Scarlet and Boris came to visit me yesterday. They lived together with their twins Ellen and Tom, whom Scarlet home schools. Home Schoolers do not receive any extra help from the government for books or educational items. Until recently, Boris supported them easily on his wages as a senior blue collar worker at a manufacturing company (which has since gone into liquidation).
Two years ago, Boris was ill in hospital over Christmas and New Year. When he came out, his doctors were happy to write him medical certificates saying that he was too fragile to immediately return to work, and a member of staff from the Job Centre even visited him in hospital to help him fill in his forms so that his claim would start when he returned home. Unfortunately this didn’t happen – the first week the benefit was due there was nothing, and Boris was told to wait. The next week there was also nothing.
After several attempts, Boris was finally told why his claim had stopped. The assessors had ignored his medical certificates and decided that he was fit for work. Due to this they had refused him any ESA payments (Employment Support Allowance, the benefit you are entitled to for a year if you are too ill to work) and they had not informed him in time to apply for JSA (Job Seekers Allowance, which is dependent on seeking work). They had also decided to stop Scarlet’s claim which was linked by the address.
The family of four were left living on £80 a week of their tax credits and child benefit, which luckily were paid separately based on different criteria. This state of affairs persisted until April, while Boris and Scarlet applied for an appeal hearing. Boris was still fragile and there wasn’t enough money for transport to the hospital or books for the children. Scarlet points out that it was extremely lucky that the housing and council tax benefit claim was considered separately, or they could all have been homeless.
In April, after four months living on £80 a week, the claim started; but it was at a reduced rate of £140 a fortnight for the whole family. To put this into context, a single unemployed person can expect to get just over £130 a fortnight – and, as Boris pointed out – “Unemployment benefits are supposed to be set at the lowest amount of money a person can live on – just bills and food – so how can you live on less?” They borrowed off friends and family but nobody could afford to help very much.
Eventually, and with much regret, Boris decided to move out of the family home. Scarlet’s claim was reassessed, and she got her full entitlement. Later, in November, Boris’ appeal was finally heard. The judge was firmly on his side and wrote a letter to the officers concerned telling them that they had not correctly applied the guidelines and that they were lucky that Boris had not gone to the Press.
Boris is now living in a room on his own several miles from his family, concerned that if he moves back again, he will jeopardise their housing benefit. He is looking for work but his condition is limiting. New rules to the ESA mean that he was put back onto JSA this year despite his ongoing medical condition and he may find himself eligible for forced workfare. The first full payment he was awarded was later clawed back from him as an “overpayment” at the rate of £40 a week, so it is only fairly recently that he has had the correct amount of money. His housing benefit is £90 a week for a single attic room, which is the cheapest accommodation that he could find. He thinks it’s crazy that he can’t live with his family for fear of bankrupting them, but that the government is happy to pay for him to live alone and for the appeal and tribunal process. After working into his forties, he had expected that it would be relatively simple to claim the benefits he had thought he was entitled to for himself and his family.
Scarlet meanwhile spends her day with her children. She takes them to museums, swimming, on walks. They play instruments and are taking their GCSEs a year early. She buys books when she can afford them and uses the library and internet to research. The only contribution the council makes to the children’s schooling is to send an inspector round occasionally to see that the children have a satisfactory level of education. The current inspector is pleasant and pleased with the children’s progress. The previous inspector insisted on having every activity written down and made demands which disrupted the flow of learning such as writing book reports of every book read before he would accept it, although the children could discuss the contents fluently.
The reason the twins were homeschooled in the first place was that Ellen was badly bullied at school. Instead of supporting the family when Ellen was bullied, the school blamed Ellen and sent her to a psychologist who said unflattering things about the family based on a half hour consultation. Scarlet researched homeschooling and made contact with other parents in the area who shared materials with her. The school tried to tell her that it would not be possible for her to home school, but she had advice and was able to submit the correct forms and set her lessons up properly so that they had to accept her. She does not feel that the council were very supportive. “They did send me a leaflet,” she said, “but it portrayed home schooling very negatively.”
She is currently also claiming ESA because the stress of living with such financial insecurity had made her so depressed that she could hardly function. She is slowly getting better, but she will soon be returned to Jobseekers Allowance where she will be expected to accept work – no account will be taken of the two children she is supposed to be home schooling. She will be expected to put them into whichever school will take them with no regard for the curriculm clash, the distance they will have to travel, or the likelihood of bullying. In their county, all of the schools are over subscribed. The only schools with spare places have deservedly bad reputations from incidents of gang fighting and drug taking on the premises.
If Scarlet does get a job on minimum wage, she is likely to end up with less spending money than she had on benefits after she pays her rent, her council tax, her transport and the children’s, school uniforms and work clothes. Entitlements to working tax credits are being cut this year, and next year the Universal Credit will be introduced which may leave her with even less. She is hoping she will be able to find a better job. In this county, with unemployment for her age group running two percentage points over the national average, it will be a struggle.
As Scarlet and Boris left (to catch the bus back), they were talking about the days when they used to go on holiday with the children. “I haven’t had a holiday in years,” said Scarlet wistfully.