Like so many interviews I post on this site, this transcript highlights two important points:
1) Political and press obsessions such as government, voting and Brexit barely register in many lives.
I asked both woman for their views on government and Brexit.
“I ain’t got a clue me, I don’t understand it. I really don’t.”
“Neither me…You never see anyone like that knocking down at foodbank…They don’t worry about where the next electricity coming from.”
2) The benefit systems that people in poverty rely on are in tatters, but that fact is ignored. Nobody cares.
Politics refuses to intervene, or to offer constructive answers. Mainstream politics is fixated on Brexit and central politics to the exclusion of everything. Meanwhile, people in poverty are being dragged down by failing state bureaucracies. Online benefit application forms fail. Helplines are hopeless. Claimants go months without money, which makes debt inevitable. The idea is, of course, that anyone who has ever received a state benefit deserves the worst. Dependence on the state justifies aggression from the state.
Michelle had rent arrears, because the DWP took ten weeks to make her first Universal Credit payment. She was also repaying a tax credit debt that she disputed and an advance loan that she took out to buy food during that ten-week wait for her Universal Credit:
“Oh God – it were a nightmare signing on for Universal Credit. You have to do it online and I had to [keep] ringing the jobcentre. I had to keep ringing them, because it were so hard.”
Jeanette had had a stroke in 2009. She struggled with balance and speech. She’d recently applied for Personal Independence Payment application, but missed an award by five points. She’d decided not to appeal that decision, because the appeals process was too complex and wearing:
“Too stressful. I’ve got to think of my health. Just rely on family and friends to get me around.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no part of this mess helps people find stability, or work. Quite the reverse. Any stability people had has been torpedoed. Prevailing government theory is that destabilising people by throwing them off benefits motivates them (whatever “motivates” means). It does not. These broken, maddening public sector bureaucracies mire people in debt. Unfortunately, that fact is below the radar.
Transcript: Oldham foodbank, 7 March 2018.
It hasn’t been this bad before. [They] moved me over [from Employment and Support Allowance to Universal Credit] in October last year. They made me do it, yeah.
They told me… I applied for ESA again, but they said because I was in the catchment area for Universal Credit, that I have to have that instead…but I went for [an ESA face-to-face] assessment on 25th of October  and I’ve still heard nothing…nearly six months. [The assessment was at] Albert Bridge House, yeah.
I don’t sign on. I just have to go and see my advisor at the jobcentre every few weeks.
Oh God – it were a nightmare signing on for Universal Credit. You have to do it online and I had to [keep] ringing the jobcentre. I had to keep ringing them, because it were so hard.
[I] could do one bit of it, where they told you to do your details, but then it told you to do something else – a separate thing which is a new ID thing what they’ve set up. You’ve got to do that to prove your identity. You’ve got to choose which company to do it with.
I did mine with the Post Office. Got to set that account up and then go back to Universal Credit [with the registered identity details] Oh, it is horrible. Then, you’ve got to get an appointment to go up to the jobcentre to do the rest of it there…
You just do it [the identity proof] online while you’re filling your form out. It just takes you to another site and it tells you choose which one you want to use, so I clicked Post Office. Then you have to like create an account with them just to prove your identity, because they’ve got more information on you then – so that they know that it is you, because there are a lot of people trying to claim benefits under different names, so to try and stop that basically.
Had to give my passport, yeah, because it was online…
I had no money for about eight, ten weeks. They let me have an advance payments, but it were only for £200. I’ve got two kids and got behind on all me payments and everything. It were horrible…
Jeanette: It puts you behind with your rent.
Michelle: Yeah, I’ve been having to pay extra each month, because of my rent was in arrears and it wasn’t my fault. It was horrible. [I] rent with First Choice Homes…arrears, about two months, about £700 I think. I have to pay about £20 every month on top of the rent, because the rent’s £330.
They [the DWP] are deducting [money from my monthly Universal Credit payments] for advance loan – about £40 a month. They are taking [repayments for a] child tax credit [overpayment], because when I went onto Universal Credit, the child tax credit stopped, because it all goes in with that. Then after I had been on Universal Credit for a few months, [the DWP] decided to say that they had overpaid me [tax credits] and I owed £300. So now, they’re taking £49 a month off me for that as well.
[So that’s] £49 [taken out each month] for child tax credit debt, £40 for advance payment and £20 for arrears. Not much left at the end of the month once I’ve paid my bills and gone shopping. Only have a little bit left. If my girls need anything, I can’t…do it. Once that little bit of money has gone, I’ve got to wait another month again. The only other thing I get is child benefit, but that is £34 a week. That goes on the stuff like I need like the gas and electric. I can’t give it to my girls. Girls are [aged] 17 coming up and nearly 13.
