Protestors against the bedroom tax outside the High Court in February 2014. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty
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What has happened to the disabled people affected by the Coalition’s welfare reforms?

Frances Ryan revisits previous interviewees to find out how they are coping with the bedroom tax and the changes to benefits like the Disability Living Allowance.

Sitting in their two-bed flat in Southport, Merseyside, a wheelchair cramped up next to a hospital-type bed, Jayson and Charlotte Carmichael have found themselves unlikely figures of the coalition government.

I first spoke to the couple back in February 2013, two months before the bedroom tax – which saw working age social tenants have their housing benefit cut for “under-occupying” their home – would come into force nationwide. The Carmichaels are in many ways reflective of why the policy went on to become the most controversial social security cut of the past five years. Charlotte, 42, has a severe spinal condition and is partially confined to a specialist bed. Sharing an ordinary bed with her husband, Jayson, would cause damage to her permanent pressure sores and their flat, partly adapted for Charlotte’s needs, is too small to put both beds in one room. Despite the fact that Charlotte sleeps there every night, due to her carer also being her live-in partner, from April 2013, the couple began losing £12 a week for having a “spare” room.

Since then, the Carmichaels have been challenging the bedroom tax on two fronts: taking their own case to a local tribunal in a bid to be judged exempt from the policy and going to the Supreme Court, as part of a group case of five families, to overturn the legislation itself. It has been two years of court dates, battles, and exhaustion.

“I have been depressed and sometimes thought enough is enough, we can’t go on anymore. Then we have a small success and I pull myself around and say ‘we have to go on to help others in the same boat, other disabled people’,” Jayson, 52, tells me when we speak again. “I try and use adrenaline to keep going.”

The “small successes” Jayson describes have allowed the couple to so far keep paying the rent. In April 2013, they successfully applied for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP), the emergency short-term fund designed to assist some disabled people affected by the policy, and by April 2014 – one year on – were deemed fully exempt from the bedroom tax at their local tribunal. But the success proved short-lived. Three months later, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had applied to overturn their win.

“We were over the moon and then when the judge said the DWP had decided to challenge it…we just felt deflated. I didn’t know what to do,” Jayson says. “They won’t let it rest.”

“If the DWP overturn the tribunal ruling, we might be liable for the two year backdated bill,” Jayson adds. “It could be £1, 500.”

This sort of looming threat marks the uncertainty the couple have had to live with over the past two years. Charlotte tells me she thinks about what will happen to her if they’re forced to move to a one-bed flat.

“I’m frightened one day I won’t be able to stay in my home simply through not being able to afford to pay the bedroom tax,” she says. “I’m frightened I’ll be forced to go into a nursing home.”

“Charlotte’s been hit so hard,” Jayson adds, “Much worse with being disabled. Worse than me.”

With the DWP challenging their exemption from the policy, they are pinning their hopes on a Supreme Court win. It will be a long wait. Jayson emails a week later to tell me they have been given their court date: “March NEXT YEAR,” he writes.

“The silver lining on the late date I suppose is that we can hold the next government – if there is a different one – to its promises if they’re a more left wing one,” Jayson adds. “We’re happy to have weathered the fight this long… Two years.”

 

***

 

The long fight is familiar to Pamela and Jim Hardy*. Pamela, 43, has Multiple Sclerosis and is full-time carer to her husband, who has both mental and physical health problems, as well as their ten-year-old daughter, Katie. I first spoke to the family back at the start of last year when – with arrears of £400 – they had watched themselves become a stat in the mounting bedroom tax headlines: the one in seven families affected by the policy being handed an eviction notice.

In their struggle to keep their home, Pamela and Jim Hardy exemplified the complex – often senseless – elements disabled social housing tenants hit by the bedroom tax have had to maneuver: a flawed central government decision to bring in the policy and a local council and/or housing association refusing to offer support.

