Since the Guardian launched the Hardworking Britain series in January, we’ve covered a range of personal stories behind the politics: from disability benefit cuts and Brexit’s marginalised voters to shrinking local domestic violence services.
In the face of deepening poverty, benefit bureaucracy and a rightwing government, it’s easy to feel that not only is Britain getting bleaker but that we’re also powerless to stop it. However, whether it’s appealing at a social security tribunal or challenging the local council, fighting back is possible. Many of the families Hardworking Britain featured this year have since had their own victories. For the final column of 2016, I went back to catch up with four families.
Peter and Gabriel
Three months after I spoke to Peter in Redditch, in the West Midlands, this August, he appealed against the Department for Work and Pensions’ ruling at tribunal. It took 40 minutes for the panel to hear the evidence, deliberate, and give Peter the ruling: he’d won.
“The usher said that was a bit of record,” Peter says. In fact, not only did the tribunal reinstate the high mobility part of Peter’s benefit – giving him back his right to a car – but they increased the care element of his benefit too.
What Peter and Gabriel had to go through in the meantime seems as pointless as it was painful. Because of DWP rules, Peter’s car was removed before the appeal took place, forcing him to buy it back (he was only able to do so with donations from Guardian readers), only to have to then sell it because he couldn’t afford a £1,450 repair bill.
Three weeks after winning at tribunal, Peter and Gabriel finally have a car again. “Happy doesn’t begin to cover it,” Peter says.
Charlotte and Jayson
From local tribunals to the high court, the Carmichaels have been fighting this in some shape or form for nearly four years – “Month after month, there’s another hurdle,” as Jayson told me – but it all led to February’s battle: going to the supreme court to try to prove the bedroom tax discriminates against disabled adults.
In November – nine months after going to court, and almost two years after first launching legal action – Charlotte (also known as Jacqueline) and Jayson finally won. They’re now fully exempt from the bedroom tax. The policy itself may not be dead but the two of them dealt it a body blow. It’s emblematic of the shame and fear around benefits that years of anti welfare rhetoric has created that, if you ask the couple how they feel, they say: “vindicated”. “It felt like the win was clearing our names, as much as anything,” Jayson explains.
For the Carmichaels, their bedroom tax victory wasn’t just their own but a victory for carers and disabled people. “People have been congratulating us in the street,” Jayson says.
Rhiannon and Andy
Rhiannon Doolan, 14, has been a carer for her dad, Andy, since she was a toddler. She pushed their trolley in the supermarket before she could see over it, and now she’s at secondary school she cooks meals and helps her dad dress. Andy, 48, can’t straighten his arms, and can barely walk even with crutches. Twenty years ago, he caught MRSA during a double hip replacement and has had almost 25 operations on his legs since.
Still, after being tested for PIP this summer, Andy had his benefits cut. “I’ve heard him crying,” Rhiannon told me in September as they worried about the future. “It’s horrible.”
But with the help of a pro bono solicitor, Andy applied for mandatory reconsideration – the first stage of appeal to the DWP – and last month, had his full benefits reinstated. The solicitor was able to dispute each point in the report made by the assessor as well as collect supporting letters – something that with legal aid cuts and shrinking welfare rights services, not enough claimants have access to.
“It feels a weight has been lifted off of my dad’s shoulders,” Rhiannon says. “It’s nice to see him smile again.”
Alison and Sam
For more than a year, Sam had a place waiting at a residential house in Hebden Bridge – bustling with young people and only five minutes from her family – but the council refused to fund it. “It’s the cuts, the cuts, isn’t it?” Alison, 56, said to me. In the meantime, the room was filled.
It’s all been devastating for Sam – she stopped wanting to go out and developed stress-related seizures – and Alison, disabled herself, was struggling alone to help her. But after a pro bono solicitor contacted the family in September, Alison was able to take legal action. By the end of October, the council had agreed to increase Sam’s funding – and a new spot at Hebden Bridge opened.
A week ago, Sam moved in. “She’s a different person,” Alison says. “She talks more. She’s happy. The staff says she’s flourishing.” Sam hasn’t had any seizures since November; not since she was told she was moving.
“She’ll be celebrating the new year in her new home, surrounded by friends,” Alison beams. “They’re having a party.”
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