Fighting back against the system is hard, but it’s possible. Ask these people

Over the past year this series has featured many people severely affected by cuts to welfare. Four families share their journeys to personal victories

Fighting back against the system is hard, but it’s possible. Ask these people
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‘Fighting back is possible.’ Bedroom tax battlers, including Jayson and Charlotte Carmichael, outside the supreme court.
Photograph: Vickie Flores/Rex/Shutterstock

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This article titled “Fighting back against the system is hard, but it’s possible. Ask these people” was written by Frances Ryan, for theguardian.com on Thursday 22nd December 2016 08.56 UTC

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

Peter Sanford, and Gabriel.
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Peter Sanford and Gabriel. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian
For Peter Sanford – who at only 48, has what his doctors describe as the arthritis of an 80-year-old – and his five-year-old autistic son, Gabriel, the family car was “a lifeline”. For Peter, unable to even walk to a bus stop, it’s the only way he could pick up his pain medication or get his son to therapy. But after being tested for personal independence payments (PIP) this summer, the government’s tougher replacement for the old benefit test, Peter was barred from the Motability scheme that swaps disability benefits for a car.

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

Jayson and Charlotte Carmichael.
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Jayson and Charlotte Carmichael. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
In their two-bed flat in Southport, Merseyside, Charlotte and Jayson Carmichael encapsulate the injustice of the bedroom tax. Charlotte, 43, has a severe spinal condition that leaves her partially confined to a specialist bed – sharing an ordinary double with her husband, Jayson, would damage her permanent pressure sores – and their flat, partly adapted for Charlotte’s needs, is too small to put two single beds in one room. But because Charlotte’s carer is also her husband, according to the DWP, Jayson’s bedroom – a room in which he sleeps every night – is “spare”.

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

Sam St Pierre and Eve St Pierre.
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.Sam St Pierre with her sister Eve. Photograph: Alison St Pierre
When I last spoke to Sam St Pierre, and her mum, Alison, in Lancashire, Sam – who has severe cerebral palsy as well as learning difficulties – was at the mercy of Britain’s social care crisis. At only 36, she’d been housed in a supported tenancy for the elderly. Her only company was a 79-year-old, and a 61-year-old with Alzheimer’s – both of them too disabled to talk – and a skeleton staff that meant Sam spent her weekends stuck in her bedroom.

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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