I’m nipping in between consultations. Except these are a bit more than consultations. This morning Mike has already had hour-long sessions with two of his new customers and after me, and presumably a bite of a sandwich, he is seeing two more.
He tells me these particular clients – because of depression, ill health, drugs or alcohol misuse – had been ‘parked‘ on Incapacity Beneﬁt for some time, drawing beneﬁt but not expected to ﬁnd work.
Since the welfare reforms these men, and they are mainly men, ﬁnd themselves having to get to grips with the ﬂawed Universal Jobmatch online employment site and the increasingly rigorous demands of the Job Centre.
I like that the UCAN can be super-responsive. As a new need arises it adapts what if offers or adds something new into the mix. Which is why Vanessa has commissioned Mike, the CV-writing guru and career coach from Tuesday’s job club, to work closely with a number of hand-picked, long-term unemployed residents.
“There’s a part of Breightmet that is ranked pretty highly among the indices of most deprived areas in the UK,” says Mike. “Bolton at Home has researched the ﬁgures and there’s a particularly high incidence of people who are on, or had been on, Incapacity Beneﬁt.”
“So what sort of people are we talking about? Can you describe them?”
“One of the guys has been without regular work for more than 20 years, others for over 10,” says Mike.
“The younger ones obviously less so but with all of them substance misuse is a common theme. Interestingly, There is also an almost universal lack of conﬁdence around literacy, particularly spelling. They can read well enough but writing is an issue.”
“But isn’t the JobCentre helping this group?” I ask. “As you say, they have been economically inactive for so long, surely they can’t be expected to job search without any support?”
“If I was in the JobCentre’s shoes, I’d argue they are being offered a lot,” says Mike. “But it’s inevitably very prescriptive given the volumes of candidates they are dealing with. One guy has been put on the Work Programme for new claimants and another has been sent along to Bury College to have his basic skills assessed… but now he has to wait two or three months before there’s a literacy course available. So there is support, but it tends to be less tailored. Does that make any sense?
“Yes. Yes, it does. But what are you doing differently?”
“I’ve come in with an open mind. We want to make sure their interaction with the JobCentre and with Universal Jobmatch is as positive as it can be. But what is fascinating and unexpected is how much the guys are opening up to me about themselves and about what’s stopping their progress. And there have been things I can do to help.”
“For instance, one guy at the end of our ﬁrst session told me he was really self-conscious of his teeth. He hadn’t had dental treatment for 10 years and had very bad teeth, so bad they were affecting his self-conﬁdence.
“So I organised a local NHS dentist to see him, even paid for a taxi to get him to one of the appointments and next week he’s being ﬁtted with a new set of false teeth. He’s delighted, he can’t wait.”
“That’s brilliant. I like that.”
“Another guy is nervous of speaking on the phone and so doesn’t have a mobile. Of course, if you’re searching for work, coming across well in a phone call can be important. So I got him a cheap mobile from Asda and some credit and suggested he used it to order takeaway food, for instance. I call him from time to time and he’s even spoken on the phone to Vanessa now. It’s a little step which has improved his ability to function.”
“It comes down to seeing people as individuals, doesn’t it?” I say
“These are little gestures but quick wins, small victories that are showing them we can make progress. What’s fascinating is how freshly motivated a couple of them are at least, to get a job. I’m not going to put myself out here as the ‘fairy jobfather’ but I do think, in the right circumstances, two of them could be employed in the near future by someone and do well.”
“And the others?”
“Motivationally, they’re not quite ready yet.”
This is week four in a six-week project. After his ‘quick wins’ Mike has started working on what he calls ‘reframing’ the life story. “To begin with they’d all talk very negatively about themselves: drug and alcohol problems, being out of work, being homeless maybe. But now we are moving towards a more positive life story.
“We’re beginning to ﬁnd the positive elements about them and getting them to express them more openly: are they a family man? Do they like working with other people? Maybe they enjoy the outdoors… anything really to get them thinking differently, and expressing their life stories more positively.
“The aim is to them more attractive to employers. None of it is untruthful, just a skewing of their story in their favour really.”
What Mike is doing over six hours isn’t rocket science. He’s building self-esteem, giving people time, allowing them to discover what they’ve got to offer. It’s personal and it’s making an impact.
As a little pilot study there are some important lessons to be learnt… and not just by the UCAN.
“I enjoy the little differences I am seeing already,” he says as I get ready to take his portrait. “And I hope they are too. It’s very satisfying.”
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.
… 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
… continued from Hardworking people
Kellyann has to pick up Jackson from nursery soon and I ask to tag along so I can take some pictures of her. “When I’m not at uni or working, I like to go and collect him. And it gives Paul a break.”
As we walk up the road opposite the UCAN, Kellyann tells me about their move across town from Farnworth, where she grew up. “We had a one-bedroomed flat on a bad street,” she says, “there were dealers and drug addicts banging on our windows the whole time. We asked to be moved but it took us three years – and loads of support from local councillors, the police and solicitors – before they offered us something else.”
“And was moving here to Breightmet your choice?”
“To be perfectly honest with you, it was the only house they offered us. I had no family up here but Paul used to work nearby and said it was fine. It honestly didn’t bother me. I’d heard it was rough, but at the end of the day they were offering us a house. And I love it up here now.”
“What was your first reaction when you saw the house? You must have been over the moon?”
“The lady who had lived there before us had just died and I remember opening the side gate and all the funeral wreaths were still up the path. I was mortified, absolutely mortified: it was the dead lady’s house….Oh, it’s weird being photographed, just walking along.”
“People will think you’re famous!”
“They promised they’d do a lot of work on the house, but it’s never been done. My bedroom has never been decorated. They promised they’d re-skim the walls after some electric problem, but never have. But am I bothered? I’ve got a house, it’s warm and I’ve got good neighbours. I’m quite happy. My kids are happy. All that will come.”
We’re early and so we sit on the pub wall opposite the primary school.
“Tell me about the UCAN. How did that all start?”
“I got dragged in! I wasn’t very well. I was suffering with postnatal depression after I’d had Jackson. It wasn’t an easy birth. And one of my friends was coming to the knitting group and she literally grabbed me by the hand and dragged me in.
“They were all laughing at my hair! It was pink and purple at the time.”
“There’s a lot of pink and purple hair in Breightmet,” I say. And there is.
“I started it,” she laughs.
The ‘naughty knitters’ group got Kellyann through the uPVC front door, nearly three years ago. Since then she’s been on pretty much everything the UCAN has to offer. She now runs the group. Most recently Vanessa has helped her with the bursary application.
“The bursary is means-tested,” she explains. “So I had to get a letter from the Jobcentre to confirm my tax credits. It took them ages. At first Vanessa was emailing twice a week, then ringing every day. It took eight weeks to write that letter.”
“Which is why your bursary is late and you’re still having to work?” I ask.
The school gate is opened and we walk round to the classroom entrance. “What would you have done, if the UCAN hadn’t been here?”
“I’d be stuck. I’d have still been ill for a start. I know it was only knitting but it got me back out talking to people and it gave me something to look forward to. I started to go out – I’d had agoraphobia – and I started talking to the mums at the school gate. I came off my medication, finished my therapy, started and finished an access course with brilliant marks, then got one of 60 places at uni from over 1,800 applicants.”
“Would you put starting your university degree down to walking into the UCAN?”
“Absolutely,” she says as a three-year-old is reunited with his mother and is immediately handed a chocolate egg. “UCAN fired the starting pistol for me.”
Jackson is delighted to see his mum and unfazed by the stranger with her. “Can we go to the shop?” he asks, glancing at his classmate unwrapping the egg.
“Not today mate.”