New life on benefits: Celestine and Pierette Sejemani with their children
Out of the 4,500 residents of Falinge, Rochdale, only 300 work - despite hundreds of jobs being available. The majority are 'on the sick'.
Welcome to the country's benefits capital............
Such is the vastness of Celestine Sejemani’s flat-screen television that, at the push of a button, he could have summoned a supersized James Purnell into the front-room of his council flat. As it is, one of his four children has commandeered the remote control, and certainly isn’t offering to swap Balamory for the news.
In any case, neither Celestine nor his partner, Pierette, would have enjoyed the flavour of the Work and Pension Secretary’s words as he outlined a shake-up of the benefits system earlier this month. ‘Work is good for people,’ announced Mr Purnell. ‘Leaving people on benefits is the cruel thing to do.’
If that’s the case, this family must be suffering. Celestine, a Congolese-born immigrant who has problems with his eyesight, is one of 2.6 million people claiming Incapacity Benefit in the UK.
His long-term girlfriend is paid an additional allowance to help look after him, and then there are tax credits and child benefits on top of that. Their paid-for council accommodation aside, it means that the taxpayer is funding this one family to the tune of more than £12,000 a year.
37-year-old Mr Sejemani says that he fled war-torn Republic of Congo in 2001 after his father and sister were murdered for their ethnic origins. He claims to have been placed in a Congolese jail for a year, his eyesight suffering because of the lack of light in his cell during his incarceration.
After his release, he fled to Britain in May 2001 and claimed asylum after arriving at Heathrow. After two weeks in a hostel, he was offered accommodation in a choice of places, one of which was Falinge. He settled on the unemployment blackspot after hearing that 80 other asylum-seekers from the Congo were living in the area.
After two years there he was granted asylum. He immediately sent for his partner, Pierette, 36, and their daughter Benadiete, now 11, to join him. In the seven years he has been here Mr Sejemani, a trained mechanic, has never worked. ‘I wanted to,’ he says. ‘But unfortunately I have vision impairment as a result of being in the prison with no light.
‘I am very sad that I have a problem with my eyes. I would love to go to work, but my vision is a big problem.’ His partner says she, too, wants to work, but that after arriving in the UK she soon fell pregnant, her youngest three children being born on British soil in rapid succession: Grace, four, Faith, two, and seven-month-old Jevhovanis, who arrived 11 weeks premature.
The couple receive £125 a week in Incapacity benefit and carer’s allowances. On top of that are tax credits and child benefit worth £108 a week.
The family live in a neatly decorated three-bedroom flat, which is dominated by the massive Philips colour TV, which is being paid for at the rate of £20-a-week over three years. ‘I couldn’t see a small one,’ explains Mr Sejemani.