Politics

Jess Phillips on why Labour is the party for women and terminally ill sister-in-law's fight for benefits

Labour MP Jess Phillips would rather 'die in a ditch' than see her sister-in-law penalised by 'cruel' disability benefits reforms

Jess Phillips spoke to the Big Issue ahead of the General Election. Credit: Jess Phillips parliamentary office

When Jess Phillips talks about disability benefits, she clearly has skin in the game.

“To me, when the Conservatives talk about people on PIP (personal independence payment) as being ‘those people over there’ – that isn’t what it is to me,” the Labour candidate for Birmingham Yardley told the Big Issue. “Those are my people.”

Phillips’ sister-in-law – who is living with terminal cancer – is one of the 2.6 million British adults who receive the monthly allowance.

In April, the Conservative government proposed replacing these payments with vouchers, part of a broader crackdown on so-called “sick note culture”. But Phillips describes this as “unrealistic”, slamming the use of conditionality to push people into unsustainable employment.

“The idea that my sister-in-law should be given vouchers… I would die in a ditch,” the politician said. “She’s living with terminal cancer. She has two children. She has to have blood transfusions, she’s always on chemo. The idea that she would be able to work, well, it’s unrealistic, completely and utterly unrealistic. When she did get a job recently, she immediately ended up in hospital having an operation on her womb.”

Rishi Sunak has previously warned that benefits are becoming a “lifestyle choice”. Jess Phillips is not impressed by this characterisation.

“When [my sister-in-law] had her initial breast cancer, which then spread all over her body, she was doing a degree in social work to become a social worker,” she says.

“The way that they [people on PIP] get talked about, like she’s a shirker, it couldn’t be further from the truth. That upsets me, the idea of people being pitched against people like her. Like she’s some sort of scrounger. She is not a scrounger.”

PIP fraud stood at 0% in the financial year ending 2024.

It is not yet clear how Labour will reform PIP if the party forms a government after 4 July.  However, the party’s manifesto does hint at increased conditionality, stressing that “people who can work, should work – and there will be consequences for those who do not fulfil their obligations”. Writing for the Big Issue, Mikey Erhdart from Disability Rights UK criticised the ambiguity in the party’s plans.

“We deserve better,” he wrote. “As it stands, Labour’s overall plans remain nebulous, calling for all-party solutions and a National Care Service with little substance behind it.”

Nonetheless, Phillips insists that a new Labour administration will have a compassionate approach to disability benefits and social care.

“Your ultimate aim would be to have an NHS for social care, we need to have a proper public conversation about how that’s going to be paid for,” she said. “But I think that the public is ready for it.”

People facing barriers to employment must also be treated with consideration, Phillips adds, calling for “compassionate solutions”.

“For example, I have a young woman who comes in to see me pretty much every week. You might look at her and say, ‘Why can’t she work?’ Well, she was raped as a 10-year-old by her uncle,” Phillips explained.

“When she first started coming in, she didn’t even speak. It’s taken years, but we are looking at different courses for her now, she can imagine the future. I think there needs to be specific work schemes for victims who have suffered that sort of violence. If you just took the benefits off her, she probably would have killed herself.”

Violence against women is Jess Phillips’ parliamentary raison d’etre. She recently stood in the House of Commons to read out the names of women killed by men over a 12 month period; it took her nearly five minutes. A woman is killed by a man every three days in the UK.

“We need to stop saying it’s a priority [to end violence against women] and actually making it a priority,” Phillips said. “I do think that Keir [Starmer] will make it a priority. And if I’m proven otherwise, I’ll start shouting.”

Labour has pledged to halve violence against women and girls within a decade. Measures to do so include putting domestic violence experts on 999 calls and setting up specialist ‘rape courts’.

Phillips insists that the target is extremely reasonable. It can’t be solely criminal justice focused, she says – without social housing provision and mental health support, women will continue to be trapped in abusive relationships.

“There needs to be total and systematic change every branch of government to tackle this,” she said.

Jess Phillips entered parliament at the 2015 election. If Labour wins on 4 July – as every poll is suggesting they will – it will be her first time as a member of the governing party.

“I think the polls are absolutely mad. Yes, I think the Labour Party will likely win but a good night for me will be a win of one,” she said.

The famously vocal Labour firebrand does not agree with her party’s leadership on everything: she resigned from the frontbench after defying the Labour whip to vote in favour of a ceasefire in Gaza, and she has long opposed the two-child benefit cap. But she is passionate about the potential of a Labour administration.

“People keep saying to me, none of you keep your promises.'” she says. “And I’m like, can you remember what it was like to live under the last Labour government? Things actually used to get better.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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