Guardian austerity column in full here.