‘We are all in this together’: One year on and John and Marie are still at the food bank

‘We are all in this together’, said the chancellor George Osborne yesterday as he laid out his Autumn Statement plans to put Britain back into the black by cutting public spending as a percentage of GDP to the kind of low levels not seen since the 1930s.

According to the Treasury spending watchdog the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), the plans also presume that a further one million jobs in the public sector will be lost by 2020, a further squeeze on public sector pay and a further freeze on tax credits. The chief of the Institute of Fiscal Studies said that Britain faced five years of ‘gruesome’ spending cuts as the government attempts to balance the books, with some departments facing cuts of 50 per cent. Guardian commentator Aditya Chakrabortty said ‘the austerity plans look like they’ve dropped out of la-la land’. He says that by the end of the next parliament, according to the OBR, the British state will be smaller than it was before the introduction of the welfare state.

I headed to the food bank last night to meet some of those who are all in this together with the chancellor. I spoke to a young couple I recognised from more than a year ago, who came in with their two very young children. My previous interview with John and Marie (not their real names) is here. Back then, they told me that they were arguing with each other so much that their child  – a little girl who was then 15 months old and small for her age – had come to the attention of local authority child protection staff. They were worried that she was becoming emotionally damaged by her parents’ angry exchanges.

Marie, 31,  is from the Philippines and a year ago she had already incurred hundreds of pounds in fees in trying to become a UK citizen. She’s not allowed to work because of her immigration status. John was trying to pay the fees out of his employment and support allowance (ESA). By autumn 2013 he had started to receive ESA following a 16 month delay. He says he thinks the delay was due to ‘ a complete mix-up, lost documents and misinformation’. While his ESA was delayed he said he had received no benefits at all. Fast forward to last night, and their situation has not improved, to the extent that they are now once again having to get vouchers for this Trussell Trust food bank from their social worker. It was their second visit within a few weeks.

Their problems are compounding. They were pushing two prams – one of them broken – tonight, as Marie gave birth to a baby boy six months ago. Their daughter – still small for her age – is now two and a half. Last year they had to use the food bank on four occasions. John, 23, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in December 2013 and is now on income-related ESA of £144 a a fortnight.  They said they had been receiving child benefit and child tax credits intermittently during the past year, and have just sent off a fresh claim for child benefit. They’ve also called Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) regarding the CTC. In the meantime, they’ve just received a letter from HMRC telling them they owe more than £1,000 in overpayments on CTC and child benefit. They’ve been told that the overpayments relate to two tax years. They have no idea how they would repay this money, if it is indeed owed. John says they are ‘blaming us for their mistakes’. The social worker, he says, is ‘telling us to sort it out’. More than six months ago he applied for Personal Independence Payment – a benefit which helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or disability  – but like thousands of others he is still waiting for a work capability assessment and has heard nothing. ‘I’ve been told there is a backlog.’ Marie is still not a UK citizen.

The couple have been housed in Greenwich by Lambeth Council, and they seem to be falling between the cracks in services to vulnerable people who are being moved out of their ‘home’ boroughs to be re-housed. ‘The complicating thing is who do we speak to?’ says John. ‘Every time we ask Lambeth Council if they can re-house us permanently they say we’ll be lucky if we get permanent housing within seven years.’ Their priority payments from the little money they have coming in are heating, food and nappies and travelling to appointments. They cannot make ends meet, and they are additionally stressed and worried by the HMRC development.

I’m very concerned about the long-term situation for both the adults and children in this family. They are facing a perfect storm of issues, including Marie’s immigration status. The children could potentially gain a lot from some early support. But the Autumn Statement does not offer any prospect of a lifeline for this family. How can an imploding public sector, with its demoralised workforce, offer them hope or targeted help? Their financial outlook, particularly in the light of the HMRC demand, is dire. John’s ASD diagnosis adds to the difficulties this family face trying to unravel a complex web of problems. I ask them to ensure they talk to their social worker again for help with benefits and the HMRC issue, but I also provide them with details of Greenwich Council’s Welfare Rights Service, the local Citizens Advice helpline, and the National Autistic Society Helpline.

