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.
Carly Tait, a sprint wheelchair racer, is four months away from trials to represent Great Britain at this summer’s Paralympics in Rio – but she now finds herself at the sharp end of the government’s controversial cuts to disability benefits. The 30-year-old from Wythenshawe, south Manchester, who has cerebral palsy, received a lifetime award of disability living allowance (DLA) when she was 18 and for the last 12 years has used part of the benefit to lease an accessible car.
Tait describes the car as her “lifeline”. She says it has allowed her to attend university, have a job, get to two training sessions a day in Stockport, about 10 miles from home, and compete in track events around the country. But after being assessed in February for personal independence payments (PIP) – the government’s “points-based” benefit introduced to replace DLA – Tait has been told she will lose her car, which is provided by the Motability charity scheme.
In today’s Guardian, I speak to Tait – and report how tens of thousands of other disabled people are having their cars and wheelchairs taken away.
The government’s bid to cap housing benefit for social rented properties is one of those policies that sounds, in its dry wording, almost painless. But listen to Becky Elton talk about the child abuse victims she sees, who are struggling with their mental health, or the veterans who have been sleeping rough, and you get an idea of some of those who will be affected by this nasty cut.
Elton, 39, is director of housing at Changing Lives – a charity that runs supported accommodation throughout the north-east. The service has 262 beds, and helps more than a thousand people each year: women fleeing domestic violence with their children; severely ill people leaving hospital who don’t have an address to be discharged to, because their landlord threw them out or they were homeless to begin with; young people – 16 or 17 years old – fresh out of children’s homes or whose foster families are no longer willing to care for them. Supported housing provides not only a roof over people’s heads but anything from counselling to job coaches.
“These people aren’t just people who need ‘putting in a house’,” explains Elton. “They need help.”
The government had intended the cap to come into effect from next month – it will bring housing benefit for social housing tenants in line with the private sector. This means that because rents in supported housing tend to be higher to reflect the extra facilities and resources involved, they could be left with huge shortfalls. But after an outcry from landlords the Conservatives announced a temporary stay: supported and sheltered housing will be exempt from the cut for a year while a review takes place.
For this week’s Guardian austerity column, I look at the very human cost of the supported housing cut.
Watching Stephen Crabb and Labour battle over the cuts to disability benefits in the House of Commons on Monday, one thing was striking: the lack of disabled people in the room. As both party leaders and secretaries of work and pensions spoke, and as backbench MPs got up to ask questions, it struck me over and over: none of them had a visible disability.
That’s one of those things that’s so normalised your brain often forgets to notice it, in the same way you can use a wheelchair every day but it takes a step in a restaurant to remind you that you’re not viewed as an equal.
With each mention in the Commons of “disabled people” – what we need, what we feel, what we want – the scene felt more and more patronising. There is something deeply distasteful about having a room of non-disabled politicians casting judgment on how to live with a disability, a fact that is becoming ever clearer as disability cuts receive more attention.
Read The Guardian column in full here.
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.