A close friend of mine works as a Jobcentre manager and has worked for the DWP most of her adult life. She has been heavily involved in the roll out of Universal Credit. As you can probably imagine, this has led to us having some interesting, indeed heartfelt discussions at times.
One such discussion has come about recently with the publication of the UN’s special envoy on extreme poverty’s hard-hitting report on poverty in the UK.
She always seems to find herself conflicted when such news hits the headlines, especially when it references Universal Credit, her area of work expertise. She gets frustrated by what she sees as unfair criticisms of it, and she had these observations regarding Philip Alston’s comments on it in his UN Report:
“The recommendations at the end in direct relation to UC are….1. soften the approcach of work coaches. This is already being extensively addressed and he found evidence of that. 2. Make payments to each member of a couple. This is already available and can be found in guidance published on gov.uk. 3. Make payments weekly or fortnightly. Ditto – already available and in public guidance. 4. Abolish 5 weeks waiting time – his only valid suggestion….but it didnt exist on other benefits and poverty rates were no lower so I would want to see more analysis”
This is typical of the frustration she, and other Jobcentre staff that I know, feel at lack of recognition for the good work that they do and also their frustration that people so often don’t even seem to ask for the help that exists and is available to them. Indeed, the conversation above ended with her making two pleas to me:
“I ask two things of you in the spirit of working towards our common aim to help the most vulnerable in society…
1. Help promote the postive efforts being made by the jobcentre. Raise complaints through the official channels where you see examples of poor work. Praise where you see good. 2. Send me pen pictures of the people you know who are having to rely on foodbanks etc. What has happened and how has the benefit system failed them. I really do want to understand.”
This blog piece is my attempt to do just that.
Most of the case studies that I know about come through my involvement with Unite Community. Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, launched community membership scheme a few years ago now. This new type of union membership scheme allows ‘grey economy’ precarious workers, the unemployed, disabled and community based activists to join a union although they may be out of work. Anyone is able to join, unless they are signing up as an alternative to a Unite industrial branch at their workplace.
For £2 per month, members are offered services and benefits that are extremely useful in Britain’s difficult economic environment. A phone number provides members with free legal advice, benefits advice, gas and electricity price comparisons, the Unite jobs board and even a benevolent fund for those that qualify.
I am one of the community based activists that work directly through Unite Community, and under their banner, in going out into communities to help people navigate the system, apply for the benefits they are entitled to and help with appeals. I was particularly active a few years ago in the campaign against the Bedroom Tax, but I have good friends within Unite Community who continue to give up huge amounts of their time, voluntarily and unpaid, to continue helping people in need. They are finding much of their time taken up these days by issues with the roll out of Universal Credit.
The big strength of what Unite activists do, in contrast to the Jobcentres and Citizen Advice Bureau for example, is that we go out actively looking for the people in need of help. We go into the hardest hit communities and intercept people leaving Jobcentres bewildered. Jobcentres and CAB do great work for people that show up and engage, but they struggle to do much for those that, for all manner of reasons, do not or cannot.
This is what my good friend is struggling to understand and so here are a few case studies to try and shed some light on how the system fails people and they end up having to rely on charity such as food banks.
These stories are based on real people that I have encountered over the last 10 years, in my capacity as an adult literacy and numeracy tutor (dealing with functionally illiterate an innumerate adults referred from Jobcentres) and as a Unite Community community activist. I haven’t sought people’s permission to publish their stories, so names have been changed to protect their identities.
I first met Gary at age 19. He had had a troubled childhood, and was eventually taken into foster care at 15. He had lost count of how many places he had lived and how many different adults he had lived with. He had just split from a girlfriend, who he thought might be pregnant, over some substance abuse issues. He was living in a hostel at the time I met him.
He was very angry and uncooperative at first, but as I got to know him slowly, he calmed down and it became clear that he was, despite appearances, a bright young man trying to sort himself out as best as he knew how. This involved him changing who he mixed with to avoid temptations of serious substance abuse and the all-too-frequent occurrence of getting into sometimes-violent conflict situations. But it left him surviving primarily on a diet of cigarettes and cheap energy drinks.
He wasn’t eating properly, and was constantly unwell with something, so when Bridgend’s first foodbank opened, I nagged him to go along and see what they could offer him. His reluctance was in no small part down to the fact he had neither the facilities or the skills to cook anything. I eventually managed to buddy him up with someone who had registered with the foodbank already and he nervously went along.
He was overjoyed, well as close to overjoyed as I ever saw him, the next time I saw him. He had felt welcomed and understood. They had helped sort a few other things for him too, like cooking facilities, some foolproof recipes and getting some laundry done. (He was a bit odorous!)