Settled within their three-bed house, the family had been put in the property seven years ago by their housing association as a “medical move”. Despite this and the fact that both Pamela and Jim’s doctors report their individual conditions mean they need to sleep in separate bedrooms, because they’re married – just as the Carmichaels found – the bedroom tax means the extra room is classified as “spare”.

At less than 50 foot square, it is barely a box room, and legal advisers say it’s illegal to call it a bedroom. Medical test units sit squashed against the bed and a small cupboard is full of boxes of stored medication and controlled drugs that need to be kept locked away. With ten-year-old Katie in the house, there’s nowhere else to safely store it all.

The family had applied for a discretionary housing payment to help cover the rent but, after one short-term approval, the council repeatedly turned them down.

“They said we should work, get a lodger, or look for a smaller house,” Jim, 50, tells me when we speak again in the New Year.

It’s this sort of dire understanding of disability that saw their council also repeatedly count both Jim and Pamela’s Disability Living Allowance (DLA) as “income” when assessing the family’s need for a DHP. This contravenes the principle behind DLA: that it is there to meet the additional costs of disability a person may have in terms of care and mobility and as such, by nature, cannot be viewed as “spare money”. Disabled people struggling to pay the rent while needing money for anything from specialist transport to care assistants end up being seen by local councils as comfortable tenants with spare cash.   

Just last week, a disabled couple successfully challenged their council for using this DLA calculation. In what was said to be a landmark High Court judgment, it was ruled that Sandwell Borough Council's decision to count the disability benefit as income when assessing applications from people affected by the bedroom tax for a DHP was unlawful and amounted to a breach of the Equality Act 2010.  

This ruling may be the first step in tackling what has emerged over the past two years as yet another perverse aspect of the bedroom tax: that disabled people – repeatedly pointed to by the coalition as the intended recipients for DHPs – have actually ended up less likely to receive help than non-disabled tenants. It’s resulted in a two-tier bedroom tax on disability. Already penalised for needing an extra room, they are then penalised for receiving disability benefits.  

It was similar senseless action that, at the same time, saw Pamela and Jim issued with a court date for May 2014 – despite receiving no warning an eviction notice was coming (something their legal advisor says breeched the pre-action for eviction of tenants by social housing providers) and their third DHP application still being processed.

Jim tells me that it was only through turning to legal representation that their eviction was eventually stayed.

“Today we luckily still have our home,” he says. “It was disgraceful how they failed to communicate fairly.”

They’ve since made a formal complaint to their housing association. 

“They tried to close it twice,” Jim says. “They just didn’t accept they had done anything wrong. Really frustrating and not right.” 

But avoiding eviction was little more than temporary relief for the family. The reality of shrinking social security – be it housing, unemployment, or disability care or mobility – is that keeping your ahead above water for a few weeks does nothing to stop the risk of drowning. With the bedroom tax continuing to hit each month and the DHP still being refused, Jim tells me the family resorted to using their DLA to pay the rent extra. It meant siphoning the benefit away from what it was awarded for: extra heating, washing loads, and medical supplements.

“[Our disability benefit] is normally used…to make life and our conditions more easy to manage,” Jim says. “Due to the seriousness of the pain with both of our conditions, many days we’re pretty much house bound [so we use extra heating and washing]. Water bottles are a good extra source of direct pain relief… Kettles are on stand by daily. They’re often used day and night.”

“Due to other personal day and evening problems regarding my condition extra washing loads take place per week,” he adds. “Our bills can be costly.”  

Again, with the help of a solicitor – and the threat to the council of a judicial review on the issue – in May 2014 the family was awarded a DHP for the next year, as well as a back-payment.

This month, with the DHP about to run out, the family find themselves back to where they began: once again applying to the local council for help and waiting to see if they will be able to pay the rent.

“It’s all starting again,” Jim says. “At present, it’s feeling a bit daunting. We’ve heard the amounts for DHPs have been reduced. It’s like a dark cloud’s looming nearby.”

