I’m not expert on the welfare system, I’d be the first to admit it. But having been here now for eight months or so, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the experiences of plenty of benefit claimants.
Certainly I can see that some of the consequences of the welfare reforms – Atos, digital inclusion, bedroom tax – have had a fair amount of negative impact. Spending just half a day in this UCAN can tell you that.
There’s been plenty of talk amongst the staff lately about those that don’t fit easily into the new world of welfare and this morning – because it’s a Friday and the UCAN is closed to the public – I’ve brought Vanessa, Rosanne and Carl together to have a chat.
“Let’s start, if we can, by identifying who we’re talking about,” I say, once we’re settled around the upstairs meeting table.
All three have examples of those with ‘multiple needs’ who, despite their best efforts, are unable to do what the Jobcentre requires of them.
“They might have been on Incapacity Benefit and not worked for many years,” says Vanessa. “They may have drug or alcohol issues, little literacy and no IT skills and now find themselves on a job-seeking benefit.”
“So what’s the problem?” I ask.
“They’re just not receiving the holistic support they need from the Jobcentre to become independent jobseekers,” continues Vanessa. “They are not being assessed properly in the first instance and then the Jobcentre advisor passes them onto us.”
Rosanne chips in: “The advisors are supposed to be assessing literacy and numeracy skills and it just isn’t happening. I phoned the Jobcentre about one customer who they had referred to us who could barely use the computer and I asked how they expected us to support him looking for a job. After I’d been passed from pillar to post, they told me to put him on Universal Jobmatch!”
“Which was precisely the thing he couldn’t use,” I say.
“There are certain customers who have multiple issues and need lots of one-to-one,” says Carl, “but we have to hold out hands up and say this is something we can’t provide.”
“So, for many, the new regime of online job search is not working because these customers are so far behind?” I ask. “But, if they don’t keep up with it they could be sanctioned…”
“This is what we’re faced with daily,” continues Carl. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping people out of crisis until they can job search. But even basic IT can takes weeks of practice before they can search for work independently.”
“Perhaps there should be a sanction amnesty, a period where they won’t lose any benefit,” I suggest.
“Yes,” says Rosanne, “an amnesty for sanctions but not for job-searching. They should still have to make the effort.”
“There’s a massive knock-on effect for someone who’s not treated appropriately,” says Carl. “If they are sanctioned unnecessarily and get into financial hardship…”
“Which they will,” I interrupt.
“…which they will. Then it brings up other issues around self-esteem and confidence and often anxiety and depression.”
“Our relationship with the Jobcentre is getting better,” says Vanessa positively, “but there still needs to be more understanding of what we as UCANs can realistically achieve for those with deep-rooted issues.”
“And, it seems, the initial assessment by the JobCentre needs to get more rigorous,” I suggest.
“You don’t have to be a counsellor to pick ups some of the important clues when a person is sitting in front of you,” says Vanessa.
Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written about how the UCANs are flexible enough to adapt the services they offer to their local clientele depending on need. It’s one of their selling points. So it comes as no surprise that Vanessa tells me she has already put in place a pilot project aimed at just the group of people we are discussing.
“It’s for those who had been on Incapacity Benefit for some time and have now been moved over to Jobseeker’s Allowance,” she says. “Mike, our CV-writing expert, is running it over the next six weeks. We want to see how they are coping and what, if anything, needs to change for them.”
“That sounds really interesting,” I say, “I should have a chat with Mike.”
“Brilliant,” says Vanessa.
Rob is telling me about the four clients he has seen this morning. Two of them have issues around the bedroom tax or, as he correctly calls it, the under occupancy surcharge.
“For this one client, it is particularly difficult,” he says. “He’s living alone in a three-bedroomed property and so his housing benefit has been reduced by 25%.”
“And what’s his income?” I ask.
“He’s on Employment Support Allowance,” says Rob, “which is just over £100 a week, so he’s potentially using a quarter of that for the rent.”
Turns out this customer is quite clued up. He’s already applied for, and been awarded, a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), an emergency pot given to each local authority to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax, erm, under occupancy surcharge.
“But that’s temporary isn’t it?” I ask. “Designed as a stop gap.”
“It is. When it runs out he can make another application but there’s no guarantee he would be awarded a further payment.”
Before he became a full-time adviser four years ago, Rob was one of the Citizens Advice Bureau’s band of all-important volunteers. As well as money management, his 14 paid colleagues cover welfare benefits, housing, immigration and community care from their main office in Bolton town centre.
Every Monday morning he comes to this UCAN, sits in the small upstairs office and for two hours listens to the problems of Breightmet.
“This particular client,” Rob continues, “is downstairs on the computers pretty much every day. He’s making a lot of effort to find somewhere smaller so he can downsize.”
“But now he’s getting worried? It’s not his fault, is it?”
“No, it’s not and that’s the problem. With the under occupancy surcharge, we’re noticing that there are lots of people wanting one-bedroom properties but they’re just not available.”
“So,” I say, playing devil’s advocate, “let’s extrapolate. If this man has used all his DHP chances but still can’t find another place, then what?”
