Homeless mothers: we feel the ever-present threat of social services and losing our kids. That’s how they keep people quiet

Readers of this site will know that I’ve recently been interviewing Marsha, a homeless 30-year-old Newham woman who lives with her six-year-old daughter in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

The two have been stuck in this temporary accommodation for over a year.

Marsha and her daughter in their one-room temporary homelessness hostel accommodation

In the last article, Marsha talked about a concern that many homeless mothers raise. Mothers worry that council social services will try to remove their children because they are homeless. Doesn’t matter what the council can, or can’t, actually do. The threat hangs in the air and that is enough. I’ve written about this before.

In that recent article, Marsha said that Newham social services said they could take her daughter and place the child in care while Marsha “sorted herself out”:

“Social services is telling me – “oh, we can provide a home for your daughter, but not for you.”

“So I am scared.”

There’s been more since then.

On Tuesday morning, Marsha sent an email to her housing officer (Marsha copied me in). She asked for an update on her housing situation and whether she and her child could be moved to a better place than the awful hostel that they’re stuck in.

Marsha is in the dreadful limbo that so many women in poverty are.

She’s facing eviction from the homelessness hostel she’s in.

She’s studying at a local college to try and improve her chances of work and better-paid work.

She doesn’t want to have to move to a flat miles away in Tilbury (which is where the council wants her to go), because Marsha relies on her mother for mental health support and childcare while she studies. If Marsha loses that support, she’ll sink.

Marsha has no-one else to help with childcare while she studies. The jobcentre certainly won’t. Her adviser already threatened to sanction her Universal Credit for spending some of her time studying rather than all of her time looking for work.

So, Marsha sent that email to the council asking about her application for better housing. There’d been earlier emails, too, as well as the stories posted here.

Enter social services.

The next thing Marsha knew was that social services was all over her – and asking questions about her daughter’s health and wellbeing.

Marsha said she felt extremely threatened by this. A woman asks a council questions about her housing application – and suddenly, social services is on the phone demanding meetings and firing off all sorts of questions about the woman and her child’s welfare.

You have to wonder.

Marsha says that first, she was contacted by someone from the local multi-agency safeguarding hub – one of the hubs set up to track children who could be “vulnerable”:

“I literally had to explain myself and my housing situation all over again. He [the MASH officer] was really like getting a bit personal… asking me questions about my doctor, my daughter, my wellbeing, [the] school that she [my daughter] attends, her attendance… just a lot of personal stuff…”

So, there was that.

Then on Thursday last week, Marsha got a call from Newham children’s services, demanding that she attend an appointment with them that very afternoon:

“Another lady called from the social services…she said to me that she’s been given instructions from her manager to call me to arrange a meeting with herself.

I said, “what is it in regards to, because I just spoke to somebody else in the department within the social services and they are saying something different to me…”

“[She said] that she has to do an assessment with me and my daughter to do with my housing issues, and I have to come and see her and I should bring my daughter…

“I said to her – “I’m in college until 4.15pm. Then, I have to pick up my daughter.”

“She was like, “this is important and you have to come and see me. You kind of just have to find time, basically.”

“So I said to her, “okay, well, I’ll grab my daughter from school early and I’ll come and see you.”

“I was really uncomfortable…”

At the meeting, the social worker questioned Marsha and her daughter about Marsha and the child’s wellbeing:

“It is… the stuff they were asking me, Kate, had nothing to do with my housing situation. They were asking my daughter if she sleeps well, how does she play, who helps her with her homework… It’s not relevant.

“It’s almost like I’m being investigated… do you know what I mean… everyone knows that my issues is strictly around housing. I feel so uncomfortable.”

“I feel like the council is just trying to use tactics to force me into a situation…I feel like I’m being punished. I’m trying to get my voice heard and I’m speaking to people and I’m raising issues. I feel like it’s a tactical to make me go away – like they are thinking, “let’s get social services to call around.”

Marsha said the social worker told her that Marsha and her daughter would soon be evicted from their temporary accommodation. Marsha and her young daughter are facing street homelessness.

