The benefits support worker: The £6.31 minimum wage is not enough to live on

Returning to the work being done at King’s Church in Catford this week,  I talked to Andy, who is a  paid support worker. This church in South-East London sees social action and reaching out to the community as a priority.

He reports that since the most recent changes in welfare benefits, most of his work has involved giving benefits advice. “The changes might not affect everyone, but they have hit most of the group we work with particularly hard. Some of them are from very disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s been a demise in manual work, and the £6.31 minimum hourly rate is not enough to live on, even with housing benefit – and that’s if they’re lucky enough to work.”  London, for those on minimum wage or no wage is not a city where you can live with dignity. This minimum wage is of course set far below the new London Living Wage rate of £8.80 an hour that employers can opt to sign up to.

As for schemes such as Universal Jobmatch – which claims to match jobseekers with vacancies – Andy says he has “never known anyone from that scheme who’s had even a reply (about a vacancy) through it”. He says he challenged someone from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)  on this. “I was then told they were very fussy about people’s CVs.”

Sanctioning people on benefits has a detrimental impact on them, he says: “If jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) is stopped, housing benefit is automatically stopped, and they often need support to get their housing benefit reinstated.”

One of Andy’s key roles is to act as an advocate at tribunals for people who are challenging Atos (one of the private companies administering fit-for-work tests) decisions to refuse them employment and support allowance (ESA) – the higher rate of benefit that takes into account their inability to work because of ill health. Andy tells me he only represents people at tribunal if he’s convinced they’re not fit for work. “If people don’t get enough points, they don’t get the benefits and they don’t have the confidence to take matters forwards themselves. You have to feel you deserve it.”

The issue for many of those he comes across it that they lack the self-esteem to take on the system themselves. He adds: “I think there’s a section of society that has low self-confidence, and often have mental health issues without a formal diagnosis.”

His success rate at tribunal is very high. He hasn’t taken anyone there who hasn’t ended up with a minimum of 15 points, and some of them score higher than this. These are people who have scored “maybe nothing or a few points in the Atos assessment”.  It goes without saying that he thinks the Atos assessment process is obviously not working.

In March this year it was announced that the £500 million contract with Atos, mired in accusations that the tests they applied were inhumane and crude, would end early. Judge Robert Martin, the departing head of the tribunal which hears appeals, was reported in the Guardian here as saying that the work capability assessment (WCA) process has undergone “virtual collapse”. In a confidential journal distributed to tribunal members, he said that this collapse was the biggest single factor in the decline in the numbers going to appeal.

He added in the article that the removal of funding under the legal aid scheme for advice and assistance on welfare rights matters, “compounded by continuing cutbacks in local authority spending on advice services has severely reduced the help and support available to claimants to pursue their legal rights in challenging benefits decisions”. Judge Martin says that if a supplier to replace Atos is found “presumably at a premium, the company will have to address the chronic shortages of healthcare professionals which has dogged Atos and which is exacerbated by the need for additional resources to deal concurrently with PIP (the personal independence payment introduced to replace disability living allowance over a three-year period beginning last October)”.

Given the difficulties facing those who want to challenge benefits decisions, the people who end up with Andy on their sides are the lucky ones. Andy is an expert and they’ll usually win their case. But there aren’t enough people around like him now – committed inviduals with the benefits know-how to successfully take on the DWP. Legal aid lawyers and welfare rights experts are a dying breed in the UK.

All the signs are there that the outlook for this most vulnerable group can only get worse. The majority of the spending cuts deemed crucial to the austerity narrative lie ahead and are set to bite even deeper into welfare spending. Chancellor George Osborne said in what the Guardian called a “grim New Year’s message” in January that the biggest chunk of savings of around £12bn will come from welfare in the two years after the election, with young people and those of working age most at risk from cuts.

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

Starvation, shoplifting, prison, some quiche and a cheese knife: David’s story

David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
David Goddard, who says he was forced to shoplift after JSA was withdrawn. He ended up in prison.
Here in the UK, the daily experiences of  the increasing numbers of people who’ve had  benefits sanctioned or removed aren’t discussed much across the media. Often individuals seem to drop off the public services radar, and no-one appears to be looking out for them. Many become homeless.

