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.

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too

London foodbank life: Surreal at times, but dangerous too
Ben Adou hasn’t received jobseeker’s allowance since early March. He came into the foodbank hungry.

I’m pondering the brutal absurdities of day-to-day life for a growing number of the people I come across at this London Trussell Trust foodbank. Sarah (not her real name), wants a job. She’s a gentle and intelligent 28-year-old law graduate with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). A month ago she was nearly made homeless when the hostel told her they were going to evict her. The housing association running the hostel changed its mind at the last minute, but tragically she’s considering escort work as a possible way to clear debts, including a Wonga loan at extortionate rates. What does the future hold for her after she finally worked up the courage to escape a violent home situation? Will Mark, who’s trying to battle both depression and a debilitating shoulder injury, ever get his claim for employment and support allowance (ESA) processed? It’s been more than 10 weeks now, and he’s still no clearer about when he’ll get his money. Meanwhile his health is deteriorating fast, with other worrying symptoms now developing, which have driven him to the local hospital’s accident and emergency unit.

While they struggle on, Ben Adou (pictured above) came into the foodbank to share his story. Last week I mentioned that he brought along a foodbank voucher – his third. He couldn’t have survived without them, as he hasn’t received any jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) since March 7. This has plunged Ben – a widower of 56 whose wife died of cancer in 2012 – into a financial crisis. He claims housing benefit, has no savings and has nothing to fall back on. There is no safety net here. He came into the foodbank at what he somewhat ironically called lunchtime – hungry because he hadn’t been able to eat that morning. At least he was able to get some tea and a spare sandwich, and leave with his emergency pack of long-life food and some bread that had been donated that day. ‘You have brought me happiness by giving me food’, he said.

The problems started when Ben, who mostly works as a labourer, was offered a job through the controversial Universal Jobmatch scheme at the beginning of March. It turned out to be just two days of work, which he said had ‘completely messed up my JSA claim’. It’s also impacted on his ability to pay a contribution towards his rent, pay his council tax and to meet other household and phone bills. It has made it almost impossible for him to get to interviews. Crucially, of course, he can’t buy food. Any sort of a social life is totally out of the question, of course. With his JSA on hold, he now has no idea exactly when his benefit payments will resume. He called into the jobcentre to try to get to the bottom of things: ‘They said I was overpaid JSA during spells when I was working, and I disagree. They’ve put in writing that they know they owe me £431.60, but they’re saying that I owe them about £286.00 – and that this was a possible overpayment to me.’

The Government’s Universal Jobmatch website  – managed independently by private recruiter Monster – has come under much criticism. MP Frank Field said in a Guardian article, that it is ‘bedevilled with fraud’ and ‘out of control’.The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed in a letter to Field that more than 350,000 job adverts might breach the website’s terms and conditions , which specify that employers must advertise a real job, not use premium rate numbers, pay at least the minimum wage and not cost the applicant any money to start.

In the meantime, Universal Jobmatch keep on sending him texts calling him to jobs he can’t take up and job interviews he can’t attend – because he has absolutely no money to get there. A few weeks ago he passed two interviews for some work in central London, but couldn’t get the money together to travel up to the job. The day before he had been offered work starting yesterday in Morden, ‘but I had to say no because I couldn’t afford to travel there’. He has no money, so needs a job. He can’t get a properly paid job, because he has no money to get there. A week previously he had been called for a first interview for a commission-based job, then was offered an induction. It was only at that point that he found out he would have to use an Oyster card and put money on it himself to enable him to travel around London to sell products door-to-door. Needless to say, ‘this wasn’t explained at the team meeting’.

He explained to JobcentrePlus that he needed some money, but doesn’t seem to have been told that he could have been given money directly by them. There’s a fund for that sort of thing, you see. But no-one seems to be told about it. Every year in April, JobcentrePlus offices are given a budget to pay for Budgeting Loans.These are interest free loans for people on JSA and other benefits. Travelling expenses within the UK are included in the needs covered by such loans. This money comes out of the JobcentrePlus Social Fund budget.

Ben, like many of the people I meet, is dealing with this ghastly situation with tremendous resilience. But there’s only so long he can cope without long-term damage to his health and wellbeing. He is diabetic and he also has a heart problem. Kafkaesque doesn’t even begin to describe the ridiculous, complex hassles faced daily by a growing number of our most vulnerable citizens. This week we found out that committed campaigner and journalist Mike Sivier’s battle to get information on deceased former sickness benefits claimants released that is clearly in the public interest has been unsuccessful – so far. He wants an update on the number of sickness benefit claimants who have died, but a tribunal has upheld the Information Commissioner’s decision that his Freedom of Information request was ‘vexatious’. But the judge criticised both the information Commissioner and the DWP for the other reasons they put forward to prevent the death figures from being made public. From what seems to be emerging here in London, do we also now need to look more closely at the equivalent figures for people on JSA?