Council leader Denise Hyland: Getting to grips with deprivation in Greenwich

In this part of London, food banks have steadily become part of the social landscape. This will be surprising to some of the millions of  visitors from all over the world who flock  to Greenwich each year to enjoy the historic town centre.

But the reality is that many local residents in this borough are so short of food that they have to return to Jobcentre Plus or to a frontline public sector professional for a food bank voucher on more than just the odd occasion. These are not people who are managing to recover quickly from a short-term crisis. Last autumn I talked to a young couple at the food bank who were there with their baby. Yesterday, more than a year on, they were back with that child. She’s now a toddler, and her baby brother is six months old.

What role does the local authority play in tackling deprivation and poverty here? Local politician Denise Hyland is the leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and she took control of the Labour-run council this year. This week she visited the volunteers at Greenwich Food Bank, which runs a warehouse and eight donation points throughout the borough. Ahead of this visit, she talked to me about food banks, poverty, and the impact of the austerity agenda and welfare reforms on residents here. She outlined how her local authority works to support those most vulnerable to the impact of cuts to welfare.

‘We find it tragic that there’s a need for food banks, but we are deeply appreciative of all those who make the food bank possible,’ she said. As a measure of its commitment to the work done by the food banks in the borough – all of which are part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks – the borough provides some premises including the warehouse at a peppercorn rent, including the necessary work to make it fit for purpose. ‘We also have large (collection) bins in the Woolwich Centre and in other centres as well.’

The borough, which won the council of the year award last year for its work on regeneration, growth and investment, also has an emergency support scheme aimed at supporting some of the people who might, if not helped, be forced to use food banks. According to the council’s website, the scheme would meet ‘essential short term needs in an emergency or flood’ and it might ‘in very limited circumstances’ support those whose benefits have been stopped, reduced or those whose benefits have been sanctioned. When the council took over the scheme from Jobcentre Plus in April 2013, it ensured it developed ‘a very close relationship between the scheme and its Welfare Rights service’, said Cllr Hyland. She added: ‘It’s been a really useful scheme, and we’ve used it to triage people. We can for example refer them to the Families 1st service.’

The council is recognised nationally for its Families 1st programme and has one of the best figures in the country for offering targeted help to families with complex needs. Dedicated keyworkers give intensive support to families who have a range of issues, which may include an adult out of work, youth crime or anti-social behaviour. Launched in March 2013, the council says almost 450 families have engaged with the scheme. The council tries to target the people who are the most likely to be in a worse position if benefits are cut or capped.

Cllr Hyland added: ‘We try to be proactive and identify the people who might be most affected. When the welfare reforms started we contacted those who were likely to be impacted by the benefit cap. In Greenwich, 35 per cent of those affected were losing £50 or more a week. Most of the families affected by the benefit cap are in private accommodation. We also have people hit by the bedroom tax and we have families affected by the reduction in help with council tax benefits.’ She emphasized the importance of thorough assessments that take into account all the circumstances faced by an individual or family. ‘We offer a holistic assessment, as people can fall through the cracks – for example when they are helped with housing but not necessarily with employment.’ She pointed to the drive underway in other councils to rehouse people outside London. Her council’s aim is to build on the considerable regeneration and investment in education and skills going on in the borough. These programmes include improved transport links (including two Crossrail development sites in Woolwich and Abbey Wood) offering more access to the employment market, house-building and redevelopment on a major scale, and four new skills centres.

The council’s job agency is Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). It’s described by the council as a brokerage scheme between local employers and local people looking for work  – and the council says it has helped more than 16,000 people find jobs or access training since its inception. Cllr Hyland said one scheme  – the Highways Improvement Scheme  – has involved putting £5million of reserves into highway repairs while training young people in road repairing skills. One skills centre – the Royal Borough of Greenwich Construction Skills Centre – opened in the summer when 20 trainees began learning a wide range of skills from laying paving to street repairs. Cllr Hyland said this mobile unit stays on the construction site for the length of a build.