There seem to be fewer sources of help available now for the destitute.  The number of support workers, social workers, GPs  or probation officers with the time and resources to help a client with complex issues appears to be dwindling. The  ‘multi-agency approach’ seems like a sick joke now – unless you know differently?

Last night, at the Jerico Road project in Catford, South-East London, I spoke to David Goddard, a 27-year-old who comes from South-West England, but has moved around constantly in the last year. He’d come along to this church-based support project for the regular Wednesday night hot meal –  alongside others  who’ve ended up at the sharp end of the austerity experiment in London. Quite a few of the 90 or so people attending this week are homeless. David is one of them.

He very honestly laid out what’s happened to him since February 2013, since he lost his job in catering in Gloucester. Before that he had run raves within the alternative scene and had a record label. He has also worked part-time in a nightclub and as a part-time carer. After losing his catering job he spent six weeks with no money while waiting for his Jobseeker’s Allowance  (JSA) claim to be processed. During this time he had to borrow money from family to survive. By the end of March/early April 2013 he’d been suspended from JSA for a week by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for apparently missing an interview. He then says he got a letter through saying his JSA had been cancelled. He said: ‘I then spent the next month or two seeing if the DWP would give me an interview, filling in applications for a fresh claim online, but not getting any texts or acknowledgements.’

At this stage things took a substantial turn for the worse: ‘I was back taking heroin, and I got made homeless, because I’d moved into a family member’s home, but had to move out because that person said they couldn’t let me continue to live there unless I got benefits. But Gloucester Council wouldn’t pay me housing benefits, because I was living in a family member’s house. Then I started shoplifting. I’m not proud of it, but if  you went 24 hours without food you will shoplift. By the end of the summer I was taking enough to survive.’ At this stage, he was also paying for the heroin that way.

He got in touch with the local food bank, but he says they told him they couldn’t help unless he was on employment and support allowance (ESA). He couldn’t find anyone who would give him a voucher to access the food bank. He says he tried the jobcentre and Citizen’s Advice, to no avail.

Between July and Christmas 2013 David was arrested 10 times as he moved around the country, mostly for shoplifting food. Once, when shoplifting for a meal, he was arrested  for possession of some quiche and a cheese knife to eat it with. On that occasion he was charged with possession of a blade. The shoplifting happened in various locations. He ended up in court six times, ‘but they did not actually prosecute me’, and the cases were postponed.

He moved to Southall in West London last November while on bail – at which point he says he was ‘off heroin – but shoplifting to survive’. Southall put him in a probation house. But on Boxing Day he was arrested for stealing a microwave dinner from Tesco. At that point, he says ‘they stacked up nine months of shoplifting charges, plus charges for common assault’ – he got in a fight with a security guard and a roadsweeper who tried to stop him stealing the meal – plus criminal damage and theft of a motor vehicle and put him inside for two and a half months from New Year’s Day 2014.

While he was initially in prison in Wormwood Scrubs, he says he then got shunted  at very short notice to a host of  prisons to attend nearby hearings on the other accumulated charges. During this series of ‘expeditions’, he was shifted to Wandsworth, Bristol, Leicester, and Hewell (near Redditch, Worcestershire) prisons in succession. David was released on March 28, with a travel warrant to get him to London, but without a probation officer. He had a JSA payment of £140 that had hit his account in December from a fresh claim made on November 6th. But this had to last him  ‘until my benefits came through, so I was homeless again’.

He headed back to his old shared probation house in Southall: ‘Everything I had was in that house. Eight suitcases of my property and my portfolio on arts, graphics and fashion work that I was planning to take with me to university interviews, and my computer.’  He says that he and a number of his friends were very interested in design, ‘and when I was in prison I spent my time drawing and sketching’. But he couldn’t get access to the house, and couldn’t contact the support workers, because ‘every number had changed’.

Next he submitted a further fresh JSA claim to the DWP in Catford, South-East London on April 14th, and was offered a place at a housing association hostel for the homeless in nearby Lewisham on April 16. He received one JSA payment after that, but says that because he had to attend an interview back at Gloucester Council, ‘I missed a jobcentre interview in Catford, so the DWP cancelled my claim’  He says he spent six weeks at the hostel sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag  ‘in one large room with seats and a television, sharing with 25 men and women’.

