(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.