'I am paying the price for having worked abroad'

CASE STUDY
Hugh Sweeney, 39, left Britain to work in Australia two and a half years ago, after the first and only spell of unemployment in his life - just six weeks, writes Nicholas Timmins.

He kept his house in Newport Pagnell, paid his mortgage,council tax, insurance and water rates all from his British bank account. Last December, his wife and daughter having never really settled, he came home, carrying a neck injury which means he can do light work but not practise his trade as a sheet metal worker, whose past employers include Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin.

Home, however, in the shape of the Department of Social Security, applied the "habitual resident" test and decided Mr Sweeney and his family had failed.

Since then, he says, he has been left penniless. Shipping himself back home took almost all his money, and he is now living on handouts from his 70-year-old mother-in-law and cash help from his builder brother whose own work is seasonal.

It is, he says, "a shameful position to be put in. I can't believe it. It's a nightmare."

He cannot pay the mortgage, dreads the first utility bills, and says he is effectively being left destitute.

"All the time I was away I kept the house and paid the bills, and yet they say I'm not habitually resident. I'm left feeling I'm going to have to resort to crime to pay the bills, and I've never had thoughts like that in my life."

Between himself and his wife, who is a nurse, "we have 46 years of paying tax and working in this country," he said. A Conservative voter - "one of the skilled working class that's kept the Tories in power" - he said: "I've always argued that there's been a minimum safety net here, one that if you need it will keep you until you get on your feet again. Well, there isn't. Not for us. The Government ought to put a health warning on going to work abroad."

This week, his wife got a job - for three nights a week - in a nursing home and his daughter has just acquired a week-to-week temporary job before going to college in September. Neither will produce a wage packet until the end of March. He is, he says, "completely distraught that anyone can treat a family like this".

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