Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty report on Food Poverty

Today Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty have published a report, Walking the Breadline: The Scandal of Food Poverty in 21st Century Britain. They highlight the alarming rise of people dependent on food banks in the UK (currently a whopping half a million people, according to their estimates). Even more worryingly, they point out that up to half of these people are seeking out food banks due to benefits being delayed, reduced or withdrawn altogether. They expect these numbers to rise with the introduction of Universal Credit.

They make the following recommendations:

1. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee conducts an urgent inquiry into the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions, welfare reform changes, and the growth of food poverty.
2. The Department for Work and Pensions publishes data on a regular basis on the number and type of household who are deprived of their benefits by reason of benefit delay, error or sanctions; the numbers leaving and returning to benefits after a short period of time, and the number of referrals from Jobcentre staff to local food banks.
3. The Department for Work and Pensions commission independent monitoring of the roll-out of Universal Credit, to ensure that there is no unintentional increase in food poverty.
4. All referrals to food banks/emergency food aid provision, made by government agencies, be recorded and monitored in order to establish more accurate numbers on people experiencing food poverty in the UK.
5. HM Treasury make tackling tax dodging an urgent priority, including promoting robust and coordinated international action at the forthcoming G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June – to reduce the need for future cuts in benefits, and restore the principle that benefits should at least rise in line with inflation.

 

You can read the full report here.

The Philpott Case – A Lesson from History

I’m idly flicking through a copy of The Burning of Bridget Cleary by Angela Bourke. It tells the tale of what’s sometimes referred to as “the last witch-burning in Ireland”.

In 1895 Bridget Cleary, a 25 year old woman from County Tipperary, Ireland, was burned alive by her husband. It was a bizarre and grotesque tragedy in which her assailant used an unusual defence. He claimed that his wife had been abducted by the fairies, and he had only killed her changeling rather than Cleary herself.

The case provoked huge media interest, and that interest turned into politicised comment. To give a flavour of how this was reported in some quarters, here’s a quote from the Clonmel Nationalist around the time of the trial.

We found yesterday that the dreadful occurrence has been utilized editorially by the Tory-Unionist Dublin Evening Mail for purposes of political capital and as a suitable occasion to pour forth slander, odium and abuse on Irish people generally; to stir up racial and religious passion and prejudice, and if possible to damage the cause of Home Rule.

As you might gather, right-wing newspaper barons used this unusual and shocking event to slander an entire people, dismiss them all as unreasoning savages, and to advance a political agenda against them.

Thank goodness we live in 2013, not 1895. This is a much more responsible media era.

philpott philpott1

The Casual Cruelty of the Bedroom Tax

I recently spoke to a mother who was being hit by the Bedroom Tax. Because her son spends part of the week with her and part of the week at Dad’s, his bedroom in her home was declared a spare room. I was so appalled I asked her how this came about. This is her reply, which is published with her permission.

 

Over the past few months I’ve been hearing about the new Bedroom Tax. I read about lots of people who are losing money and in financial trouble because of it, including disabled people or people with disabled children. I thought it was disgusting for these people to have to pay this for bedrooms that are so clearly needed, for specially adapted beds and equipment for themselves or their child, or for carers to sleep in. But it didn’t occur to me that the bedroom tax was going to affect me at all.

Then in December I had a letter asking me to fill out a form to say who lives in my home. It said that if I have more bedrooms than I need my housing benefit will be reduced. I filled it in, stating that my son stays with me for four nights a week. It asked if I received Child Benefit- I stated that I don’t as his father receives this. We have joint custody and only one parent can claim Child Benefit.

I sent back the form and didn’t feel overly concerned, I live in a two bedroom maisonette and both bedrooms are being slept in – I don’t have more bedrooms than I need. I thought that this would make sense to them. Looking back, I think I was being naive or stupid. On the 25th of February I received a reply. It said that as my son’s father receives the Child Benefit they will treat him as the person who is responsible for my son and the person who provides him with his main home. Therefore they are unable to include my son in the assessment of my Housing and Council Tax Benefit.