The biggest problem that Gary had was a complete lack of family support and an inadequate friendship group that led him into a downward spiral. Through his involvement with the foodbank, he realised that there really were people out there prepared to make time for him and show that they understood and cared. This was probably more important to him than the actual food. It is something the Jobcentres are simply not in a position to provide.
With some encouragement and support from this point, he started applying seriously for work, and last I heard had a job in the NHS.
Sharon was someone we first met outside a Jobcentre in tears. She had been in to try to resolve issues around her change of circumstances. As a 33 yr old single mum (the dad had died suddenly) with a four year old daughter, she had been excited to have a new relationship and someone to share the burdens of life with. When Bob moved in, she never dreamed that it would be the start of a living nightmare.
They both worked; Sharon a few hours a week as a cleaner, and Bob on a zero hours contract in a warehouse. When they notified the Council and Jobcentre of their change of circumstances, their benefits were changed (they were being moved onto Universal Credit) and therefore delayed, and left them in dire straits very quickly. Winter was setting in and they were struggling, with Bob’s hours going down unexpectedly, to feed the gas and electric meters and themselves. Something had to give.
It was their housing association that referred them to their local foodbank as a condition of negotiating a rent payment plan, as they acknowledged that the postponement of their benefits could take weeks to resolve.
Sharon’s mental health suffered badly. She felt that, through no fault of her own, she had lost control of her life and let her daughter down badly. She had thought getting together with someone ought to have made life better. Love might do that to an extent, but it doesn’t put food on the table.
Rhian is a friend of a friend, aged 54. Until recently, despite mental health issues her entire life, she had always managed to work (including 12 years in the Armed forces as a driver) while raising two kids alone. However, a couple of years ago, her doctor advised her to stop work permanently after a major mental breakdown.
She was reluctant to do so, and even more reluctant to claim benefits. It went against her whole life ethos. She went on long term sick leave and survived on sick pay and her savings well enough, but was eventually forced to give up her job. She still deluded herself that she’d get another job despite her doctor’s advice.
After countless failures with job applications and after her life savings had run out, she bit the bullet and went to her Jobcentre who put her on Employment Support Allowance (ESA), but there were interminable delays in her getting any money through. She began to feel her life falling apart all over again. She found the Work Capability Assessment particularly stressful and humiliating. Her problems were mental not physical. This was not helping; in fact it was making her worse and she even started contemplating suicide. (This is not an uncommon scenario, as this report suggests)
She felt further humiliated and worthless when the Jobcentres response to the delays in processing her claim were met with a referral to the local foodbank. This was her final proof that she had transitioned from a proudly independent woman to an officially destitute burden on society. Those years of service seemed pretty pointless now.
She had been someone who had regularly put things in the foodbank collection points at the supermarket, but had never thought she might end up having to go herself. Going that first time was one of the hardest things she had done in her life. However, it did bring her welcome relief, and again it was not just in having some food in the cupboard. She found the volunteers very warm and caring. They had seen her come in looking very agitated and sat her down with a cup of tea and a biscuit and put her at ease before helping put together some groceries that accommodated her dietary requirements.
Rhian is not unusual in hoping to become a volunteer at the foodbank when her health is good enough.
Tories out there (like Rees-Mogg) will see these stories as uplifting proof that David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ does a brilliant job of looking after people, and that this excuses the state from having to do so.
But for every Gary, who turns his life around, there are many that never escape that downward spiral into drug abuse and criminality.
For every Sharon, who always tries to do the right thing, there are many who give up on that idea as a mug’s game and will look to exploit the system before it exploits them.
For every Rhian, there are those whose self-esteem never recovers and whose thoughts of suicide become their only way out.
Those who are employed by the state to do the state’s bidding are caught between a rock and a hard place. How can you show compassion and generosity when delivering a system designed to be harsh and mean?
I guess you end up trying to square the circle and convincing yourself that those accusations of being harsh and mean are ill-founded; that Gary, Sharon and Rhian made bad choices and had other options available to them.
The fact of the matter is that if Foodbanks can make people feel better, then Jobcentres, or other state provision, ought to be able to do that to. It involves demonstrably caring, giving people time and genuine empathy, and being generous by default. In a service over-stretched, under-resourced, variably staffed and managed and dealing with a clientele with such complex issues, this may seem like a pipe dream. But it really doesn’t have to be the way it is. And the UN Rapporteur agrees!
Credits: all graphs taken from The Trussell Trust website, trusselltrust.org.
It’s no laughing matter, of course, but here is some light-hearted perspective with a deadly serious message: