Christelle Pardo: what the hell went wrong?

// 10 January 2010

The Guardian’s Jenni Russell wrote this week about Christelle Pardo, a French woman who leapt to her death, holding her baby, in June last year. Christelle had been denied benefits because as a French national she apparently didn’t meet the residence conditions required.

Russell described this as evidence of a ‘circumscribed’ benefits system, implying an inflexible set of rules not able to bend to Christelle’s individual situation. I’m not so sure.

For income support, you need to satisfy the ‘right to reside’ test and the ‘habitual residence’ test. You pass the right to reside test as an EEA national if you’re working or studying, and after five years of that, you have a permanent right of residence. Christelle had, at the time she tried to claim income support, been in the UK for eleven years, and working between 1997 and 2005. The permanent residence rule only came in in 2006, so sometimes benefit claimants have trouble convincing benefits agencies that the time they spent in the UK before 2006 counts; but Christelle could certainly have claimed permanent right of residence.

For the habitual residence test, meanwhile, you have to show evidence of your intention to reside. Christelle worked here, studied here, her sister lived here, she wanted to have her baby here. How could she possibly have been turned down?

Maybe because habitual residence isn’t defined in benefit regulations. It’s assessed on a case-by-case basis. I’ve heard of cases where people who came to the UK 45 years ago failed the habitual residence test. This isn’t the faceless tick-box of a bureaucratic welfare machine. This is an all too human system where individual DWP staff can make a call and call it wrong.

Please note: I’m not saying Christelle Pardo died because DWP Staff Member X said no when s/he should have said yes. I’m saying: it’s a complicated system. When it comes to benefits for people from abroad, it’s not a yes or a no: it’s open to interpretation. It’s case law.

So my first answer to what went wrong is: maybe somebody made the wrong call. My second is: apart from a supportive sister, Christelle seems to have been on her own. I can’t find any hint in the papers of anyone taking on her case while she was still alive. Amongst the many lessons of this awful story, I think there is a vital one on the importance of advocacy.

The Child Poverty Action Group publishes textbooks to empower individuals by informing them of their entitlements and suggesting tactics for enforcing them, and it campaigns for a fairer benefits system; Citizens Advice does likewise at a national level while individual Citizens Advice Bureaux can argue the case down the ‘phone with the Jobcentreplus and send caseworkers to argue claimants’ rights at tribunals. Countless law centres and advice agencies do the same.

In an ideal system the tactics and the tribunals and the arguing wouldn’t be necessary, but this system is a minefield and no-one should be left to wander in it without a guide. The DWP should signpost people to these, but they don’t always. If you’re in a situation anything like Christelle’s, or you know anyone who is, please find someone experienced to help – the Community Legal Advice website has a directory of CABx and law centres.

So what about the ideal system? Jenni Russell points out that ‘The understandable logic behind the existing rules is that if someone cannot demonstrate that they have contributed to this society then the society has no reciprocal obligation to them.’ Right here, with this idea of ‘contributing to society’, we have ‘what went wrong, part 3’. There’s an underlying assumption (in the benefits system, not in what Jenni Russell said) that by becoming pregnant you stop becoming a contributor.

This is not only fundamentally sexist – the same thing couldn’t happen to a man (one to challenge under the Equality Bill?) – but it’s bollocks. To have children in the UK, and bring them up to be the UK’s future students/cafe workers/CAB advisers/solicitors/DWP staff/F-Word contributors/whatever, is to contribute to the UK.

This is recognised elsewhere in the benefits system – for example, my mother was recently relieved to discover that the years she didn’t work, as a single parent, still count towards her state pension entitlement because she was bringing up children at the time. That’s feminism made law, and it’s high time it was extended to the most vulnerable mothers, to stop more women like Christelle slipping through the net.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 10 January 2010 at 11:59 pm

Thanks for writing about Christelle Pardo and how she was let down by a bureaucractic system. However, even the Citizen’s Advice Bureax are not always to provide help as and when needed. Why? Because all too commonly individual bureax have a long waiting list of individuals seeking appointments and too few staff able to deal with individuals needing help/advice/support.

Also, as is often the case – unless someone knows about for example, Community Legal Advice, the person needing help/assistance is not able to locate such information.