[The DWP never contacted me to negotiate deduction amounts I could afford]. Oh, no, no, no. They just tell you. They don’t ask. They don’t discuss it with you. They just tell you.
They offered me more money [a bigger advance loan] but they said they would take more back every month, so I had to go for the lower option, because then I would have been less off every month. [With the tax credit debt], they sent me a letter telling me I had to pay it. Then they sent it over to Universal Credit… and the next thing you know, they had taken it out.
[I haven’t tried to negotiated lower repayments] Not really, no. Just don’t think it’d make a difference really. It would just make me worry more…And I suffer from stress and anxiety and panic attacks so…it’s just hard. It might seem like a lot of money when it goes in to your bank at the end of the month, but once you’ve paid your bills and you’ve paid your rent and you’ve got your shopping, that’s it, it’s gone.
Jeanette: It’s a long time to wait for a month – especially when you get used [to more regular payments]… like I’m on fortnightly.
Michelle: I just can’t get used to it [being paid once a month]. It’s just so hard. They should tell you they’re going to do it [deduct money from each Universal Credit payment for debt], but they didn’t… because a week before you get paid, you can go onto your journal and it tells you how much you’re getting that month. I went on that month. It just told me they were taking it out.
Do you think anyone in government cares?
Michelle: Do I think anyone cares? Oh no. No. Not at all.
Jeanette: They’re not struggling. They don’t care, do they.
Michelle: I have lived in Oldham all my life…I’ve never struggled this much. It is just since going on Universal Credit, it being monthly. As I say, you’ve got to pay a month’s worth of bills. When you get paid fortnightly, you pay a fortnight’s worth of bills. When you get that in your bank, it might seem like a lot, but once you’ve paid all your bills and you’ve got all your shopping and everything else, it’s gone. Another month then with nothing.
You can’t get a month’s worth of shopping, because it just doesn’t fit in your fridge, or your freezer or whatever. It doesn’t last. It’s horrible.
[I want to go] back to fortnightly [payments] or something like that. Universal Credit – get it gone, definitely.
Jeanette: Scrap it. I bet that before this Universal Credit, there wasn’t as many using this foodbank as much.
Michelle: I don’t get paid for another two week [that’s why I’ve come to the foodbank]…
I’ve got scoliosis and anxiety. That’s why I went for the medical, to get back on the sick, but I’m still waiting…for the results…even me advisor at the jobcentre says there is still no decision been made and he don’t understand it himself…I take sick notes into the jobcentre every time I go… my advisor’s all right. Oldham jobcentre.
Jeanette: I’m on sick [so I don’t sign on]. I’m not on this Universal Credit yet. I’ll emigrate before I go on that, me…
What are your views of Brexit?
Michelle: I ain’t got a clue me. I don’t understand it. I really don’t.
Jeanette: Neither me…
Michelle: It confuses me, so I can’t watch it.
Did you vote [in the EU referendum and last year’s election]?
Michelle: No, because I don’t really know what it [Brexit] means. I don’t know what it is for. I don’t really understand politics. I know, obviously, about when you’ve got to vote normally for the prime minister and things like that, but [not Brexit and referenda]…
Jeanette: You never see anyone like that… knocking down at foodbank. They [MPs] don’t worry about money. They don’t worry about where the next electricity coming from. That’s what annoys me.
Michelle: [the energy bills] – that’s what worries me, the gas more than anything, because my daughter, she’s got Raynaud’s disease. I can’t afford to let her get cold, so at the minute, it’s been costing me a fortune.
They’ve just given me a voucher today [the foodbank], a fuel voucher. [Fuel] costs me a fortune, because with it being so cold, I can’t turn it off. I have to have it on when she’s at home, because if I don’t and it does happen, she ends up going to A&E with all her hands swollen up. She gets a rash all over. All her eyes, her nose, her lips all swells up and she gets a rash everywhere and it’s horrible. It’s painful for her, so I have to try my best to not to let her get cold.
This past week’s been awful. That’s why I’ve run out of gas [money]. I’ve had to keep it on, because it’s been that cold.
I put £40 a month on [the gas metre] when I get paid – sometimes extra, if I can’t. Like I say, when I get my child benefit on a Tuesday, sometimes I top it up with that. But at the minute, this past week, I’ve had to keep it on, so this month it’s been very expensive.