“He’s with a housing association – not Bolton at Home, I should say – and if he fell into arrears then they would have the right to take possession.”
“So he could be chucked out?”
“Hopefully it wouldn’t get to that, but yes, he could get evicted.”
“So, let’s just say he did, then what?”
“He’d make a homeless application to the council and, if he was deemed a priority because of his health, the local authority would have a duty to find him temporary accommodation – a hostel maybe – before they found him something permanent.”
“But that’s what he’s trying to do already. And all that costs money.”
“It’s unlikely to get to that. But it’s true, with pretty much everyone we see it’s not a case of them refusing to move, it’s a case of there not being any of the right sort of properties for them.”
For Breightmet customers it must be reassuring to get advice from someone who knows their way around welfare and housing bureaucracy, someone who will advocate on their behalf, write a letter, make a complaint. A bit like having an ally in often very unfamiliar territory.
“And Rob, how have things changed in the time you’ve been an adviser?”
“In the past I’d complete financial statements with clients and we’d find that their benefit would just about cover the basics: utilities, food, TV licence and a bit for travel.
“Now, with the cost of everything going up, financial statements are showing a deficit of £20 or £30 a week. Benefits are simply not sufficient to cover outgoings. So clients are having to make the decision about whether to put the heating on or buy food. It’s got to that.”
… continued from A trip to the food bank
“How would you normally get there?” I ask in the car after Lee has accepted my offer of a lift.
“I’d walk. I’ve no money for bus fares. It’s only about half an hour, a bit more on the way back, uphill with the bags. Last time they offered me bus fare for the way home.”
“Have you got any income at all?”
“Nothing,” he says. “I applied for Local Welfare Provision and managed to get £50 in vouchers for both gas and electric that has to last until the beginning of May.”
“What happens if it runs out before then?” I ask. Lee shrugs.
Local Welfare Provision is a limited government fund administered by the local council and available to those facing ‘exceptional financial difficulties’.
It’s intended as a stop gap and people can make up to two applications in any one year. Applying for the payment, I’ve been told, is not easy. It’s either a lengthy telephone conversation or an online application, and neither, for many applicants, is straightforward.
“Take a right and then left at the lights. I’ve been to the Citizens Advice about making an appeal against the decision to sanction me,” he says. “They can also help me make a claim for a hardship payment.”
If successful Lee could, at best, get his sanctions overturned or at least get hardship payments to see him through. The payments are a percentage of his Jobseekers’ Allowance. He might get about £29 a week to live off.
“Do you have any family or friends who could help?” I ask.
“They’re all in the same situation,” he says, “No one’s got anything to spare.”
The Store House food bank, run by the Urban Outreach Christian charity looks busy enough although we don’t even get through the front door. One of the volunteers, stationed in the porch, checks Lee’s voucher but points out he should have brought his DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] letter, confirming his sanctions. No letter, no parcel.
“Come on, we can be up to your place and back in no time.” I say.
He’s embarrassed, he thinks he’s wasted my time. For me, it’s all part of the story and our refusal counters some of the criticism leveled at food banks that they are an easy touch, handing out food to anyone who wants it. Recipients have to be referred by one of the frontline agencies working closely with them and even then the blue voucher isn’t a magic ticket, documentation is often required to back it up.
Within half an hour we are back and the volunteers are apologetic. “No problem,” I say. “We totally understand.”
Inside volunteers signpost their customers to other Urban Outreach services as they drink tea and tuck into apple turnovers and raisin whirls, leftovers donated by the local Sainsbury’s.
Lee and I sit with Gaynor, one of the organisers, and I ask where their donations come from. The food, she says, comes from a number of different sources. Fareshare, the nationwide chain, provides outdated or wrongly labelled supermarket food that might otherwise be binned.
The charity’s own network of ‘Grub Tubs’ collect tins and non-perishable donations from the public. “There’s one at the UCAN, isn’t there? I’ve always thought that was a bit ironic.”
Gaynor smiles. “Those who have least are often the most generous,” she says.
There is so much talk of food banks right now. Some politicians are unwilling to acknowledge that their recent rise has anything to do with welfare reform changes. But, whatever the politics, it is clear that Gaynor and her colleagues are offering a vital safety net for those who have fallen the furthest.
Back at the UCAN, I recount my morning’s experiences and both Vanessa and Carl agree, there are lots of Lees around just now: individuals and families where every single pound is crucial in surviving the week.
And, they say, the Jobcentres are getting tougher. Claimants are being sanctioned for the smallest of misdemeanors. A missed appointment can result in a reduction in benefits that are already inadequate to meet basic food and fuel costs.
Lee is on my mind as I drive home. I think about all the things he won’t be able to do this week or next, or maybe for a few weeks yet.
It’s Monday and so it’s ‘spag bol’ for dinner. I cut up onions, peppers and chillis, and contemplate what Lee might be preparing for his meal tonight.
In his tiny kitchen Lee is putting away the contents of two plastic bags. This is all he will eat for the next week, until he can make another visit to the food bank.