Claiming benefits is a minefield in itself and I’ve witnessed for myself individuals who were seeking financial assistance via income support being told they would have to wait until their claim had been processed by the dept. which deals with Income Support claims before they can receive any benefits. The waiting time can be six weeks or more and whilst individuals ask how they are supposed to live – they have been told there was nothing anyone could do until their claim had been processed. Such cases include individuals who are suffering long-term health problems and their partner is attempting to claim carers allowance due to having to give up work. What has happened? Again the person claiming income support has been told they won’t receive any financial support until the claim has been approved. As regards ’emergency funds’ that too is another minefield because there are innumerable obstacles deliberately put in the way.

Central government is determined to make it as difficult as possible for individuals to claim income support and of course shortly income support is being replaced by another system which will incorporate income support in with Jobseekers allowance. Yet we supposedly live in a country which seeks to provide help to the needy and disadvantaged – it certainly did not happen to Christelle Pardo and because she did not receive any help or assistance this in itself contributed to her taking her own life and that of her child.

Furthermore Christelle Pardo was not ‘vulnerable’ – she was disadvantaged due to outside factors. One of which was the fact she was pregnant at the time and our ‘wonderful benefits system’ declared she was ‘no longer contributing to society!’ Such a situation obviously does not apply to male applicants. One only has to read some of the appalling judgemental comments accompanying Jenni Russell’s article to see numerous individuals clearly believed Ms. Pardo was supposedly responsible for causing her situation, rather than criticising the way the benefits system has been deliberately made as difficult as possible for individuals (particularly women) to claim the benefits to which they are entitled to.

Central government increasingly promotes the view that we are all supposedly 100% responsible for overcoming difficulties by ourselves and not expect the state to provide assistance. We are not expected to ask the state to provide help because apparently we are all supposed able to resolve such problems ourselves since we alone supposedly caused them. Economic changes and other outside forces are apparently irrelevant since everyone is supposedly able to ‘contribute to society’ and not expect assistance. Anyone who does ask for assistance is widely viewed as a ‘scrounger’ and this stereotype is also promoted by the media. Yet central government is able to waste inordinate amounts of money on defence and spend enormous sums of money supporting the US in their political interferrence in Afghanistan, which is not only costing the lives of British soldiers but also innumerable Afghan women, men and children. All because of the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Providing help to women who through no fault of their own experience financial difficulties is seen as ‘wasting taxpayers money.’ We are back once again to the victorian era wherein the poor were held responsible for supposedly deciding to remain poor and not ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ whilst how the economic and social system which exploited the poor to the advantage of the rising middle-classes was ignored.

magic_at_mungos // Posted 11 January 2010 at 12:10 pm

From what I can gather, Ms Pardo was also claiming Housing Benefit at one point. She would have to jump through further hoops as a French national. Not only would she have to be classed as habitually residient, it would have to be decided whether she was a worker, a work seeker or be temporarily unable to work due to ill health.

This is the same for all Europeans wishing to claim for Housing/Council Tax Benefit with further restictions for those from the newwer EU countries. So yes – it’s all down to case law and inpretation which can be very difficult.

Michalina // Posted 12 January 2010 at 2:33 pm

I am EEA national who live in UK for 7 years and worked five years as self-employed.Due to peronal circumstances few months ago I had to stop working and apply for IS. DWP decision in my case was: claimant was self-employed for 5 years prior claim.Claimant worked less that 12 months in UK (?!) and therfore does not satisfy right to reside rule. Decision was upheld three times. in my 8-months long dealing with DWP I found out that its clerks are completley ignorant of existing benefits rules, are rude and judgmental. I heard several comments from DWP workers regarding my nationality or comments like ‘IS is only for women who dont know where father of the children is’ or ‘you can’t apply just because you are looking after the children’. In order to re-enter job market with new qualifications I work on volountarily basis as CAB adviser, I have over a year of expirience and sound knowlege in benefits area and dealings with DWP departments. Nevertheless it took me eight monts and intervence of my MP to get anywhere with DWP.Unfortunatelly many of my clients do not have the advantage I have due to my work, and I learnt that as voulnerable women are as likely it is that they will face huge problems with agencies that suppose to be there to support them. Claiming IS while you escaping violent partner is a nightmare if you are not UK national.I know this because as well as having this unfortunate personal expirience I deal with many cases like that at work and it makes me want to scream!

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