My role as Welfare Rights Appeals Officer, at Salford Unemployed and Community Resource Centre in Eccles, brings me into contact with those people who are not necessarily vulnerable but are, due to an event or circumstances, at a vulnerable point in their life. This might be due to redundancy, bereavement or diagnosed with a life changing illness.
One of my first clients was an elderly lady called Lilly. Lilly was a lovely lady who had lost her husband a year earlier. She was very distressed as she was not able to pay the £500 gas bill she had received. It quickly became apparent that since her husband had died, Lilly had tried to manage on just her meagre state pension and small amount of savings, but that had now gone.
I was able to more than double her income with a top up claim to Income Support and Housing and Council Tax Benefit, with a little backdating of each. A few weeks later I received a thank you card from Lilly; she stated that she had not had a holiday since the royal wedding (Charles and Dianna), but she was now off to Blackpool to visit her friend.
For years I loved my job and I got a huge sense of achievement from being able to make a small difference for a lot of people. However, things began to change.
The Tory Governments legal aid changes came into force in April 2013 and took areas of law such as welfare, debt and housing out of scope for Legal Aid. Many advice centres closed or were forced to offer limited services. The national housing charity Shelter had to close nine advice centres across the country. The Social Fund came under attack and emergency payments to claimants were stopped. This was replaced with a very limited resource given to local authorities to administer in order to provide emergency immediate assistance with fuel poverty.
Then came the Tories austerity agenda and welfare reform which made it far more difficult for anyone to access any form of government support.
Disability Living Allowance was replaced with Personal Independence Payment, which is much harder to qualify for and has resulted in the removal of benefit from hundreds of disabled people in Salford. Many have lost their mobility vehicles and even their entitlement to have a carer under the Carers Allowance rules. Incapacity Benefit has been replaced with Employment and Support Allowance, from which sick and disabled people are subjected to the unfair Work Capabilities Assessment. Benefit is denied unless the person’s limitations attract a score of 15 points or above, which is virtually impossible to achieve. In the last two months, 28 Salford residents attending for advice at the Centre scored 0 points regardless of their illness or disability. These people include amputees, people with severe mental conditions and even people whose conditions could be fatal.
Mary, a 62 year old woman came to me for advice in July 2016. She had been found fit for work following one such assessment with a score of 0 points. Mary suffers from physical difficulties including arthritis, fibromyalgia and long term mental health problems. Mary had been in an abusive relationship since she was 15 years old. She had suffered continuous mental and physical abuse, has been isolated from her friends and family and denied any income of her own. After suffering a breakdown at the beginning of 2015, Mary began receiving treatment from mental health services and soon after was assisted to leave her violent abusive husband and claim benefit in her own right. Within six months, she was assessed and found “fit for work”. With help from the centre, this decision was challenged and her case was heard in October. Where the Judge made the following recommendation, “given the degree of disability found by the Tribunal, and unless the regulations change, the Tribunal would recommend that the appellant is not re-assessed” This recommendation is not binding on Secretary of State, but if followed, would allow Mary to claim her State Pension, without further, unnecessary stress.
Benefit sanctions - the inhumane removal of all of someone’s income for prescribed periods of between 4 weeks and 3 years - are being inflicted on people in Salford. This leaves them reliant on food banks and charity handouts for even the most basic needs. The Tories have not produced any convincing evidence to support the use of sanctions in assisting people into work as opposed to being used as a punishment for doing or failing to do tasks determined by Job Centre Plus. The evidence suggests that the opposite is the case. David Boyce, a centre client with diabetes, was repeatedly sanctioned over several months, he was not able to feed himself properly, was reliant on food banks, began to suffer from diabetic complications and he eventually lost his leg and his home. David has recently been offered compensation of £100 from DWP; needless to say this has been rejected. Benefit Sanctions have been applied for the most ridiculous reasons. One client was sanctioned for four weeks for failing to attend an appointment with his Job Centre advisor. His reason for not attending was that he was actually at a Job interview. Others have had their income removed for failing to attend appointments of which they were not notified.
Last week, the Government reduced the benefit cap by £6,000. This is expected to affect 116,000 families across Britain according to the Chartered Institute of Housing’s research. This means that families across the country will struggle to meet their rental Liability, thus putting families at risk of homelessness and destitution. The impact on Salford residents is yet to be seen.
Councillor Barbara Bentham, November 2016