It’s mostly tins: oxtail soup, kidney beans, sweetcorn, ravioli, baked beans, tuna. There’s a couple of packets of biscuits and some out-of-date trifle sponge fingers; a box of chocolate-flavoured breakfast cereal, a litre of orange juice and a packet of pasta.
Fresh items are limited to whatever has been donated to the food bank that week so Lee unpacks of a packet of trimmed runner beans, three sunflower-seeded wholemeal rolls, and a red and a green chilli.
“Surely that won’t be enough,” I say, trying to imagine how these foodstuffs might be combined to make at least one meal a day for the next week. “Will you go hungry before next Monday?”
“And what about the cereal? Have you got any milk to go with it?”
Lee opens his fridge, pulling out a half empty litre carton. “Sometimes you get long life milk but I’ve got this.”
“And what happens when that’s finished?” I ask.
He digs deep into one of his jeans pockets. “I’ve got £1.50 to buy some more,” he says. “And that’s it.”
Lee and I met for the first time just two hours ago. Monday is food parcel voucher morning at the UCAN and I was vaguely hoping I might find someone who I could accompany to pick up their supplies.
The UCAN staff all know Lee. They have supported him for some months now, most recently Rosanne has helped him apply for a citizen card – which the UCAN has paid for – so he’ll have the photo ID he needs for agency work. And for the past three weeks, they’ve given him vouchers for the food bank in town.
Up until November last year Lee had been working nights as an order picker at a fruit and veg warehouse. He enjoyed the work. One night he was ill, couldn’t get himself out of bed, and didn’t show up for work.
The next night he was still unwell and telephoned his boss. Apparently he’d already been replaced and his boss reported back to the Jobcentre that he had quit. In turn, the Jobcentre registered Lee as ‘voluntarily unemployed’ and has suspended his benefits for six months.
“It’s been getting me down, really down,” he says as Vanessa and I explain the idea behind the As Rare as Rubies blog, “I’ve been to the GP.”
“Come in tomorrow morning,” says Vanessa, knowing that today’s first concern is the food bank that opens just once a week. “We’ll make a list of priorities. It’s employment day and we can ask Cath to sit down with you. You’ve already spoken to Citizens Advice haven’t you?”
Pretty much every service the UCAN has to offer is relevant to Lee just now – employment advice, confidence-boosting, debt management, mental health support – and Vanessa is determined, as she now tells him, to get a team of professionals around him. But first, the food bank.
…. continued in The most generous
I’m not sure how much I want to disclose about Jason. He’s not sure how much he wants to tell. Being interviewed for this blog is a big deal in itself, a great step forward from six months ago.
This eighteen-year-old is on the Heartlift programme with Andrea and, by his own admission, he’s had plenty of challenges even before things came to a head last October. Up until then Jason had been living with his mum and four sisters. He has never known his dad.
When I ask him to tell me something about the recent months he pushes his diary towards me. “Read the first few pages,” he says. And so I do.
Sunday 27th October
Now I am starting to realise what my problems are. Tackling them I think is to be able to talk about them. Hopefully I get out today so the tackling can start. I am going to start keeping a log book of day-to-day things and problems just to make things that little bit easier and I’m starting with this. There is still a lot of work to be done but now I feel I have paid the price for my ignorance. There is still guilt but I don’t think there is as much as what there was.
I’m already familiar with Jason’s diary. Andrea introduced us a few weeks back and asked if I would take a look, make some suggestions. I have already set Jason the challenge of typing out each entry so we can publish it on one of those print-on-demand websites and he can order copies.
“Tell me about your early teenage years,” I ask.
“I got kicked out of school at 13 because I was a little shit. I was swearing all the time, running round school, terrorising people. I got given a computer so I could work at home, but I didn’t do any work for two years.”
After doing nothing at home, Jason attended an engagement centre and scrapped some half decent passes at GCSE, including maths and English. He did less well at college.
“I didn’t go,” he admits. “I just gave up.”
Monday 28th October
Today started off a bit rough but it got better. Andrea has given me so much your support. I’m hoping that Andrea and the rest of the Heartlift team will be friends for life especially Andrea because I have never trusted anyone before. Andrea makes it easier to talk about things.
“How much has Heartlift helped you? Did they suggest writing things down?” I ask.
“It’s hard to put into words,” he says, “My life has just changed completely and yes, they suggested it. I’ve found it quite easy.”
“Do you finds it easier to write things down than to say things?”
Jason nods. “Uh-hu.”
I ask if I can photograph him with his diary. Maybe a silhouette of him against the window. He’s not sure so I take a couple and show him. We settle for him leafing through the pages.
My interview disintegrates into a discussion about writing. He has an idea for a novel he’d like to write. I recommend getting into the habit of writing something every day, anything at all. “Do you think you’ll always write? Have you found a new way to communicate?”
“Yeah,” he says, “I’ll always do it now.”
“Tell you what. I have an idea. Why not write something for this blog? A guest post. What about an open letter to David Cameron about what it’s like as a teenager on an estate like Breightmet.”