I was at the South Chadderton foodbank this morning and talked with some of the Monday volunteers.
I asked the volunteers why people were restricted to a certain number of foodbank visits in a set period of time. The limit is generally about three visits every six months or so – limits vary from place to place. The South Chadderton volunteers said today that the limit was now four visits.
I also asked if foodbanks showed discretion about these things – whether they could give out food parcels even if someone had reached their quota. Last week, I spoke to Pat McCullough, a 67-year-old Oldham man whose pension credit had been stopped for reasons he didn’t understand, and who’d reached his limit for foodbank visits while a caseworker helped him sort the pension credit problem out. He’d had four foodbank vouchers recently.
Jean Jones, who is one of the South Chadderton volunteers, said one reason that some people returned for three or four food parcels was because their problems with benefit sanctions and/or benefit delays, etc, now took so long to fix. This is worth noting. I find this myself again and again.
“The theory is, if you’ve got it [a foodbank voucher] for your benefits sanctions [to cover food while a benefit is sanctioned]… or whatever reason, the theory is that by the time you’ve had four [foodbank] vouchers, [the problem] should have been solved. The problem is [that] it isn’t [solved].”
I’ve certainly spent time with people who’ve had such experiences. I’ve attended jobcentre meetings with people who’ve literally waited months for a full Universal Credit claim to be properly started. I went to Kilburn jobcentre many times last year with a disabled woman whose benefit claim was closed when she was too ill to attend the jobcentre and who for weeks couldn’t find anyone to help her start her claim again (she was really ill – she had a bloodclot on her leg). Her housing benefit claim was stopped at the same time. She ended up with rent arrears and all kinds of problems. That one took months to fix.
I’ve spoken to no end of people in the last year who’ve had their benefits cut for weeks because they missed meetings that weren’t even compulsory, or who’ve been forced to pay rent arrears that their housing associations knew perfectly well they couldn’t afford, or who must pay exorbitant and very unfair court fines. Point is, these problems take ages to solve – if people can find anyone to help solve them at all. I meet a fair few people who just give up. It can take ages to get through to someone on the DWP phone lines. Jobcentres will rarely help people solve problems on the spot. Instead, advisers make formal appointments for people who have problems with their benefits. These appointments are often set a week or two or even further down the line. There’s not a lot of resource in jobcentres these days and government is about to close a bunch of them down.
Jean said her own son was on a Universal Credit sanction at the moment and that he still wasn’t sure why his money had been stopped, or how long the sanction would last. His UC wasn’t paid last month. He’d sent in a sick note to Universal Credit which excused him from his jobsearch requirements for six weeks, but that note seemed to have been lost in the mail, or disappeared forever into the black hole that is the DWP bureaucracy, or god knows what. He was waiting for a letter from the DWP, which apparently is due to arrive this week and will tell him why his benefit stopped, and how long it will be stopped for. The hope was that all would be revealed when the letter turned up.
So. Worth noting, as I say. Say what you like about benefit claimants – and plenty of people do say what they like – but the fact is that a lot of people are at the mercy of a system which falls over all of the time. People are left with nothing to live on while they try to address problems such as stopped benefit claims, reduced benefit claims, lost sick notes, court fines and all the rest of it. Those problems seem to go on forever these days. Maybe someone wants to fix that.