The state owes citizens money they are entitled to – then they fall into debt

Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been aware for some time that the clients who come here for help need more than the food they’re given to see them through an immediate crisis. They also require longer-term support to tackle the underlying problems, which often include inadequate incomes and unmanageable debts. The local authority – The Royal Borough of Greenwich – is also mindful of this. The two organisations have submitted a bid for funding that would enable the food bank to “triage” clients with money problems.

If the joint bid is successful, the funding would come from the Money Advice Trust – which has today launched a new report saying that households are becoming susceptible to serious debt problems because they can’t afford basic household bills.

Alan said: “The Money Advice Trust is offering funding for initiatives that are innovative, but help meet people’s basic needs…approaches that would help them get relief from debt and educate people so they don’t get into debt. Greenwich Council had been bouncing this problem around internally, so they called me up and said could we work together and get a bid in.” The initial “triage” would take place at the borough’s food banks, which are part of the UK-wide network of Trussell Trust food banks. Clients with the most severe problems would be immediately referred to specialist debt advisors in the borough – either Christians Against Poverty (CAP), Meridian Money Advice, or Citizens Advice.

A second group assessed as heading for serious debt problems would get advice from trained volunteers, and Alan says the food bank may also employ a debt and advice specialist. A third group of people with the least severe problems would get help and encouragement on a range of issues, including advice on cookery classes, “smart” shopping and smoking cessation. The gateway to the advice would be food banks, but Alan says it’s possible that the scheme could be extended to other venues including children’s centres. The proposed scheme mirrors a recent announcement by the Trussell Trust that it is to launch a pilot scheme to give financial advice. The move comes after the food bank charity received a six-figure donation from money saving expert Martin Lewis. Lewis is quoted in the Guardian saying: “Those who go to food banks are already open to asking for help….If we can intervene at that point…it will hopefully cut down on the number of return visits.”

While what Lewis says is undoubtedly true, it’s crucial to remember what the Trussell Trust itself underlined in its June report Below the Breadline: The Relentless Rise in Food Poverty, published jointly with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty. The report says that “cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK” and that “these cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58 per cent of sanction decisions are successfully challenged, suggesting that many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own”.

The report says the abolition of the Social Fund has stopped thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, “estimates that 49 per cent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

The move by the Trussell Trust to launch the pilot money advice scheme and the bid to run something similar here in Greenwich are to be welcomed. But expert social security advice and help with challenging sanctions and speeding up back payments appear to be what clients need most. In essence, the state owes them money that they are entitled to. They’re not getting it, hence they are in debt and that leads to them not being able to pay their water bill or council tax. The most effective cure would of course be a humane social security regime, and an approach to sanctions that is fair and proportionate. A move away from zero hours contracts by employers would also be a significant move to transform lives. The problems faced by most of the people who visit the food bank are not fundamentally caused by lifestyle issues or bad choices. The vast majority of the food bank clients are innocent victims of an increasingly unfair and cruel welfare system.

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