Jeanette: With PIP – I didn’t get enough points on me medical [for a Personal Independence Award]. I had a stroke in 2009 [and I was on Disability Living Allowance]. Last medical – I didn’t get enough points. I only missed out by five points.
[I didn’t appeal that decision, because] I find it more stressful. If I get more of the stress, then I’m likely to have another one [stroke] …I lost the DLA money…It’s a big drop, because I only get now £200 a fortnight, so it’s a hell of a big drop. That’s the only money I rely on…too stressful [to appeal]. I’ve got to think of my health. Just rely on family and friends to get me around…since my stroke, I’ve found it bloody hard to walk, so up and down my right side. It’s affected the right side of me and the speech, that goes.
Michelle: You’ve got your bills to pay and everything…It’s not enough, is it.
Jeanette: [Government need to] scrap that thing, that Universal Credit. I find it embarrassing going to foodbanks. I’ve been once. I would starve myself to death, me.
Michelle: When you’ve never been before. You’ve never had to.
Jeanette: My kids are grown up and they’ve got their own families. I’m not going to palm myself off onto them… it’s not happening.
Everything is online [Universal Credit claim forms]. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know what to do. [I can’t use a computer].
Michelle: I can use a computer, but even I struggled. I would start crying…because it was frustrating me that much. It were that horrible, but I were at the point where I was panicking. I had to do it, because I won’t have no money. It was scaring me. I had to keep ringing them up…Then I’d put the phone down and then I’d keep doing it… it took me hours. It took me four hours, if not longer, but I did it. I kept going, because I knew I had to for my kids, so I did it.
[Universal Credit helpline officers] just kept telling me – “we can’t help you until you fill that form in.” I’m saying – I can’t fill it in. That’s what I’m struggling with…I rang back, [and they] give me an appointment to go in and they helped me with the rest of it when I were there, but certain parts of it – they can’t do anything until you’ve done it.
Jeanette: When I went for my [PIP] medical, they ask you a question and then you get it through on the paperwork, it’s totally the opposite… they used to say I could get on the bus and go into town… I never go anywhere. If I leave my flat, I make sure I’ve got Michelle with me. I make sure I’ve got somebody with me because me balance is not 100%… and this is what I’m saying I’m capable of cooking for myself, basic stuff, yeah, but when you come, me hands start shaking because the strength… me body’s is not the same as it used to be. They turned it to the opposite…
Michelle: I’ve got tendonitis. My daughter, she’s 17, she does a lot in the kitchen. I told them that on the phone, so they said, “so you can make yourself a meal.” You explain to them that you can’t, only now and then, because I have a lot of pain in my hands, lot of pain and sometimes I can’t pick the kettle up… you tell them all of this. Like Jeanette says – you get the form and get a copy of the report and it’s totally different isn’t it?
Michelle: [Life was easier in the past] because you got paid weekly or fortnightly. You don’t have to wait as long. Since this monthly [payment system started] it is horrendous. It needs to be stopped. It’s not helping people.
Jeanette: You used to go and sign on in the jobcentre and you used to have a giro. They’ve altered it so that you have to have a post office account. Now they’re not they’re not satisfied with that. They have to disturb it again and now you have to have a bank account.
Michelle: Jeanette does not have anything like that – no picture ID – to open a bank account. She’s going to struggle. It costs money to get a picture ID – a passport or something like that.
Jeanette: I have got a post office account… they want me to change it [to a bank account]. I’m not doing it. It’s disturbing [things] all the time. It’s so stressful.
Michelle: You don’t get letters on Universal Credit. You’ve just got your journal. It’s all right. It takes a while [to get a response] but every time I message my adviser, I do get a reply back. It takes a couple of hours, but it is the same day. He’s really nice [Michelle’s adviser]. Normally, they move you to somebody else. I hate change me, because of my anxiety, I like to stick with who I know, so touch wood I hope they don’t change me to somebody else.
I’ve had two [advance loans for Universal Credit]. You don’t just pay one at a time. Because I’ve had two, they’re taking out [repayment money] so much for one and so much for the other…
Do you vote at all?
Jeanette: No. Can’t be bothered. I don’t think it would do [make a difference] so that’s why I don’t bother. They all say they’ll do things – this will change, that will change – [but you] don’t see anything. Talk and no action.
[Jeremy Corbyn]He’s a knobhead [laughs] He is though, isn’t he?
Michelle: They don’t see it from our point of view. They’ve not struggled.
Jeanette: They can go to sleep at night with a clean conscience… they’re not, they’re not tossing and turning thinking where’s their next meal coming from, are they.
Michelle: Far from it.