Not much slack
There’s talk in the kitchen about a football game tomorrow. Carl has been encouraging local men to come down to a weekly lunchtime kick-about organised by Bolton at Home and Bolton Wanderers.
“You could come too,” he says as he gives me a leaflet. I’m not sure whether he means to play or to watch. Hopefully it’s to watch.
“I will,” I say, “maybe not tomorrow but I’ll come down some time and take some pictures.”
Dawn from Money Skills is in the small office next to the kitchen. Her first client has just texted to say she’ll be late – her son has been sent home from school. “Can I ask you a few questions while you are waiting?” I ask.
Dawn agrees and starts by explaining that Money Skills is a confidential, impartial money advice service to help people on low incomes with budgeting, banking and saving, and even energy efficiency.
“So why are you here, at the Breightmet UCAN?” It sounds a bit rude but thankfully Dawn understands what I’m getting at.
“We have offices in town but, of course, we realise that those with money issues can’t always afford the bus fares. We position ourselves in the community so people can access us easily.”
Dawn has been giving Bolton residents money advice for the last seven years. “But now there is more demand than ever,” she says, “and it’s getting tougher. In the past there were always things we could do to help customers. Now, with the welfare reforms, there are going to be some customers that will still struggle no matter how much we maximise their income and minimise their expenditure. There just isn’t enough money coming into the household to support them.”
“What’s changed in particular?” I ask.
“The bedroom tax is proving very difficult. If you’re a single person or you’re on Jobseeker’s Allowance then there’s not much slack. Finding another 11% of your rent [for one extra bedroom] can be quite substantial for someone who’s only receiving £71 a week.”
“The government would say that Universal Credit will make things more straightforward,” I suggest. “Will it make it easier for people to manage their money?”
“Despite all the publicity a lot of people just aren’t aware of it,” says Dawn. “They will only get their money once a month and they might not have anticipated that. And it will be paid in arrears so there will be a period when there will be no money coming in until the payment reaches them.”
“So, when it’s introduced, do you mean there will be a gap in people’s payments?”
“Depending on their payment date, yes. We are trying to warn people about that. They really need to be thinking about that now and maybe put, say a pound a week away, so they have some money built up for when it does affect them. There’s a lot to think about.”
I’m intrigued by Dawn’s work. She’s right at the sharp end of the reforms, trying to help those at crisis point. “If you see someone who is obviously not coping, what do you do? What can you do?”
“We have to gather all the facts: find out where they live, whether or not the rent is being paid, what benefits they are claiming. We are seeing quite a few clients now who have had their benefits stopped – they’ve been sanctioned by the JobCentre for some reason – and are on nil income. We need to find out why and try to resolve that quickly.”
Dawn says she tries to put things on hold for those clients. She’ll talk to their landlord – often Bolton at Home – and their utility companies and ask for breathing space, time to get things sorted.
“If clients have no money for food, which is usually the case, we have links with all the food banks around here. We can give them vouchers whilst we are trying to get their finances sorted.”
“Have you seen more food banks set up since you started?”
“Oh gosh. There were no food banks when I started. Now there are lots, and they’re all in high demand. We do have some emergency food parcels back at the office because the local food bank is only open once a week. So we might have to organise for an emergency parcel to be delivered until they can go to the food bank.”
There’s a gentle knock on the open door. I make way for Dawn’s first client of the day.