2019-02-08 Benefits and Families

Last week, I was picked to question the Prime Minister, and asked her about an Ipswich resident who is suffering from terminal illnesses and who has had part of her benefits removed until an assessment has been made.  She could not possibly work, but could have some quality of life in the time that is left to her if she is able to afford a carer.  Everyone who is sick or disabled and is receiving disability benefits has to undergo regular assessments to decide whether they are eligible, unless their condition fits a few very tight categories.  I have spoken to someone who has cerebral palsy and who told me how frustrating it is to have to go through this uncomfortable and erratic process for no possible justifiable reason.  As he said, if he had been less in need of disability benefits now than last year, he would be the first person in the history of humanity who had “recovered” from cerebral palsy.  And there are lots of other life-limiting illnesses and genetic conditions which are quite clearly not going to improve – once someone has been assessed as being in need of help it makes no sense for them or for the state to waste time and money and effort in regularly reassessing them.

It wouldn’t be quite so bad if the assessments were accurate, but they aren’t. In fact, they are so inaccurate that at one stage the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) told me that around 90% of the cases they agreed to take on were having the decision not to award benefits overturned at appeal.  And for every applicant who has contacted the CAB or the Disabled Advice Bureau and had their bad assessment overturned on appeal, there must be many more who have just accepted the result of the assessment even though it was wrong.

Everyone wants a benefits system that helps people back into work if that is possible, but many people receiving benefits are not able to work. If they do not get the benefits they need, some of those people will end up in hospital. Some will lose their homes, some will see their families split up.  It really does not benefit anyone, including the wider society, to deny people the minimum they need to live.

Labour want decisions of need to be taken by people’s doctors, who know most about their patients, and not by less well-trained strangers at sketchy assessments working for private companies that have a vested interest in taking as many people off benefits as possible.  In short, we would abolish the assessments regime.

It is appalling that the County Council has decided not to continue to fund the CAB into the future, and all for the sake of around 1p per person per week.  Even more people will fail to get the support they need, and in some cases it will be the County Council that will have to pick up the pieces.  I think it is quite likely that this decision will end up costing Suffolk taxpayers far more, and ruin hundreds of lives into the bargain.

This week I asked about a British Army veteran, whose work has brought him back from Ireland together with his wife and two children.  The Home Office requires landlords to check everyone moving into rented accommodation, and their guidance rules out the European document which allows non-European spouses to remain with their families in European countries, unless that document was issued in this country.  Bizarrely, that means a French or German resident whose non-European spouse obtained this E10 document in the UK would be able to take on a tenancy with their family quite freely, but a British citizen, who has married a non-European in another European country, would not.  The upshot is, there is a man here in Ipswich who has moved here for his work, who fought for this country in the Falklands, and who is sleeping with his family in friends’ houses because he is not allowed to rent a house for his family.

When governments pass laws, they need to think of the effect they will have on ordinary people’s lives.  And when some of those effects become clear, it is not enough simply to try to deal with individual cases.  People should not be left to starve.  Families should not be split up by arbitrary regulations.  We need a kinder society.  And we need a government that actually listens to people.