That was the first Marsha had heard about her impending eviction.

She said that the social worker was shocked to hear that the council’s housing team hadn’t told Marsha that eviction was nearing.

The bed Marsha shares with her daughter

——-

You see my point.

I talk to too many homeless mothers now who say they feel ever-threatened by social services.

They don’t know if councils can take their kids, but Can or Can’t is beside the point. The point is that the spectre of social services is raised at the drop of a hat. An implied threat is plenty good enough to shut homeless people up.

People worry about challenging a council offer of housing, or complaining about the dreadful state of temporary housing, or drawing attention to themselves by asking a council any questions about housing at all. I wonder how many homeless people are disenfranchised – bullied into silence – in this way.

Said Marsha:

“It’s the normal thing that I’ve been experiencing with council, with social services – bullying, threatening, saying that you have to do this now and you don’t have an option…she [the social worker] sat down yesterday and she said, “as you know there is no affordable housing, affordable properties [in Newham]… it’s just been like 18 months of ongoing like turmoil with them.”

Indeed.

I have more on this which I will publish this week.

The Newham council press office has blacklisted me and so won’t give a comment, but too bad for them. I’ll be emailing the mayor and the head of housing with this article and asking the council what the hell it is doing.

This is sick.

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I don’t go near the window because I might jump… How many people with serious mental health histories are in hostels like this?

This is an excerpt from a longer article I’m working on:

A fortnight ago, I visited Lukia – a woman with a history of severe depression. She has been in the care of a mental health unit.

For two years, Lukia has lived on an upper floor of a grim homelessness hostel in Newham. She was placed in the hostel by Newham council.

She dislikes living up so high, because she worries about jumping.

Lukia said:

“I’m living on the ninth floor, because… my daughter knows that I don’t go near the window… I always feel like I’m going to go down…”

I asked:

“Like you’re going to jump?”

“Yes, yes… feel like you’re jumping.” Lukia said.

Here’s the view from Lukia’s window:

Her hostel room is also distressing. It’s not really a room. It’s more a hallway with Lukia’s bed and belongings in it. There’s a small kitchen at one end of this hallway and the bed, and window, at the other.

The “room” is filled with suitcases, kitchen items and household belongings:

Why do we make people with serious mental health conditions live like this?

Lukia’s daughter lives in a similar hallway-type room next door, because her mother can’t live alone.

Lukia says the council has offered other temporary accommodation, but she worries about that. She was moved to this hostel from other temporary accommodation, because that accommodation was disgusting:

“They left me there in Romford Road – [that accommodation] was really filthy. We kept on cleaning. We couldn’t do anything. We would have to go through the environmental services… I said I’m not staying in the place. We were about five, six, seven families…. and said you cannot stay in this environment. They all had children. A woman wrote to them – the council – and said, “move these people as soon as possible.” Then, the following day they phoned us and said you have to move…”

What on earth are we doing?

I’d ask Newham Council for a comment on this – in particular, a comment on Lukia’s concerns about jumping and living in a room many stories up – but the council has blacklisted me. There we go.

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Social services said: “we can provide a home for your daughter, but not you.” Homeless women live in fear of having their kids removed

Am transcribing interviews atm – here’s an excerpt from one.

I’m posting this to show again that homeless mothers who ask councils for housing help feel that councils are always threatening to remove their children.

I doubt the well-appointed classes know this fear.

The woman in this interview is Marsha, 30. Her daughter is five. They live together in a single room in a Newham homelessness hostel.

Marsha said that social services told her that they could take her daughter while Marsha “sorted herself out.”

Marsha said that social services frightened her badly with that statement. The council wouldn’t tell her where her daughter might be placed:

“… [they said] it could be anywhere – she’ll just be with, you know, an authorised adult who is eligible to care for her until you sort yourself out.”

Marsha and her daughter in the one room in their hostel

So many of the homeless mothers I talk with live in fear that their council will remove their kids.

They believe that asking councils for housing help is a risk for that reason.

Forget the council’s “we’ll give your child back when you’ve sorted yourself out,” line.

