Special Report: Is our benefits system really helping people in Stevenage?
PUBLISHED: 08:48 11 November 2017 | UPDATED: 08:48 11 November 2017
Danny Loo Photography 2017
Comet Chief Reporter Martin Elvery considers whether Britain’s benefits system is failing people like Stevenage pensioner James Smith and mum-of-four Michelle McFarland who are caught up in a cycle of ill health, depression and poverty.
The UK benefits system came into force in the post war period as a way of supporting people who are out of work, on low incomes, ill, disabled who have children needing support.
The government pays out on average more than £200 billion on benefits each year whether they be state pensions, housing benefit, child support allowance or one of the myriad other payments that can be claimed.
But as we are all aware, serious questions are being asked about whether this system which has now cycled through roughly three generations, actually works.
The question is, does it give people the financial support they need, and – just as importantly – does it give support people in the right away and allow them to lead rich fulfilled and happy lives?
With more than 8,000 council homes, Stevenage has more than its fair share of what many would describe as a ‘benefits culture’ and with the town is often criticised as such.
I recently talked to a couple of people who are at the extreme end of being failed by the system.
However harshly we may judge people in this situation, the fact they are just examples of thousands of people in a similar cycle suggests something about the system is not helping them.
Michelle McFarland’s life is ruled by her medical conditions. She has had Type II diabetes since she was 13 years old, and is going blind as a result. She has to sleep in a double bed in her living room because the toe amputations she has suffered as a result of her condition mean she cannot get up the stairs.
She has stage four kidney failure and has suffered a number of strokes. She is just 37.
She has two daughters – Jasmine, 18, and Jade, 15, both of whom have had to finish school before 16 to care for their mother.
They have to do the shopping, get the meals and help their mum get washed and dressed but they are struggling with their own issues, both having inherited their mum’s diabetes.
Michelle has been waiting for a new council property which is better suited to her needs, but at the moment she has no rails to help her get up the stairs or out of the front door.
Stevenage Borough Council handed her the keys to a more suitable house in April but she was later told it wasn’t suitably adapted for her and had to hand them back while work is carried out.
Her 13-year-old son is autistic and her nine-year-old boy has behavioural issues.
While she is claiming housing benefit and child benefit, the system clearly isn’t improving her life.
Unable to get out of the house, she spends her days cooped up in her living room.
She tells me: “It’s really hard because Jasmine has to sleep downstairs with me through the night because of safety. I can’t get upstairs so my two boys fight a lot and don’t tidy their rooms and it makes their behavioural issues worse because I can’t look after them properly.
“If I was in the new property with a stair lift and rails I would be able to be more independent.
“It’s upsetting that I’m having to rely on my children when I should be the one doing stuff for them.
“I should be the one doing that. I have a poor quality of life I want to get into the new house and get my kids into jobs and courses and get on with my life.
“I’m still young and this is not how I expected my life to be.”
Jade tells me: “It’s hard and frustrating. I take her to hospital and I help her wash and cook dinner. Sometimes I feel I’m missing out.”
Interestingly, Michelle tells me she was in the same cycle with her own mother - she had to care for her when she was ill until she died very young.
Across town, 68-year-old James Smith lives alone in a dingy, damp one-bedroom council flat.
As I walk in I can smell the dampness in the air and feel it in my lungs.
The walls are spotted with black mould and the decor is dated and dark.
James is from Montrose in Scotland, but has lived in Stevenage since 1960 when he moved to work in a wholesale food supplier in Hitchin.
He suffered health problems when he was young after a serious car accident and was diagnosed with a form of leukaemia in 1981.
Now he has a heart condition and circulation problems which mean he cannot walk properly. His legs are sore and scabbed and have to be dressed every day by nurses.
His friend Dennis Singleton has long been concerned about his health and his loneliness and on June 4, his fears came true when James fell unconscious and was on the floor for four hours before Dennis found him.
James has been hoping the council will move him to a less damp property for many years but despite repeatedly petitioning them says nothing has happened.
He lives of a miniscule state pension and much of the time has to content himself watching a tiny TV in his dark, depressing, lonely lounge.
He tells me: “The flat is making me ill because I sit here and have coughing fits and I’ve got emphysema. I feel I’m breathing in water rather than fresh air.”
Dennis adds “I very worried about his health. He has no carer and no-one to look after him and the council has done nothing for him. I’m very concerned he will slip up or fall again and not be able to get up.”
Both these cases are symptomatic of a much wider problem. As a reporter in various parts of the UK, I have been contacted by numerous people caught up in a similar cycle of ill health, dependency on benefits and a feeling local council’s are not responding to their needs.
It’s very easy to pin the blame on councils for not stepping in to make improvements for people, but with falling local authority budgets this is unlikely to be a solution. And with so many thousands of people in similar situations, it seems no amount of government spending would solve the problem. This raises the question as to what is going wrong with the welfare system? It’s not one that I can attempt to answer here, but it’s certainly one that needs to be fixed if we are to help the thousands of James’s and Michelles across the UK strive for a better life.
Daniel Marshall is chief executive officer of Citizen’s Advice Stevenage, which specialises in offering advice to people on issues such as their health, housing, benefits and legal rights.
He says people can seek help and advice about their housing from Citizens Advice which has been asked by Stevenage Borough Council to run an independent advice service.
He says they are concerned about Universal Credit which is due to be rolled out in Stevenage next year, because the delays of up to six weeks between people making a claim and receiving payments is putting people in debt.
There are two main sources of advice about benefits in Stevenage. Citizens Advice can be called on 0344 4111444 and the Stevenage branch has a base at Swingate House.
It can advise on what benefits you can apply for, talk to you about claiming tax credits and any problems you may face claiming benefits and accessing housing. It can also advise you on how the new Universal Credit benefits system could affect you.
Another key source of information is Stevenage Borough Council. It can advise on a range of issues including your eligibility for social housing and housing benefit.
You can call the council’s customer service centre on 01438 242242 or drop in to the office at Daneshill House between Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 5.30pm.
More information is also available online at www.citizensadvice.org.uk/benefits.