He believes some of those in the room were aged no more than 16 or 17. It’s very hard to see how treating a group who are vulnerable by nature of being homeless in this way could comply with any safeguarding or duty of care responsibilities. Are these people really safer here in this room than they are on the streets?

David says he was ‘kicked out’ of  the hostel when he ‘got into a verbal disagreement’ with another client that then turned into a physical fight. He left last Friday, May 30. He’s now squatting in a unit on an industrial estate that’s being used to store scrap metal. There’s no electricity there.

The dedicated volunteers at the Jerico Road project are going to do what they can to help David. They’ve fixed a meeting with him very soon to talk about his benefits and housing situation. One of the great aspects of this church is its focus on trying to tackle underlying problems such as debt, addiction and homelessness.

David wonders whether his past involvement in the alternative scene and in running raves is counting against him when it comes to looking for a job. He says the past five years have been tough ones for him and his friends from the former scene. ‘Lots of people have been shut down from doing music events, and a lot of my friends have been screwed over. Three of my friends have committed suicide in the last few years.’  He wonders if he’s ‘on a list’.

Maybe David would have ended up on the streets without that initial JSA suspension in Gloucester, but at the very least he was destabilised once that small amount of regular money was withdrawn. According to the latest Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) crime survey released in April, shoplifting is up 6 per cent year on year, while overall crime has fallen significantly. The government is still arguing that there is no link between welfare reforms and the use of food banks.  Is it equally convinced that benefits sanctions don’t lead directly to desperate people shoplifting to feed themselves?

London is no city for young women: Will Sarah return to escort work to pay for her debts?

Down at the food bank, the volunteers hope that clients can over time move on from their challenging situations to something better. Sarah, who has featured here before, is struggling to get the proper support she needs to build a better life. She came here with a voucher a few weeks ago, worried that she was about to get evicted from her hostel. Some calls to the housing association were made, and the threat of eviction was withdrawn after her case was looked at again.

So she had a roof over her head for a while longer. But Sarah (not her real name), a 28-year-old law graduate who has battled for many years with a serious mental illness – Borderline Personality Disorder – came in again today and what she told me made my heart sink. This very intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive young woman has had to deal not only with BPD – which she sees as a life sentence – but with a violent home environment, from which she’s recently fled. Her full story is here. She came to this borough as a homeless person, because she couldn’t stay where she was. While she’s not currently at risk of being homeless again, and is receiving employment and support allowance and disability living allowance, she has considerable debts, including a loan from Wonga at the usual rates (for those of you who don’t know by now, Wonga’s rate of interest is an eye-watering 365 per cent on £150 for 18 days). She is also trying to deal with a massive bill from Vodaphone, and some student credit card debt.

Sarah told me that she thinks she may have to return to escort work to pay her debts. Why is she considering this? She explained to me: ‘I feel as if I’m in fight or flight mode. It’s horrible and wrong, but if I balance all that against the risk of sinking further and further into debt…. The place I work for gives you drivers and a bodyguard. It’s a seedy underworld, but maybe that’s where I think I belong. It’s what I know.’ When she has done this work in the past, she says she ‘feels like she can blot it out with drink and cannabis…. I’ve done it before, so I think what does another time mean to me’. This work would pay her £60 an hour cash in hand.

How does she feel about her life? ‘I’m sick of being a burden and a leech. I’m heading towards 30 and what have I got to show for it? I’m not stable enough to work full time. I can’t jump from being on benefits to funding a deposit and rent for a flat. I haven’t worked full-time since 2010.’

Sarah began the first stage of some very gruelling treatment for her BPD, but to make progress she would need to undertake another two years of therapy over about three days a week. Having left her home and pulled out of treatment, she would need to start again and access services in this borough. But the GP she has registered with has not yet received the paperwork from her old GP. So although she has been prescribed her medication, she does not yet have a community psychiatric nurse. Our food bank manager made sure she left today with details of the local self-referral mental health services and details of excellent debt advice charity Christians Against Poverty. We hope she gets appointments with both very soon indeed.

Send her all the luck in the world. She’s got more inner strength that she realises and I’m left with a sense that she will now fight to get the support she needs. The most disgraceful thing is that social, housing and welfare policies are making life more difficult by the day for Sarah and the people like her, here in London and throughout the UK.