Grieving father's victory for sick students

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Image caption, Ian Leech carried on the fight after his daughter's death in 2008

Ian Leech is celebrating a victory, after successfully campaigning to ensure that students are not left penniless if ill-heath or disability forces them to suspend their course.

A change in benefit law, which came into effect this week, means that the students will now be eligible to claim employment support allowance (ESA).

But for Ian it is a Pyrrhic victory as his daughter Melissa, whose cancer sparked his crusade, died in 2008.

"I think it is finally beginning to sink in," he said.

"It is very emotional, because the one person I would want to share it with is (Melissa) and I can't. It is as much down to her as me. We started it off together."

Mr Leech started his campaign when he found that his daughter, who had to take time out from her studies at Aston University after getting non-Hodgkins lymphoma, was not entitled to claim income support (now ESA) because she was able to access a student loan which was deemed as income.

He said she went from being financially independent to living at home relying on her parents for hand-outs.

"She had everything she wanted but we were paying for it," he said.

"That sounds begrudging, but it isn't. She had gone from being an independent student living away from home to moving back with mum and dad.

"If she wanted a bar of chocolate or feminine items from the shop, she had to ask for the money - it was just a question of self respect.

"We were not asking for hundreds of pounds - just that she had a bit of money in her pocket so that if she wanted to buy a DVD she could."

Financial pressures

The Leeches applied for interim support and were refused.

They were told that because Melissa had suspended her studies rather than giving them up, she was still a student and could draw on her loan.

But Mr Leech said giving up would have been very detrimental to Melissa, who loved university.

"One of the things that was giving Mel the strength to get through this was the university. She absolutely loved it and wanted to pick up where she left off.

"But it seemed very unfair that Melissa would need to use her loan and would end up paying four years for a three-year course through no fault of her own."

Melissa had initially hoped to continue studying while undergoing chemotherapy, but she was too ill.

After six months of waiting, Melissa was then entitled to her disability living allowance and then her incapacity benefit.

Nine months after her diagnosis she died.

"There were times during her illness when I was very close to giving up," said Mr Leech.

"But because Melissa was so passionate that really gave me the strength to carry on and see it to the end.

"And once Melissa had passed away there was no question that I was going to see through to the end.

"I would love to think nobody would ever need [ESA] and it would stay on the shelf and never be used but that is not the case," said Mr Leech, who now works for the Lymphoma Association.

"People do need it. I have letters from students all over the country. I had one letter from a girl who had gone back to work sooner than she should have done because she had no money."

Change needed

Lord Freud, minister for welfare reform, agreed a change was needed.

"It's unfair that students who are too ill to continue with their studies have been forced to abandon their course in order to qualify for employment support allowance.

"That's why we've decided to change this rule and give students who take a break from their studies this much-needed financial support as they recover from their illness."

Dara de Burca, director of services at cancer charity CLIC Sargent, said the money could be vital.

"Money may seem unimportant when a child is diagnosed with cancer," she said.

"But the extra costs that arise can be significant. Our research shows that around eight out of 10 families that we support need help claiming benefits, and as many as nine out of 10 need financial help."

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