When my son’s father and I split up I moved out of the house we were living in and took my name off the joint tenancy agreement. The housing association then told my ex that he had to move out as they now counted him as a single man living in a 2 bedroom house, even though we had joint custody and the 2nd bedroom was being used regularly. So I signed over the Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits to him so he wouldn’t be homeless. A few people told me that I was shooting myself in the foot so to speak, but I couldn’t live with him being evicted. The break up in itself was so stressful for me that I suffered a psychotic episode and was sectioned for a month because I was a danger to myself, convinced that I had to die to make things easier for everyone. Aspects of my mental health condition have a big impact on the way I handle change and stress and in particular conflict in my personal life. As a child I was made to feel overly responsible and guilty about the circumstances of certain adults in my life and was often put in positions of having to make choices that hurt someone no matter what or who I chose. As an adult the sense of guilt and worry about choices I make is still filled with the intense anxiety and panic I experienced as a child and at times that can tip me over the edge. 

It’s my wish to attempt to go back to work part-time, three days a week. I want to contribute to society, but at a level and pace that is right for me, that won’t set me back to square one with my mental health. I’ve worked hard to manage my condition and get to this place and I know that working full-time would be too much for me. However, if I work three days a week, the wage at my grade won’t be enough to cover my rent, bills and food etc (and now this bedroom tax on top) because I don’t have Child Tax Credits to top up my earnings. I don’t receive any financial support to look after my son. I’ve learned that I could apply to get disabled persons tax credits when I start work but this would only be allowed for one year, after that I have no idea how I would manage. I would probably have to go back on benefits. I don’t want this. I want to get into and stay in part-time work, not go backwards again.

I’ve discussed the situation with my ex. He is in the same boat. He is a carer for his elderly mother and is on benefits too. If he signs the Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits back over to me he will have to pay the bedroom tax and also then when he finds work won’t be able to have his earnings topped up to give him enough income.

Mothers and fathers are equally important to a child. I don’t believe that on paper it’s fair to say that only one of them is the responsible parent if both of them are caring for the child equally. I’m very sensitive about my role as a mother, I have a lot of anxiety about others assuming I’m not a good parent because of my mental health problems and for being on benefits, and it really hurt to see on paper that I’m not the ‘responsible’ parent.

I believe that parents who have joint custody of their children should have the benefits and financial support relating to a child shared between them by the DWP. If I wasn’t looking after my son at all and he lived with his father full-time then I would expect to pay this bedroom tax. But I do look after my son, as much as his father does.

I have to make a decision now about whether I push for the Child Benefit/Child Tax Credits, possibly having to go to court if he is unwilling to give them to me, or to stay in the position I’m in which is a very precarious one financially. Any day I will be called for my ESA review and medical (as thousands of others have been so far) and it’s likely I will lose that money, and will be put onto a single persons JSA – as I’m not considered to be looking after a child in the eyes of the DWP. There is no way I can support my son on JSA. I cannot make any progress in my life if I stay in my current position, but going to work will leave me worse off after a year when the disabled persons tax credits stop. This government want people back in work but they are making it extremely difficult for people to do so, how are you meant to get your life back on track with obstacles like these in the way? 

Some people might say that it’s not my problem what his dad has to deal with, ‘just do what you have to do, for you’. And there some moments I say to myself you just have to care about yourself now and forget about how your actions impact on someone else. But I can’t feel any conviction in that attitude. It’s not in my nature to not care about how others are affected by my actions (however it seems to be in this government’s nature). I do care about how things are for my son’s father, and how things are between us. It’s important for my son that we get along and for him to be able to continue to spend equal amounts with both of us – this could mean that he has to start living with just one of us – and then there will be a battle over who he lives with permanently. I can’t take that kind of stress and would be devastated to not have my son live with me at all. If his father signs the money back to me then I have to deal with the guilt of him being left in the same position that I’m in now. This government is pitting family members against each other, trapping them in dog eat dog situations.

I can’t cope with the stress and guilt of going to court over this, but I can’t carry on in this situation either. I feel unbearably trapped. Every morning I’m waking up filled with dread and fear over my future, suicidal feelings are surfacing and my mental health is getting worse and I’m really scared of going badly downhill again.

This government don’t see people as individuals, all with different circumstances and needs, we are just fodder to them.