Women worry that they’ll never see their kids again once they’ve been taken into care.

They also know that they’re a long way away from sorting themselves out – from finding housing that is decent, secure and affordable. The only way to secure such housing really is to suddenly come into money. Nobody holds out much hope for that.

Marsha and her daughter were sofa-surfing when Marsha approached the council for housing help.

Marsha was desperate. She was even more desperate when she thought the council might take her daughter. Such are the fears that homeless mothers must deal with as a matter of course.

Said Marsha:

“Social services is telling me – “oh, we can provide a home for your daughter, but not for you.”

“So I am scared. Social services literally said that to me when I first went to social services…I was literally going to Belgrave Court [a homelessness hostel in Newham].

“They said to me that what we can do is we take [your daughter] and we can look after her for you until you sort yourself out and then you can come back and get her.”

“I said if you take [my daughter], can you tell me where she’s going to be?”

“They said – oh no, it could be anywhere. She’ll just be with, you know, an authorised adult who is eligible to care for her until you sort yourself out.”

“I said – “it’s in my child’s best interests for her to be with me. I’m the only person that she knows.”

I’d ask Newham council for comment on this, except that the council has blacklisted me. Too bad for the council. I have a lot more on this story.

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What will happen to my disabled child in austerity after I die? What happens to my adult child who has learning difficulties when I’m not around to advocate?

The post below – Eddie’s story – is an excerpt from a collection of interviews I’ve made since 2014 with people directly affected by benefit cuts and welfare reform.

This collection is being made possible thanks to a Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust grant.

Amiel_Melburn_logo


What happens to my adult child who has learning difficulties when I’m not around to advocate?

Mould in doorway entrance

In my interviews with parents of people with learning difficulties in the past ten years, there was a question which weighed on parents’ minds:

“What will happen to my child when I’m not around to insist that they have housing, income and care?”

This question wasn’t exclusive to austerity, but it took on a new intensity as Cameron-Osborne plans to eradicate public services became obvious.

Parents knew that housing, benefits and care services were being devastated by council funding cuts and welfare reform.

They knew that negotiating austerity’s brutal and labyrinthine public sector bureaucracies for housing, income and care could be devastatingly hard.

“What will happen when my child is an adult alone in austerity?”

That question didn’t really bear thinking about.

—————–

Except that people did think about that question.

I thought about it myself.

I thought about it a lot from about 2014 to 2017, when I came to know Eddie*, a Kilburn man with learning difficulties.

In many ways, Eddie’s life over that time was an answer to that question.

——

Eddie’s story (Eddie’s name has been changed)

Eddie was 51 when we met in 2014.

Eddie had learning and literacy difficulties. He’d received special needs education as a child. Eddie identified as Black British. I knew this, because we filled in a lot of job applications for Eddie together over the years and he always took care with the monitoring parts of the forms.

“I’m British born and bred,” Eddie often said proudly. He said that his parents had come to the UK from Jamaica – part of the Windrush generation.

Eddie had type one diabetes. He injected insulin several times a day. He had trouble managing his diabetes as he aged. He often caught colds and flu. He sometimes struggled to walk, because he had pain in his legs and feet.

Eddie had worked as a kitchen assistant for much of his adult life. He’d been made redundant about six years previously and had not found work again. Eddie signed on for JSA at Kilburn jobcentre. (I met Eddie at the jobcentre during a Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group leafleting session there. KUWG volunteers knew Eddie and gave him a great deal of support over the years. They pushed councils and the DWP to keep Eddie on the radar).

Eddie’s mother had died about a decade earlier: around 2004. Eddie had lived with his mother.

Things began to implode for Eddie several years after his mother’s death. He had to negotiate cash-strapped and dysfunctional public sector bureaucracies on his own. Post 2010, as austerity began to bite, the facts of that began to show.

An austerity state could never replace Eddie’s mother.

There was no question about it. I understood from conversations with Eddie that his mother had been the driving force in his life. She’d made sure that Eddie found work and stayed in work. She’d filled in forms and talked with employers about Eddie’s learning and literacy difficulties. At home, Eddie’s mother had kept their flat organised and clean.

