Father wins cancer benefit battle

Government agrees to support students who take time off for life-threatening illnesses

Education Editor,Richard Garner
Wednesday 14 April 2010 00:00 BST

Being diagnosed with cancer at the tender age of 20 is traumatic enough. To then have a five-month battle with officialdom before you can gain any benefits to support you makes the situation even worse.

This was the trauma faced by Melissa Leech after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the end of her first year of a psychology degree.

She chose to defer her course, rather than quit, to give her something to look forward to while she fought the illness. But because she was still technically a student, she was not allowed to claim benefits.

Hearing his daughter sadly tell her friends she could not afford to buy them Christmas presents and seeing the family's petrol bill soar with the frequent trips to hospital for treatment, Ms Leech's father, Ian, started a campaign to allow students suffering from life-threatening illnesses to be entitled to claim financial aid.

Mr Leech continued with his battle even after her death and now, thanks to his tireless campaigning – and help from his Labour MP Janet Dean – the scores of students in a similar situation will be able to claim help from the autumn.

"If I had to list the top 10 worst moments of her illness, a morning I spent on the phone to benefits agencies would be right up there – as was the time she rang her friends and explained that she couldn't buy them Christmas presents as she literally had no money," Mr Leech said from his home in Burton-on-Trent.

"In effect, they treated her just as if she was a backpacker on an exotic foreign trip rather than suffering from a life-threatening illness."

The Government has said that it can now find the money to make benefits an automatic entitlement to students in Ms Leech's position. The change in policy is scheduled to come into effect in October.

Ms Leech, who was studying at Aston University, was diagnosed with cancer in August 2007. It soon became obvious that she could not continue with her studies while undergoing treatment and so she decided to defer for a year. "Because she was taking a year out, she was still classified as a student and therefore not entitled to any financial support from the Government," her father said.

"We were told that she didn't qualify for income support, we couldn't apply for disablement living allowance (DLA) for three months and would only get that depending on how ill she was and also couldn't apply for incapacity benefit (IB) for six months."

Mr Leech contacted Mrs Dean and launched a battle with the Government to get the law changed.

"I had to listen to them telling Mel to give up her studies, one of the things giving her most hope, or use her student loan," he said.

Ms Leech died, aged 21, in May 2008 but Mr Leech and Mrs Dean continued to push the matter. Late last month the position changed and Helen Goodman, parliamentary under-secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions, said that there was enough money in the current budget to give students in Ms Leech's position an automatic right to benefits.

"It is quite clearly right that we try to make it easier for them to get the right financial support in the least stressful way possible," she told Mrs Dean in a letter. Mr Leech added: "I've fought this battle on behalf of Melissa and students like her who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in the same position as her."

"I have heard from other students who have had similar experiences – one of whom waited nine months for any financial support."

Ben Whitaker, the National Union of Students' vice-president for welfare, added: "For many years the NUS has advocated financial support for students who have to suspend their studies due to long-term illness.

"We welcome this move and look forward to working with Government to ensure it becomes a reality."

Timeline: A father's fight

August 2007 Melissa Leech is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma after her first year as a psychology student at Aston University.

September 2007 She begins a year out from university but is told she does not qualify for income support and cannot apply for disability living allowance for three months. In effect, she has nothing to live on.

November 2007 Her father, Ian, contacts his MP, Janet Dean, and begins his fight to make it an automatic right for students giving up courses as a result of life-threatening illnesses to receive benefits.

May 2008 Ms Leech dies.

January 2010 After months of correspondence with the Government, Ms Dean raises the issue of students in Ms Leech's plight during an adjournment debate in the House of Commons.

March 2010 Parliamentary under-secretary at the Department of Work and Pensions, Helen Goodman, tells Ms Dean that the money to make it an automatic right for students like Ms Leech to receive automatic benefits can be found from within the existing budget.

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