Over the past five years, I’ve spoken to people who have genuinely dreamed of the day Iain Duncan Smith would resign: mothers forced to live off toast to keep a roof over their child’s head because of the bedroom tax, Parkinson’s patients reduced to tears during a “fit for work” assessment, sisters grieving for brothers who died after having their benefits taken.
That’s the power of the man we can now finally call the former work and pensions secretary: a politician who not only embodied the Conservative government’s most zealous cuts to Britain’s welfare state but who became a hate figure – a source of daily fear – to people whom he will never even meet.
Read my Guardian reaction to Duncan Smith’s resignation in full here.
I can’t decide what is most disturbing: that more than 85% of allegations of benefit fraud put forward by the public over the past five years have been false, or that this is about almost 900,000 out of more than a million cases.
That isn’t a handful of mistaken or malicious individuals. It’s a widespread anti-benefit mindset that – over five years of austerity – has rooted itself in British culture: through Benefits Street type-television, the rhetoric of politicians, and the pages of national newspapers.
In this climate, a “benefit cheat” and a person on benefits is one and the same. It has not only become quite natural to be suspicious of your disabled neighbour when he drives by your house in a new car – but to report him to the authorities for it.
Read my latest Guardian disability column in full here.
“Matthew’s bed at home’s been empty for six months,” Isabelle Garnett says from the family house in south London as she tells me about her son. “I can’t walk by his bedroom.”
Since September 2015, 15-year-old Matthew Garnett – who has autism, ADHD and anxiety – has been held two hours’ drive away from his home in a secure mental health treatment unit in Woking, Surrey. Or as his mum puts it to me, “the equivalent of being left on an A&E trolley for six months”.
Isabelle and Robin, Matthew’s dad, struggling to cope as their son became violent towards them and knowing he needed help, agreed for Matthew to be detained at the unit while a suitable clinical placement within the NHS could be found. But six months later, Matthew is still there – and the family say he hasn’t been treated or even assessed. In desperation, Isabelle started a Change.org petition calling for her son to be given the treatment he needs (at time of writing it has near to 330,000 signatures). “I had to do something for Matthew because no one else will,” she says.
For this week’s Hardworking Britain, I looked at Matthew’s case – and the other children failed by our mental health services.
Since 2009, Karen Lowry has been a care worker in her hometown. Out of the house at 6.30am to medicate, wash and feed elderly people in their home. Over the past three years, she has witnessed first hand what she describes to me as “the change”: outsourced care, neglect, and cut corners.
“A lot of the elderly haven’t got a voice,” Lowry, 43, says. “But what’s going on… it’s disgusting. Someone needs to talk about it.”
Karen Lowry is not her real name (she’s afraid of being identified) but – as the Conservatives gut £4.5bn from the sector – this is the disturbing reality of social care under austerity.
Read this week’s Hardworking Britain column in full here.
From their flat in Southport, Merseyside, with boxes of medical supplies stacked next to a single bed, Charlotte and Jayson Carmichael are taking on the government – and with it arguably the most loathed social security policy of this decade.
Charlotte, 43, has a severe spinal condition which leaves her partially confined to a specialist bed, and Jayson, 53 – her husband of 18 years – is her full-time carer. Sharing an ordinary double bed with Jayson would damage her permanent pressure sores, and their flat, partly adapted for Charlotte’s needs, is too small to put two singles in one room. Anyone who’s followed the news over the last three years can guess what I’m going to write next: in April 2013, along with hundreds of thousands of other tenants, the Carmichaels had their housing benefit cut by the bedroom tax. Because Charlotte’s carer is also her husband, Jayson’s bedroom – a room in which he sleeps every night – is classed as “spare” by the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Carmichaels lose £12 a week.
Next week, as part of a group of five families, the Carmichaels will go to the supreme court in a bid to prove the bedroom tax discriminates against disabled adults – a case that could have major ramifications for the entire system.
Read this week’s Hardworking Britain in full here.
Louise Cooke, a 46-year-old ex-teacher and community worker in Nottingham, has never been elected nor is her work funded by the taxpayer – but she is filling in the gaps left by the government.
For the past two years, volunteering out the back of her local church, Cooke has been running Sharewear – what, in austerity’s language, we could dub a “clothes bank”. This isn’t packets of pasta or boxes of veg but winter coats and children’s shoes. Cooke describes the people who come through the doors as in “crisis”: anyone from job seekers to Syrian refugees, from low-paid workers to people on benefits (“We have people coming in on disabled people’s behalf because they’re housebound,” she adds).
