When the rug is pulled from under you, it's essential to have a safety net

Written by Gemma Fraser on 5 November 2018 in Comment

Relying on benefits is not a lifestyle choice, as some people believe. For many, it's a lifeline in a time of crisis 

Image credit: HMRC

This is written in response to comments made by the Conservative MSP, Michelle Ballantyne, who seemed to imply last week in parliament that some people are more deserving than others when it comes to having a family.

Michelle, I thought I had it all.

I was just approaching my 30th birthday, had a beautiful 10-month-old baby and was about to return to a job I loved after maternity leave.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, my marriage came to an end, I suddenly had no home and I was catapulted into a world I knew nothing about.

Guided by a friend who had been through the benefits process, I discovered what I was entitled to, the forms I would need to complete, the departments I would have to call and the hoops I would need to jump through.

My head was spinning. Not only did I have to come to terms with the end of a 13-year-relationship – which in itself was like dealing with a bereavement – I had to navigate a benefits system that even for me, as an experienced journalist, was incredibly difficult and complex.

Firstly, I discovered, that in order to rent a ‘nice’ home for me and my baby, I would have to omit the fact that I would be applying for housing benefit, otherwise I would have been regarded as some kind of substandard human being, instead of the desperate, fragile single mother I now was.

I was lucky and was able to scrape together the £850 deposit for the house and I completed the arduous online housing benefit application form and cried when I realised the process would take around six to eight weeks.

I clearly remember getting that heart-sinking call from the housing benefit officer telling me I wasn’t eligible.

And why? Well it certainly wasn’t because I didn’t fit the criteria, being a single mum with a child under five and earning a pittance working part-time (despite the presumption that newspaper journalists are paid handsomely).

No, it was because when my husband filled in the child benefit form – which every parent is entitled to – while I was in a sleep-deprived haze looking after our newborn baby, he put his name as the primary recipient, not mine, and somehow that translated as meaning my baby wasn’t living with me and I was therefore deemed ineligible.

Eventually, many weeks and many tears later, I managed to battle through the red tape and began receiving some housing benefit to help towards my rent, as well as working tax credits, which, combined with my wages, meant I had just about enough money to pay my rent, bills and food – but nothing else.

I had gone from being someone who was – on paper at least – ‘a success’, to someone who was accounting for every single penny.

Every time I got a brown letter through the post from HMRC or the council, my heart sank, because if my benefits reduced in any way, I would lose that ability to keep my head (just) above water.

I didn’t choose to be desperate, I didn’t choose to be on benefits, but sometimes life just doesn’t pan out the way you expect.

And shame on any politician – including you, Michelle – who believes a life of poverty and relying on others is one that any family would choose.



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