To some extent you do have to put yourself first. But not totally, it’s about give and take, there should be a way for us both to be ok, not one person ok, the other left in dire straits. But this government is all take. Look after number one and screw you.

 

Strivers and Strugglers

As the Conservative Party Conference begins in Birmingham, Cameron has set out his agenda of further benefit cuts and a focus on the ‘strivers’ in society.

Who are these ‘strivers’? They are people who ‘work hard and want to get on in life’.

The issue is that I believe Cameron’s definition both of ‘working hard’ and ‘getting on in life’ is probably vastly different to my reality and the realities I’ve seen at work.

The ‘benefit claimants’ v ‘hard worker’ dynamic is a very toxic one. The government has become very used to divide and rule and this is a further demonstration – and is particularly nefarious in a time of high unemployment and particularly high youth unemployment.

Cameron seems to work on the assumption that all people who have jobs ‘worked hard’ to get them and ‘work hard’ at them. I would challenge that. I wonder  how ‘hard’ the Duchess of Cambridge works at her job.

And looking for work can be an exhausting, demoralising and exceptionally difficult piece of ‘work’. As can caring full time for a family member (with a paltry ‘carers allowance’). Are these people counted as ‘strivers’ in Cameron’s books? What about people who contribute to a community? What about people who overcome challenges and difficulties, including health-related ones for whom actually just getting through the day is an enormous challenge – are they ‘strivers’?  Do they really not work as hard as some people who drive buses, work in social services offices, work in banks etc?  There are hard jobs, of course, but there are also hard lives that exist outside jobs.

The best thing we can do is bat back this ‘striver’ agenda. I don’t want to live in a society that grinds down on those at the bottom without making further expectations of those who have been able to make a success of their lives – and I include myself in that.

Punishing people who don’t, can’t or aren’t able to work seems to be a populist agenda but one of the key things as a social worker I feel a need to challenge are the assumptions made from the safety of the Westminster village about the day to day effects that their policies and their discriminatory rhetoric has on the lives of those who DO strive. Strive desperately – but strive without economic recompense and strive for different goals.

Compassionate Conservatism? It was never anything but empty words.

Inside the Kafka-esque word of the Work Programme

Various private companies have been awarded contracts for the Work Programme, intended to get the long-term unemployed back to work. One person “lucky” enough to receive their “help” sent us this account. They have asked to remain anonymous.

So, I got a letter to do a training course with my Work Programme Provider. It read:

Dear Feckless Person,
It has been arranged for you to attend at a training course at the centre on Tuesday morning. It will take three hours. If you don’t wanna come, get a job. SCUM!

OK, maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but it didn’t tell me what training course I was coming in for, and I’d discussed a number of potential workplace skill courses that I think would help me. I phoned to ask what the training course was.

‘Oh well, it’s a course in *mumbles*’

‘Sorry what was that?’

‘It’s a course in *mumble even more*’

‘I don’t know what you’re saying.’

‘Just come to the session and it’ll be explained then.’

So, there I am, waiting for an unknown training course, with another external organisation from the Jobcentre. One of those ‘skills providers’ with a terrible number pun in its name. A rise in illiteracy in Britain could be blamed on the terrible number wordplay in these businesses names names. So, the Skillz4U2Day trainer asks us all to follow him, still keeping the nature of this course to himself.

He begins ‘You’re all here to attend this workshop on how to attend your appointments on the Work Programme, because none of you have been attending your appointments.’

‘WHAT?’

‘Yes, the provider has informed me that all of you have been failing to attend, so I’m here to tell those of you in attendance to come to your appointments.’

Everyone looks around the room. Ten identical letters are produced, sent from the same advisor.

One guy pipes up. ‘I didn’t miss it. He was on leave. I saw someone else.’

Another adds ‘I didn’t miss anything, he was off sick.’

Another adds, ‘I didn’t miss any appointments, he booked me in on a Sunday.’

The trainer looks confused. ‘Erm…did anyone here actually miss an appointment?’ Nobody replies.

The trainer decided we should all just listen to the training anyway. This training was a Powerpoint Presentation. Powerpoint presentations are bad enough when you need to hear them, but when you don’t? It probably didn’t even have any cat gifs.

Cat gifs make everything better.