 

***

 

The wait is part of the battle. Jay Henderson, 50, had a stroke in 2013 and her ex-partner, Ken, became her full time carer. The deterioration in Jay’s health was brutal. The stroke left her unable to communicate and with severely restricted movement. She now relies on Ken’s help for basic needs, be it washing or dressing, and preparing food. But it was delays in Jay’s disability benefits being awarded – both Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – that left them at their “wit’s end”.

When I last spoke to Ken back in February 2014, they had been stuck in the benefit backlog for eight months. Despite the fact the assessment period of ESA should last no more than thirteen weeks, Jay had been left for seven months – having to live on the lower “assessment” rate in the meantime. With no other support coming in, the electricity bill was in arrears and the phone – a lifeline if Jay needed to go to the hospital – was due to be cut off. They were existing on charity food parcels from a local food bank.

“We’re working tirelessly to try to improve Jay’s health and getting to the point when she was getting her benefits was [another] enormous struggle,” Ken, 50, says when we talk again a year later. “The struggle wasn’t only financial but also trying to get any response from the DWP and Atos. We kept getting fobbed off, even with different agencies contacting them on Jay’s behalf and us contacting the head of Atos.” 

“The whole process has taken its toll,” he says.

Jay and Ken are one of the many victims of what has developed into a widespread crisis in the disability benefit system. It’s two years this week since PIP began its rollout to replace DLA, the outgoing benefit to cover care and mobility needs, and the process has been characterized by false rejections, backlogs, and year-long delays – with parliament's public spending watchdog dubbing the government's handling of it “nothing short of a fiasco”. Almost 200,000 disabled and chronically ill people are currently stuck in a backlog waiting to be assessed. This is before a national-roll out has even begun (the DWP have been forced to delay that, as well increase predictions for how long people would have to wait for support or even get an assessment). At the same time, ESA backlogs could take as long as 18 months to clear, according to its new private provider. Maximus, who took over the “fitness to work” contract from Atos last month, say it will have to conduct one million assessments this year – a test MPs call crude, simplistic and a “stressful and anxiety-provoking experience”.

This mass “reform” of the system means, like Jay and Ken, many disabled and chronically ill people are having to simultaneously go through both benefit processes – so, with delays in both, all sources of income are taken at once.  

Ken tells me that despite “many phone calls and emails”, it was in contacting their local MP, Christopher Chope, in March 2014 that they finally got somewhere. Within two weeks, PIP paid out and another two weeks, ESA arrived too.

“We have to thank Christopher Chope but what a shame that’s the route we had to take,” Ken says.

This sort of “last ditch” effort is one I hear from many people going through the coalition’s disability “reforms”, whether it’s writing to local MPs – and hoping for a response – or attempting to gain the attention of someone higher up. Jayson Carmichael tells me a television reporter recently challenged David Cameron on his and Charlotte’s case.

“He said he'd look into it and we did get a letter from him. He said that DHPs were available to vulnerable people,” Jayson says. “We know now Cameron won’t change anything.”

Against a backdrop of media reports – and ministerial rhetoric – of the apparent ease of gaining disability benefits, the reality is often a long, desperate attempt for someone in authority to listen.

Jay Henderson has been battling the process without being able to say more than one or two-word sentences. Her lack of movement in her right side means she’s also unable to write. Ken describes it as her knowing “what she wants to say” but struggling “to express it”. When I speak to them, it is Ken that talks – often attempting to get across what Jay wants to express. Without his help, it’s hard to imagine Jay wouldn’t still be left without state support.

“The system still hasn't changed,” Ken says. “The system is seriously broken and if any company was to operate like this they would surely go out of business. No one is accountable. It's immoral.”

“I feel sorry for the people still going through what we went through. The benefit system’s affecting so many vulnerable people, how can it continue? Iain Duncan Smith should be ashamed but instead tries to justify his actions.”

“Is there a real answer to this problem?” he says. “Things seem to be getting worse.”

*Some names have been changed

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit