Page last updated at 00:46 GMT, Thursday, 29 April 2010 01:46 UK

Father wins benefits battle for students

By Jane Thurlow
Radio 4's You & Yours

Ian and Melissa
Ian Leech said a little money would have meant a lot to daughter Melissa

A father whose daughter was refused welfare benefits when she took time off from her studies for cancer treatment has successfully campaigned for a change in the rules.

Melissa Leech died in May 2008, having been diagnosed with cancer the day after her 20th birthday, less than a year earlier. She had just completed her second year at Aston University in Birmingham where she was studying psychology.

Despite the prospect of gruelling treatment, Melissa was optimistic. She had just been elected editor of the campus newspaper and was looking forward to getting back to Aston and her studies.

But when she passed out while shopping in Asda with her father, it became apparent she would not be able to return to university immediately.

Some people might have given up on the degree but Melissa, wanting something to look forward to, deferred her course by a year.

Melissa was treated as if she was going off on a gap year
Ian Leech, father

As her treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma continued, Melissa tried to claim income support, but was told that because she was still officially a student she was not entitled to any benefits.

"She was treated as if she was going off on a gap year," said her father Ian Leech.

The pair contacted their local MP at the time, Janet Dean, who helped them lobby the Department of Work and Pensions.

The initial response suggested Melissa - of Branston, Staffordshire - give up her course or use her student loan to get by.

"To give up what she was striving for - to put the illness behind her - was a goal and what she was fighting for," said Ian. "Her student loan was to support her study."

She had enjoyed two years of independence and had lost so much of it because of her illness, he said.

"Just to have a bit of money would have meant so much. To be able to buy a DVD or a bar of chocolate; or new clothes as her weight had ballooned with steroids.

"She wasn't well enough to go out with her friends.

"And just before Christmas she wrote to them on Facebook saying that she wouldn't be able to buy presents because she had no money."

Benefits campaign

Melissa died on 11 May 2008, but Ian continued the campaign on behalf of other students who might end up in the same situation.

Anyone with a student loan is not entitled to claim any benefits - even if their studies are broken through no fault of their own.

Football fan Melissa wears her club colours on a trip to Anfield

But after a battle lasting more than two years, the Department of Work and Pensions finally agreed to change its rules.

In a letter in January this year, government minister Helen Goodman conceded: "It's quite clearly right that we try to make it easier for them to get the right financial support in the least stressful way possible."

MacMillan Cancer Support said it was delighted with Mr Leech's victory but pointed out there are still many more anomalies in the benefit system causing considerable distress for cancer patients.

"Amongst many problems, terminally ill patients are being forced to undergo medical examinations and attend work-focused interviews, when they should be automatically exempt from both," said MacMillan.

The charity would also like to see winter fuel payments extended to vulnerable people with cancer.

The changes that Ian Leech campaigned for - benefiting students who take a year out of their course to undergo treatment for critical illness - come into force in October 2010.

Ian Leech and a spokesman for Macmillan Cancer Support will be on Radio 4's You & Yours , 1200 BST, Thursday 29 April.

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