Benefits, poverty and social justice: lessons from the suffragettes

100 years on from the suffragette movement, Z2K Caseworker Eimear Twomey highlights the rising need for a fairer social security system, as in-work poverty threatens families with eviction

Eimear Twomey, Tenancy Engagement Officer

In a week that marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, it’s humbling to consider how much the Suffragette and Suffragist movements had to fight to extend the right to vote to a broader section of society; something we can all now, rightfully, take for granted. While we celebrate their incredible achievements and the progress that has been made over the last 100 years, it is important to remember that even now, systemic injustices continue to damage the lives of far too many people in our society. What feels fitting then, in this historic week, is to follow those early campaigners’ lead in challenging the inequalities we see today.

One of the most striking trends in recent years has been the growing rate of in-work poverty: a report published in December showed that 8 million people in the UK (12% of the population) are living in poverty despite at least one member of their household being in work. With wages failing to cover basic living costs, workers increasingly rely on benefits such as Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit to prop up their income.

Take Sarah for instance. When she approached Z2K last year she was overwhelmed with rent arrears of over £3,000 and the threat of imminent eviction by her landlord. This was not a situation Sarah had caused.

The bulk of her arrears had built up because of a number of Housing Benefit Overpayments which had created a shortfall in her benefit entitlement. To add to the shortfall, Sarah had to pay a high service charge alongside all her other household costs. Already struggling with low-paid, precarious employment, Sarah did not have any financial cushioning to protect her from the mounting charges.

When her partner passed away from a terminal illness some years ago she was left to care for her daughter with no family support. To make a living, Sarah worked part-time as a cleaner. As she could not afford the after school club, Sarah only worked during school hours to enable her to collect her daughter from school. This restricted her availability for work thus varying the amount of hours she was contracted to do. This fluctuation alongside changes in rent contributed to the overpayments.

Fortunately Sarah’s situation is now more secure. With our assistance, she was able to successfully apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) to cover the shortfall in rent retrospectively. This award lowered her arrears considerably. With the arrears at a more reasonable level, we liaised with her landlord to set-up a manageable repayment plan, and Sarah was able to avoid eviction.

Unfortunately, however, Sarah’s case is not unique. Managing means-tested benefits whilst in work is extremely complicated for many people. With Housing Benefit in particular, claimants are required to notify the benefits service of any changes in their income. Overpayments can easily arise, they are not always calculated when the error occurs and are sometimes down to an official error of the benefits department. Benefit schedule letters can be long, complex and difficult to understand, contributing to confusion for claimants and delays in requesting a review.

In the current climate, with the cost of living rising, those in low paid jobs are struggling to stay out of debt. With more working people depending on benefits and DHP funds to keep them financially afloat, we need to ensure that people have access to advice on their entitlements and thorough support when problems arise. And on a deeper level, we need to secure greater rights for workers and tenants, so that a small change in circumstances or overlooked error does not lead to a spiral of debt and eviction. In short, we need to ensure that everyone has the ability and right to participate fully in society – as much in their daily lives, as on Election Day.

Because if the suffragettes and suffragists taught us one thing, it’s that the system can be changed.

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