As Cooke says: “No one should have to walk around in smelly clothes just because they haven’t got enough money. No child should have to go to school in ripped clothes.”
It says something about how entrenched deprivation now is in this country that a key reason Cooke started the scheme in March 2014 was that her son – then volunteering at one of the city’s latest food banks – told her, among the queues for food parcels, people were coming in and asking about packs of baby clothes.
For this week’s Hardworking Britain, I looked at the next stage of normalized poverty. Read the full column here.
Maurice Nauta, a 68-year-old grandfather living in the Lincolnshire village of Nettleham, is not what you might think of as a typical anti-cuts activist. For 14 years he worked at his local council, helping to oversee everything from adult education to community grants, youth services and – most importantly for what was ahead of him – libraries.
For the last two and a half years, instead of settling into retirement, he has been battling what we might call the local face of national cuts: squeezed by a central government gutting council budgets, in 2013, Lincolnshire council set out a plan to pull £2.5m from the county’s library services – shrinking the number of libraries from 47 to 15.
For my latest ‘Hardworking Britain’ column, I looked at the gutting of local services. Read it in full here.
Luke Alexander Loy was not one of George Osborne’s “hard-working people”. The 42-year-old had schizophrenia and was unable to work (or “do the right thing”, as David Cameron now ominously terms being employed. But Luke’s story – his life – is one worth talking about.
Luke lived with his mother in their two-bed council house in Birmingham and had built a stable rhythm: carving wood sculptures as art therapy in their front room, going for walks five times a day, and shopping for his elderly neighbours.
But when his mother died of cancer, Luke found his housing benefit cut: the bedroom tax meant that from 2013 his late mother’s bedroom was classed as “spare”. A year later, another piece of support was pulled from him: Luke had been receiving incapacity benefit for over 20 years, but after a work capability assessment (WCA) in late 2014, he was declared “fit for work”.
What came next for Luke is a now familiar spiral: pushed off sickness benefits and unable to cope with the requirements of the jobcentre, he had his jobseeker’s allowance taken away. His housing benefit and council tax support were also cut. His debts started to mount and he began to struggle to feed himself. Three months later – on 29 May 2015 – when Luke failed to respond to his family’s calls, police officers broke into his house and found him dead on his bedroom floor. An inquest returned an open verdict.
For this week’s ‘Hardworking Britain’ I spoke to Luke’s sister, Natalie Jeffers. Read the full column here.
I’m excited to say I’m starting a new, weekly austerity for The Guardian. Every Thursday, ‘Hardworking Britain’ will feature a personal story behind the cuts.
This week, we launched things off with Rachel Watt’s story: over the past five years, her social care package has been slashed by two thirds, leaving her to become malnourished and have to sleep fully clothed in her wheelchair. Read the column here.
If you’re affected by the cuts and would like to be featured in the column (anonymously, if needed), please get in touch [see contact page].
The abuse started for Helen Adams (not her real name), a senior administrator at a major UK charity, after her boss watched her get out her of wheelchair. The 40-year-old has multiple sclerosis and struggles with mobility, but on a “very good day” she says she was able to walk in the office.
“I went to lunch and a manager who’d seen me walking earlier yelled at me across the busy room to get out of my wheelchair because ‘I wasn’t really disabled’,” Adams recalls. “I was so shocked and upset that I didn’t know what to say. I said nothing. The rest of the day, people were looking me up and down and tutting at me.”
Over the next few months, the harassment spread throughout the office.
“People started pressing all of the lift buttons when they saw me coming, then they would close the doors so the lift would go all over the place while I waited there,” she says. “All the while, I could hear people on the floor above and below me shouting “Lazy cow!”
The stress led Adams to go on sick leave and start twice-weekly counselling. A few months later her manager told her she needed to learn to ignore the abuse. Instead she went for legal advice.
What Adams didn’t know was that in July 2013 – just as her workplace abuse began – the coalition government had brought in fees to have a claim heard at an employment tribunal (the first time fees have been charged since the tribunal system was established in 1964).
“The solicitor told me I had a clear case but, because of the new fees, I’d need to pay for it myself. I couldn’t afford that and my therapy,” Adams says. “I knew I had no comeback.”
In Wednesday’s Guardian, I reported on the new research highlighting what happens when a government starts charging for justice. Read the full piece here.