‘Close to Home’ – the real story of life on benefits

Last night, I attended Close to Home, a reading put on by the theatre company Ice and Fire. It was in a beautiful, albeit rather gloomy venue called the Union Chapel, in Islington and was extremely well attended.

Ice and Fire had interviewed various different people living on benefits, and their verbatim testimony had been woven into a script which was performed by some wonderful actors.

The stories included heartbreaking comments from a severely ill 30 year old woman. She was routinely hospitalised because of cystic fibrosis yet had a well-founded fear of losing her Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which pays for the car that provides her with her only method of getting out of the house. She spoke very poignantly about the fear and humiliation induced by the government’s express intention of cutting DLA by 20%  which is based on the assumption that 20% of DLA payments currently being made are undeserved.

All of the stories were personal and accurately reflected the very experiences of our clients, yet expressed more articulately than is possible for many of those we see whose ability to express themselves is held back by inadequate English, mental health issues or poor educational attainment.

I felt very strongly the contrast between the recent euphoria over both the wonderful Olympics and the shame I felt at this description of how we treat the vulnerable, the unemployed and the disabled.

After the show I participated in a brief panel discussion together with Kate Bell of the Child Poverty Action Group and Mubin Haq of Trust for London. The most pertinent question we faced was what can anyone who cares about these issues actually do in the face of the widespread misconceptions about poverty which make welfare reform popular. I think the consensus was for a threefold answer:

  • Spread the word. Make yourself informed of the facts as much as possible and whenever you hear someone repeat a myth about poverty or benefits correct it . For example almost everyone not receiving it thinks jobseekers allowance is much more that the reality of £71pw and £56pw  for under 25s, as if being young means everything costs less. Spread the truth about that, if nothing else and help people to imagine the grind and hopelessness of living on that sum for any length of time
  • Become engaged with national and local politicians. Look out for consultations especially, at the moment, local consultations on the cuts to council tax benefit. Write to your MP every time you hear of something shocking. Write to national and local papers to expose misleading stories or propaganda from politicians
  • Vote. We may have to wait for a general election but good councils can and will do much to alleviate misery in their boroughs. Vote for councillors who care about these issues .

Well done Ice and Fire who are doing a fabulous job in exposing the human story behind the statistics and showing that benefit claimants are no different from the more fortunate. In the words of Robert Burns, beautifully sung during last night’s performance by Ewan McLennan:

The rank is but the guinea’s stamp / The man’s the gold for all that

You can read more about Ice and Fire and their thought provoking productions here.