She sees this general approach to developing skills and job creation as part of a ‘double-sided strategy’ to bring together physical regeneration with social and economic regeneration.’If you go to Woolwich Common, Abbey Wood, Middle Park or Greenwich Town Centre, there are micro pockets of deprivation. But we have to share the prosperity around everyone.’ But some families are harder to help than others, she said – and there is a particular problem when people are housed  in Greenwich by other London councils. ‘Someone came into my surgery complaining of damp. The family lives in a private house and their home borough (in Central London) sent in an environmental health officer. This council then gave the family a notice to quit and offered them a place in Essex. This is too far from their cultural centre (they are from Eritrea) and too far from the father’s job in West London. This council has now washed its hands of that family. When that notice to quit is followed through, the family will probably turn up on our doorstep as homeless. Their child is due to start nursery in January. The family’s being shoved from pillar to post.’

She added: ‘With the policies that are being pursued, these people are at more of a disadvantage, and communities are being fractured because of the whole debate about immigrant’s rights and benefits. These are people with no recourse to public funds, and we’re spending about £4million on them. This new burden is not being recognised (by central Government). If they turn up and it’s a couple without children, we would declare there is no duty to help them and refer them to a homeless charity. If they have children who are dependents we have a duty of care to those children and we’ll give them temporary accommodation in a property that’s due for demolition. But those people need a school and those people need food. They let people through the border and keep them waiting to hear of their status. In the meantime they can’t work and are left in destitution. We are having to deal with the human tragedy.’

 

‘John’, schizophrenia and his debts: The DWP can’t abdicate responsibility

It’s emerging that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out what the Disability News Service (DNS) says were ’60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years’. The excellent DNS obtained the figures from the DWP in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests. The DWP has always rejected any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of claimants.

Additionally, the DWP has now released guidance to staff saying that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving ‘customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers’.

The vulnerability of many benefits claimants is illustrated by the case of ‘John’, who came into the London food bank with a voucher on Friday. He’s 33 and explained to me that he’s in debt. He still owes well over £2,000 to ‘payday’ or short term loan companies. These include Cash Generators, TextLoanUK (offering up to £100 for seven days at APR of 894%) and Miniloanshop. The repayments are coming directly out of his bank account and are causing him to incur bank charges.

‘John’ is on employment and support allowance (ESA) – a UK benefit paid to people whose illness or disability affects their ability to work. He has also only just started receiving personal independence payment (PIP) – a non means tested benefit that offers help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health and disability.

He  has serious long-standing mental health issues – he lives with schizophrenia and depression. The very strong anti-depression and anti-psychotic medication he’s on ‘makes you drowsy and you forget a lot of things’, he says. He adds that he ‘ends up paying money back, but getting new loans’.

I wasn’t able to establish how much he’s currently having to repay per week to meet the horrendously high APRs on his loans. Neither was he able to tell me the rate of PIP that he receives: The level of PIP varies hugely from £21.55 to £138.05 a week, depending on the outcome of the assessment process. I was however able to advise him to immediately contact Christians Against Poverty – a debt counselling charity. He promised that he would indeed get in touch with them urgently.

'John' has been referred to CAP for advice
‘John’ has been referred to CAP for advice

He lives in a hostel, but it does not seem to offer much if anything in the way of personal support or advocacy. His health is deteriorating and he is losing large amounts of weight. ‘I’ve lost two stones in two months and my nutrition is up and down’, he says. When he goes to the GP, he sees a ‘different doctor each time’. He’s started having blackouts, at which point a GP referred him to the hospital. He still doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He sees a psychiatrist once every three months, and has no community psychiatric nurse.

He’s been told by the DWP that he is due to have a work capability assessment (WCA) for his ESA, and has been waiting for this since January this year. No doubt this process will do nothing but add to the stress he is under.

Given his deteriorating health, fast weight loss, lack of day-to-day support with his mental health issues and debt problems, in my lay view any future decision by the DWP to endorse a withdrawal of his ESA following WCA would pose a real risk to him.

Has the DWP got any risk assessment procedures in place for individuals awaiting WCA? The effect on people who are already vulnerable of long waits for assessments that may result in removal or refusal of benefit is a matter of huge concern.

I’ll be contacting the DWP to let them know of ‘John’s’ situation. Many thanks to him for talking about his circumstances.