Anyway, this scrawny weed of a man was suddenly surrounded by some very hard-looking men of the Vinnie Jones mould. They made it very clear they weren’t sitting through his Powerpoint presentation.

Frustrated by this, I went upstairs to speak to the advisor.

‘Well, I was off sick, so I don’t know if you came to your last appointment or not, so I just assumed you hadn’t.’

The computer in front of him, with my profile open, showed a short summary of what had happened at that last appointment.

‘But when I called you up and asked what this training course was, why didn’t you just tell me that. I could have rearranged the appointment?’

‘Because then you wouldn’t have attended the course.’

‘No, because I hadn’t missed any appointments.’

‘If you hadn’t gone to that training course just now, you would have missed an appointment.’

‘So I had to come to this training on how to not miss appointments so that I knew not to miss any appointments because I hadn’t missed any appointments so I didn’t know how not to miss any appointments?’

‘Yes.’

My ‘training course’ was a sub-contracted powerpoint presentation that was going to take 30 mins, not 3 hours. It wasn’t anything that would give me a skill.

As for the actual training I wanted to do? I’d previously worked in admin, but jobs were drying up in that unless you were someone trained in accounts and bookkeeping, and could use things like Sage 500. What about the training course that I was going to do in that?

‘Oh, we can’t provide training in that. It’s expensive. You can only do the training if you’ve got a job offer for something that needs Sage. Otherwise, we can’t pay for it.’

Now, granted, Sage is a pricey training course. If it wasn’t, I’d pay for it out of my own pocket. But, it’s also mentioned in 90% of the job ads, and especially the permanent ones. So, if I could do it, there’d be a lot more jobs I could apply to?

‘Well, I mean, you can find someone else to pay for it, like an employer. They don’t have to hire you, just pay for the training’

So… I’m supposed to go look for an employer to pay me? Why would an employer want to do that.’

‘Well, they might.’

Triple Facepalm
So, what we have, ladies and gentlemen, is a Work Programme Provider preventing you from doing actual relevant training in a skill required in a large number of job adverts, because it’s too expensive and instead sending you to sub-contracted Powerpoint presentations, that you’re not informed of in advance, where you’re told that if you don’t come to your appointments you won’t get any money.

The Work Programme lasts for two years, as the advisor gleefully reminded me.

It’s Not News That Fostering Is Under Pressure

Al Murray’s news-based Sunday radio show on 5Live has a running gag where the panellists read out prominent items from the past week that are not surprising in the least. After each, he adopts an urgent cod-announcer style and bellows, ‘Not News!’ Katy Price might have a new relationship, Big Brother contestant seeks publicity, Camilla’s wearing a hideous hat: you get the picture. Shout out the catchphrase after every paragraph in this piece. Fostering Fortnight, the biggest event in fostering calendar, finished recently and frankly, nothing’s happened. It works for me.

Fostering Fortnight is a series of events to celebrate fostering and foster carers. It presents a positive view of being a carer with the dual aims of valuing those who have already discovered their vocation and attracting new recruits to fill the growing shortage of foster homes. It’s run by the Fostering Network, a charity representing the interests of carers all over the United Kingdom. This year they’ve done an excellent job, with relevant and well-timed research attracting the media’s attention alongside the heart-warming human interest stories beloved by daytime TV, climaxing with a glittering reception proudly showcasing the achievements of children and young people in care.

Children’s Minister Tim Loughton made the keynote speech. Whilst he covered a considerable amount of ground, a couple of weeks on there’s no evidence that anything much has happened. Those of us waiting for a significant initiative from the government or at the very least some leadership to take us forward were sorely disappointed. He made some eminently sensible suggestions about improving day to practice, the level at which much can be accomplished as any regular reader of my blogs will know. Reminding authorities that they should delegate more decision-taking responsibility to foster carers (something Loughton has enthusiastically supported) will improve the lives of children and young people in care, giving them the same social opportunities as their peers. Criticising the risk averse climate in decision-making is music to my ears. A drive for employers to provide fostering leave is an excellent idea and the Department are working to ensure the benefits system, including housing benefit, does not discriminate against carers. We also have familiar favourites, the ‘streamlining’ of the assessment process and introducing greater ‘flexibility’ into the placement process cuddling up to old friends like ‘unnecessary and harmful bureaucracy.’

