|Heidi, it's you and the government you support who have left so many families cupboards empty.|
When I witnessed Tory MP Heidi Allen weep over a starving family in one of the richest nations in the world I wondered what planet she lived on. She is not a casual observer of this crime, she is a perpetrator, she voted for the very policies which were deliberately designed to impoverish this man, his family and millions like them.
For her to express sympathy is between shit and syphilis in my dictionary. What did she believe would happen when the government she supports cuts welfare benefits to the bone, how did she supposed people on low incomes would survive when her government makes them wait 5 to 6 weeks before they receive their first Universal Credit benefit payment?
Who did she think they could turn to for help, advice and support when local council funding was cut to the bone by the Lib Dem Tory coalition, and then the current Tory government making it extremely difficult for councils to fund the case work of local CAB's and the work of other welfare rights advisors.
Did she truly believe hypocrites like her would help fill that gaping hole with charitable donations. A couple of bags of pasta and beans dropped off at her local foodbank and her conscience is wiped clean.
No of course not, she new only to well without expert advice some of the most disadvantaged families and individuals in the UK would be thrown on the wayside as if they were human garbage.
Lives would be shattered, families smashed, homes lost and children ending up in care, by hey Heidi Allen Tory MP can cry crocodile tears in public for the very folk whose lives she has helped ruin.
Shame shame shame!
Aditya Chakrabortty reports Britain's benefits system has become a racket for cheating poor people.
Then Moira gets scared, she cuts herself. “It’s my way of taking control.” Right now she’s very scared. In a few days she faces a tribunal that will judge whether she is entitled to her disability benefit. She has been through forms and examinations and the officials who tell her one thing and those who tell her another, and she is nearly broken. In a low-ceilinged office at the back of a housing estate, she starts sobbing. “I cannot live like this any more.”
lets Moira talk, before telling her, “stay focused”. After years as a welfare rights adviser, Pike knows what tribunals want: short, direct answers shorn of humiliation and pain. Now in her late 40s, Moira was raised in care, went to jail and has been repeatedly cheated of her benefits. Part of her life story is of being let down and punished by authority – but Pike needs her to set all that aside. “Bear with me,” Pike keeps saying. “This is important.”
Such meetings are normally confidential, but for three days over two weeks I had exclusive access to Pike in her work for the Child Poverty Action Group charity. I saw her advise others who appeared to have been wronged by state officials – and I accompanied Moira to that tribunal.
That our benefits system is broken is no longer up for debate. Ministers are told universal credit is a fiasco and MPs weep over starving families in one of the richest societies in human history. Even rightwing tabloids run grim updates on how men with terminal cancer are declared fit to work just weeks before they die.
Such cases are described as shameful. As failures. They are lined up like so many one-offs – not representative of fair-play Britain. But Pike and her colleagues know different. They see a system that routinely snatches money out of the hands of people who need and are entitled to it and bullies claimants with contempt.
That’s Moira’s experience, too. Her trouble started when she found herself feeling steadily worse – and so did as she was told and rang the Department for Work and Pensions. Her recent back operation hadn’t worked, the arthritis in her spine, hips and knees was getting worse and the heavy-duty painkillers were wrecking her kidneys. She was summoned for a reassessment in Southend, a 70-mile round trip from her home in London – tricky for a woman who cannot walk more than 10 steps without crutches. Claimants such as Moira are entitled to a home assessment, but Pike told me they are often dispatched “miles away”. She was still told off for being late, says Moira. After the examination, she lost her personal independence payment.
I have seen a copy of the report by the nurse employed by a private firm, which notes that Moira “has a bath mostly every day”. Wrong, she tells Pike. Her depression means that she needs to be “motivated” to bathe – or else “I’ll run a bath and it’ll sit there for four days.” More tears, this time of shame.
The nurse says she has three meals a day. “Lying ass,” shouts Moira, who says she doesn’t eat more than once a day. The report claims: “She is able to get on and off the toilet without difficulty.” Moira’s own form says, “I have great difficulty getting up off the toilet as the joint in my right hip gets stuck.”
