From The Guardian, 14 April 2016 (Words by Frances Ryan).
It’s frightening how life can change. Over a decade ago, Thomas Hemingford, now 45, was on a comfortable wage as a software development manager. His family – his wife Helen and their three children – lived in a home they owned on the outskirts of Harrogate in North Yorkshire. They went on holidays abroad, had two cars – and even bought a convertible as a “Sunday car”. But in 2002, bad luck hit: Helen became severely ill with ME and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a progressive disability that affects her legs, arms, hearing and sight.
Helen, now 41, had to give up work as a financial consultant and Thomas left his job to become his wife’s full-time carer. Because they were unable to make the mortgage payments they had to sell their house. At first they downsized, but within two years they lost that too. The cars went next. By 2007, Thomas says they’d “lost everything”, including savings.
Despite it all, the family got through it – applying for benefits, stretching each pound, and juggling bills. Then the ground was moved from under them: in 2010, Britain’s austerity measures hit.
“We were coping until the [welfare] reforms came in, that’s when all the problems started,” Thomas tells me. “Before, things were tough but we could just keep our head above water … But after the cuts, it was just hopeless.”
After they had to sell their home, the Hemingfords started to rent privately with the help of the local housing allowance. But when the government changed the LHA rates in 2011, they found themselves with a rent shortfall of £120 every month. Then in 2013, their council tax support was cut – and, like millions of other families on low incomes or with disabilities, the Hemingfords suddenly found themselves liable for council tax payments. That means that on top of the extra rent to make up for the LHA cut, they had to find another £50 a month for council tax.
As Thomas puts it to me: “The numbers simply don’t add up.” To hold off eviction, electricity, gas, and water bills go ignored for the sake of rent. In late 2012 – even before the council tax support cut added to the rent burden – Thomas says he and Helen were taken to court by their utility company because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill. A close friend of the family is currently paying their council tax for them. “I don’t know what will happen if [her] kindness ends,” Thomas says.
When we talk, Helen is struggling with her health – he tells me she now needs to use a wheelchair most of the time – but they “have to put the children first”. All three are still at school – one is also disabled – but, after the benefits cuts, it’s hard to get them shoes and clothes. Thomas tells me he and his wife go without food and heating “to ensure the children are fed”. On a monthly basis the two of them have nothing to eat for a few days – “literally” just water and fluids.
The family is now in £6,000 of debt. “This is all since 2010,” Thomas stresses. “The debt’s constant. It grows every month. We can’t give people what we don’t have.”
In his first major speech since taking over the Department of Work and Pensions, Stephen Crabb spoke this week of the need for a “sense of responsibility” and “the dangers of [welfare] dependency”. It’s the plight of families like the Hemingfords that shows the reality behind the Conservatives’ rhetoric. Poverty and illness are not personal failings. In the blink of an eye, any of us could need the security of the state’s safety net.
Scared for her health and adjusting to not being able to even play with the children, Helen struggled with depression when she first became ill. She managed to get through it with therapy, support, and medication. But as the benefit cuts began, Thomas says both of them began to be “uncontrollably, obsessively worried and down”. Both he and his wife are now on antidepressants.
“We thought we’d been through the worst,” Thomas says. “I’ve had those thoughts that years ago I could never have imagined having. When my wife heard about more possible cuts on the news one time, she broke down. She couldn’t eat and became catatonic again for a few weeks.”
Now, their next worry is Helen’s upcoming assessment for personal independent payments – the government’s now infamous replacement for Disability Living Allowance. Since having to give up their cars, Helen has relied on her DLA to lease a car on the Motability scheme but – like tens of thousands of other disabled people who have already been re-tested – if she’s rejected for PIP, the family could have the car taken away.
“I don’t know if the government understands what these sort of reforms and cuts actually do to people,” Thomas says. “We were already struggling before the changes … ” He pauses. “To be frank, I dread every day now.”