As I say, much of this is valuable. However, the expected and trailed ‘big announcement’ did not materialise. Normally that wouldn’t unduly bother me -it’s what carers and practitioners do that counts – but fostering is facing perhaps its biggest ever challenge over the next few years and it needed a helping hand from government. In its absence, I’m left only with confirmation that fostering remains the poor relation of the care system.

Adoption has dominated the government’s agenda over the past year or so, which I’ve covered in previous posts. Loughton acknowledged as much in his speech but failed to redress the balance. The examples he gave like the Foster Carers Charter have been around for a long time and the earth hasn’t moved.

Fostering is about the skilled preparation of children and young people for the future. This can be a return to their birth family and fostering itself as well as adoption. Many young people may not wish to be adopted and also evidence shows fostering provides a successful alternative in offering stable permanence and improved life-chances, yet the perception remains that the government (not necessarily Loughton himself) sees fostering as a sort of holding area, the lounge where you rest after passing through security and checking your baggage before rushing onto the plane, the means of reaching your destination.

There are powerful reasons why the government must give a strong lead. This debate takes place within a context of the growing numbers of children and young people being taken into care outstripping the supply of new foster places, especially ones where the complexity of children’s issues can be fully addressed. I advocate an ongoing government advertising campaign for foster carers along the lines of the long-running and successful initiative to recruit teachers. Current means and methods are not enough.

Then we have inertia within hard-pressed cash-strapped local authorities. I have every sympathy but the means of change has been there for some time without there being sufficient action. Take delegated authority. It’s the jargon for enabling carers to take day to day decisions for children and young people like whether they can have a sleepover, go on a school trip, see certain friends or take part in activities where a consent form is required. Normal parenting in other words. Ask any young person in care and they would say the need to call the social worker each and every time is the single biggest impediment to being like their peers. Backed by legislation that came into force in April 2011, the decision-taking authority should now be delegated by agreement to carers and the FN have produced a spot-on format to enable this.

Nothing is happening. Not quite true, of course, but the risk averse culture is so embedded in senior management that many authorities seem hell-bent on retaining responsibility for these decisions, regardless of the fact that children are unhappy, carers exasperated and under-valued and already busy social workers embroiled in tasks others could and should take from them. In fact, the welcome legislation is nevertheless not a radical departure from the guidance that existed before April 2011. It wasn’t implemented then because of the risk averse culture and nothing significant has altered.

Finally, I’ve come across an increasing number of examples from several authorities where the much vaunted ‘streamlining’ means assessments are being rushed and the ‘flexibility’ over placements means foster homes are more crowded than ever as age and placement criteria are being stretched to fulfil demand. This is a natural consequence of fewer resources caused by spending cuts and growing demand as the threshold for coming into care shifts.

It’s not news, however, that this does not contribute to better childcare. Children are given what is available, not what they need. Carers are pressurised to go beyond their areas of preference and expertise. Carers are great, they don’t want to say ‘no’, they want to help, but to do so they require support from us professionals, which is not the case if we take shoddy resource-driven placement decisions. Above all, children’s needs are not being met. Far from addressing the problems, I fear we are merely storing up worse for the future.

An Invite to Rod Liddle

Some typical disabled people

Rod Liddle’s Sun column today is repulsive even by his standards.

Also, I am nothing if not a creature of fashion, a cool and with-it hipster, daddio, who is always up to date with the latest trends.

And being disabled is incredibly fashionable. The number of people who claim to be disabled has doubled in the past ten years.

And who can blame them? Not only do you get money from the Government and don’t have to go to work – but if you play your cards right you might get one of those badges that lets you park wherever you want. Right in front of the cashpoint, for example. And you can use those enormous toilets with levers and handgrips and emergency buzzers they have in all public places, without feeling too guilty about it.

You know what, Rod? I think you need to put your money where your mouth is. You want to be disabled? I cordially invite you to disable yourself. Saw your own legs off. Blind yourself with a spork. Binge-drink until your liver and kidneys are comprehensively wrecked…Oh wait, you were probably doing precisely that when you wrote this drivel. Live the dream, enter the fashion set and actually become disabled.

And then you’ll be cool.