The nurse concludes: “Since her last assessment two years ago, this lady’s restrictions have considerably improved.” Yet Moira’s own GP has written to the tribunal, “I would feel that her general overall condition has got worse.” None of these contradictions surprises Pike. Moira, she says, is simply the latest victim of “a lack of care and a culture of money-saving”.
Moira never went looking for welfare advice; she was just starving. In February her GP practice referred her to a food bank. At east London’s First Love Foundation, you walk into a church hall, a volunteer sets aside two bags of food for you and then, by a sign that reads “the way, the life”, you talk to Pike or one of her CPAG colleagues.
Normally, that hardly ever happens. Welfare advice has almost vanished after years of Conservative cuts to councils and legal aid. Pike started out at a council, until it was forced to cut back its welfare advice service. Nowadays, if you’re disabled or unemployed, you’ll most likely get a few leaflets “signposting” you to other services, which themselves can’t help much. As for someone to represent you at a hearing, as Pike is for Moira, “It’s a desert out there,” says Alan Markey, head of the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers. So the people who need welfare advice can’t get it, even while they’re being short-changed of their benefits. Just as the government is making the welfare system meaner, blunter and more prone to malfunction, it is also hacking away at any means of redress.This means poor people are bilked out of millions of pounds that are rightfully theirs. One of Pike’s colleagues, who also advises at the food bank, went through his records for the Guardian and calculated that he filed 36 appeals in the past year. Fifteen still await conclusion, but of the rest, 20 out of 21 DWP rulings were overturned after a welfare adviser got involved.
In just one year, Pike and her colleagues won a total of £852,288.84 back from the DWP: benefits wrongly withheld, years of back payments, compensation to cover the debts claimants racked up. And that’s for just one food bank in one pocket of London. Multiply it for the rest of the country, and you realise that this isn’t about a few bad decisions or rotten apples. It is a predatory system. Last May, the DWP was forced to admit that it has a target to refuse 80% of requests for any reconsideration of benefit decisions. Poor and often seriously ill people with legitimate claims to state support have been left to starve by the government, in order to save money that has been recycled into tax cuts for rich people and big businesses. This happened under “compassionate Conservative” David Cameron and continues under Theresa May, who promised to “always act in the interest of ordinary, working-class people”.
Moira herself was wrongly denied housing benefit, which led to her landlord almost evicting her. She was put in the wrong universal credit group, which mandated her to look for work. She lost money under a mistakenly imposed benefit cap. Each time, her protests were ignored, Pike had to file an official complaint. Without a representative, Pike believes, “Moira would have been forced to go out and look for a job. She would have been sanctioned. It’s a real possibility that she could have ended up destitute and homeless.”
By the time Moira goes in for her appeal, she has been crying and dry-retching. She sits in the hearing room, a black woman in an Adidas tracksuit and on crutches facing three white people with their laptops and thick handbooks. This is how Tory politicians’ rhetorical divide between the deserving and undeserving poor is made bureaucratic reality. Moira has minutes to prove she is on the right side.
It goes well, until the doctor asks about her limited mobility, and Moira makes a passing remark about an elbow getting “dislocated”. The doctor pounces: what does she mean? It seems an obvious slip; she simply means her elbow pops out of its socket, and it has nothing to do with her appeal. Yet the doctor won’t let go.
We’re sent out of the room, as Pike mutters that the elbow has nothing to do with her claim for PIP. On coming back in, the chair announces the hearing has been adjourned while the panel awaits more medical evidence. Moira’s case will drag on well into 2018. The chair drones calmly on – but Moira cries out “I’ve got to go” and grabs her crutches. Once outside the room, she starts vomiting and bawling, “These people have ruled my life since the day I was born.” She bangs on doors, as if giving back some of the violence that has been done to her.
Five guards appear, but are persuaded that a woman on crutches poses little security threat. Finally, Pike gets her into a taxi. She goes home, crying, humiliated and with just over £140 a week to live on through Christmas and New Year. Just before leaving, she says in a low, flat voice: “I’m going to cut so good tonight.”
• Moira’s name has been changed to protect her identity
• Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist