Christelle Pardo: what the hell went wrong?

(I first published this on The F-Word.)

The Guardian’s Jenni Russell
wrote this week about Christelle Pardo, a French woman who leapt to her death, holding her baby, in June last year. Christelle had been denied benefits because as a French national she apparently didn’t meet the residence conditions required.

Russell described this as evidence of a ‘circumscribed’ benefits system, implying an inflexible set of rules not able to bend to Christelle’s individual situation. I’m not so sure.

For income support, you need to satisfy the ‘right to reside’ test and the ‘habitual residence’ test. You pass the right to reside test as an EEA national if you’re working or studying, and after five years of that, you have a permanent right of residence. Christelle had, at the time she tried to claim income support, been in the UK for eleven years, and working between 1997 and 2005. The permanent residence rule only came in in 2006, so sometimes benefit claimants have trouble convincing benefits agencies that the time they spent in the UK before 2006 counts; but Christelle could certainly have claimed permanent right of residence.

So what about the habitual residence test? For this, you have to show evidence of your intention to reside. Christelle worked here, studied here, her sister lived here, she wanted to have her baby here. How could she possibly have been turned down?

The killer is, habitual residence is not defined in benefit regulations. It’s assessed on a case-by-case basis. I asked around at work and more experienced advisers remembered cases where people who had come to the UK forty-five years earlier had failed the habitual residence test. This isn’t the faceless tick-box of a bureaucratic welfare machine. This is an all too human system where individual DWP staff can make a call and call it wrong.

Please note: I’m not saying Christelle Pardo died because DWP Staff Member X said no when s/he should have said yes. I’ve no desire to be sued (or worse, bollocked by my mother, who happens to work for the DWP.) I’m saying: it’s a really complicated system. When it comes to benefits for people from abroad, it’s not a yes or a no: it’s open to interpretation. It’s case law.

So my first answer to what went wrong is: maybe somebody made the wrong call. My second is: apart from a supportive sister, Christelle seems to have been on her own. I can’t find any hint in the papers of anyone taking on her case while she was still alive. Amongst the many lessons of this awful story, I think there is a vital one on the importance of advocacy.

The Child Poverty Action Group publishes elephantine textbooks to empower individuals by informing them of their entitlements and suggesting tactics for having them enforced, and it campaigns for a fairer benefits system; Citizens Advice does likewise at a national level while individual Citizens Advice Bureaux can argue the case down the ‘phone with the Jobcentreplus and send caseworkers to argue claimants’ rights at tribunals. Countless law centres and advice agencies do the same.

In an ideal system the tactics and the tribunals and the arguing wouldn’t be necessary, but this system is a minefield and no-one should be left to wander in it without a guide. The DWP should signpost people to these guides, but they don’t always. If you’re in a situation anything like Christelle’s, or you know anyone who is, please find someone experienced to help – the Community Legal Advice website has a directory of local CABx and law centres, and for people on low incomes they can also offer advice over the ‘phone, through interpreters if necessary.

So what about the ideal system? Taking it back a few steps – Jenni Russell points out that ‘The understandable logic behind the existing rules is that if someone cannot demonstrate that they have contributed to this society then the society has no reciprocal obligation to them.’ Right here, with this idea of ‘contributing to society’, we have ‘what went wrong, part 3’. There’s an underlying assumption (in the benefits system, not in what Jenni Russell said) that by becoming pregnant you stop becoming a contributor.

This is not only fundamentally sexist – the same thing couldn’t happen to a man (one to challenge under the Equality Bill?) – but it’s bollocks. Having children and bringing up children is work. Having children in the UK, and bringing them up to be the UK’s future students/cafe workers/CAB advisers/solicitors/DWP staff/F-Word contributors/whatever, is contributing to the UK’s economy and its society.

This is recognised elsewhere in the benefits system – for example my mother was recently relieved to discover that the years she didn’t work, as a single parent, still count towards her state pension entitlement because she was bringing up children at the time. That’s feminism made law, and it’s high time it was extended to the most vulnerable mothers in society, to stop more women like Christelle slipping through the net.


6 thoughts on “Christelle Pardo: what the hell went wrong?

  1. A similar thing happens to alot of prisoners. They are told they will be shipped off to their “home” countries at the end of their sentence. For some this is a big shock as they have lived in the UK all their lives but their parents didn’t fill in the right paperwork etc.

  2. Your conlusion on the background leading to the suicide has made some sense of how this could happen .
    It is time obviously to repair the safety net.

  3. Hi
    i am a old friend of these two sisters, i met them at college in Marseille France around 1993-97. I lost contact since then, I only knew they planed to go to London. Christelle was studying arts at this time & i still have a painting of her she gave me. I just found this painting back today & wondering what did she became , i googled her and …
    It makes me so sad.
    I’d like to take contact with Olaya but i have no idea how to find her.
    Here is my mail :

  4. I’m EU A8 national who has resided in the UK continuously for the past six years, have not been out of the country for exactly two years. Jobcentre put down the date I called them to apply for JSA this January as the date of my arrival to the UK. Quote Disallowance letter:

    On 15th January 2011 Katie …, a Slovakian national who is single, came to the UK.
    Right to Reside: failed
    Habitual Residency Test: failed.

    No wonder. If it looks like I’ve been out of the country for 2,5 years. After 5 years in the UK, EEA nationals have permanent right to reside. Claimed Housing Benefit and Council Tax benefit same time as filling in form for income-based JSA. Council awarded me full amount of my rent, £150 per week and scrapped my council tax, paid me back what I paid for February and March. Only way Jobcentre could fail me is state a later date than my actual arrival / moving to the UK which is 2005. They not apologetic but point out where you allegedly did not meet legal requirements, eg au-pairs have to register with Workers Registration Scheme. Home Office’s website, UK Border Agency, point number 8, Exemptions: Au-pairs and domestic workers which as to my interpretation relates to EEA A8 nationals, not to the “Bulgarians and Romanians” listed just above Exemptions. It’s a game they got planned. Does anyone know how to beat Jobcentre at their own game? Law changes on 1st May 2011. They will get my letter on that they to ask them to reconsider decision [one letter to Decision Maker in Wick, Scotland and another one to Stratford Jobcentre], appealing against the decisions as well at the same time. Wanting to get Certificate of Permanent Residency. Dates I visited GP in UK. If I sign off, my Housing Benefit stops. Anyone expert on the subject please advise what to do / write [in letters] that is fool proof and they will have to award JSA. Also, 12,000 A8 nationals were denied income-based JSA in 2010: they failed their right to reside test. Please come forward and say what happened to you. If Jobcentre is playing a game, it should be investigated and stopped. Thank you.

  5. It is the total fault of the Jobcentre and Department for Works and Pension. If England was not a uncaring, selfish, Darwinian country against the poor, this would not happen. The UK has never treated her benefit claimant in a civilized way. She has slandered her unemployed as ‘scroungers’ and ‘spongers’ while never giving them adequate money in the fist place. She is now looking for excuses to take away benefits from disabled people. From a Western perspective, England is a hell-hole for the benefit claimant. British tabloid newspapers are just propaganda in diverting the public’s attention of who the real criminals are, which is the system.

    It is also noteworthy how much fuss ordinary Britons make about benefit claimants while they never complain about a football player ‘earning’ £110,000 per week.

    Check the following website link, if you’re unconvinced that UK benefit system is inferior in supporting the poor:

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