Eddie’s mother was one of the few people who Eddie spoke about with affection.

He often said that he missed his mother.

I began to understand what that meant when I saw how Eddie lived.

——

How people with learning difficulties are expected to live

I took these photos inside Eddie’s Kilburn flat in 2014.

This was how relying on the state in austerity looked for people in Eddie’s situation:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The flat was disgusting – full of mould, dirt and vermin. It was all Eddie could afford.

Eddie relied on housing benefit to pay his entire rent. By this time, housing benefit only covered full private sector rents on London’s shabbiest flats.

Eddie’s private-sector landlord charged Brent council £1000 a month in housing benefit for the Kilburn flat in these pictures.

 

That was a benefits abuse in itself. Eddie’s landlord was paying a Zone 2 London mortgage with the housing benefit he collected by letting such places to councils.

The Kilburn flat had only one room. Eddie’s bed, kitchen, small fridge, washing machine, clothes and belongings were all crammed into that single tiny space. Wet clothes and towels hung from rails and chairs. The floors and benchtops were littered with rubbish, unwashed dishes and rotting food. Mice scuttled under the oven and bed.

Eddie never cleaned the bathroom – ever. There was no window in the bathroom. The whole flat stank of sewerage.

There was one ground-floor door in the flat which lead to a small and filthy backyard. I saw rubbish, used sanitary towels and dead rodents in that backyard. Eddie always kept the door to the yard closed for security. There was a tiny window above the door pane which he never opened. Condensation ran down the inside of the door in rivulets. Thick black mould blossomed inside the flat. It blanketed the walls and the ceiling in the wet air.

“It’s disgusting,” Eddie would say furiously of his accommodation. “I should be in a council flat with a separate kitchen, a separate bedroom. I’m getting sick. Look at this mould on my clothes.”

The noise from neighbouring flats in the house worried Eddie a great deal, too.

Eddie complained that he could hear his neighbours fighting. He called the police several times, because he said that his neighbours had threatened him.

His neighbours, meanwhile, complained that they could hear Eddie and his partner Linda having sex.

The problem was that low-rent flats such as Eddie’s were set in houses of multiple occupation – single houses which owners broke up into tiny rooms to rent out as flats to councils.

These landlords always planned to sell the buildings when the mortgages were finally paid.

Such landlords invested as little in the flats as possible. There was no soundproofing between the rooms. TVs and stereos screamed from each flat. People came and went all day – talking, shouting and slamming doors. The noise went on and on.

Eddie said that noise in the house was made entirely by his neighbours:

“They’re drug dealers. Shouting and yelling. Throwing furniture down the stairs last night. They never go to work. It’s disgusting. I shouldn’t be here.”

Eddie was furious about that.

Eddie was furious about everything.

Eddie’s anger worsened over the years as his living conditions, health and employment prospects deteriorated. He railed and ranted. He was hard to take a lot of the time.

He loathed council housing staff:

“They don’t do anything. They never help,”

He hated the jobcentre staff who he had to report to:

“They’re useless. They should all be sacked.”

He disliked his neighbours:

“They’re drug dealers. Shouting and yelling…they never go to work.”

and he hated immigrants:

“They should be put back where they came from…the problem is like a stray cat. Pick it off the street and then suddenly, you’re a soft touch…British and English people can’t get jobs, or flats, which they should have had, long time…When we had that other bitch in – she was so hard, she wouldn’t allow it. Margaret Thatcher. She was hard, that one. This one [David Cameron] has got no backbone.”

Eddie talked in a monologue which never changed, or ended.

His topics were always the same: he should have a job and a decent home, immigrants should be sent back where they came from, jobcentre and council staff were useless and everyone should be sacked.

—-

In 2015, Eddie was evicted from his Kilburn flat.

Kilburn Unemployed Workers’ Group activists helped Eddie find a similar-sized place – this time in Haringey. One KUWG activist in particular put a great deal of time into trying to solve Eddie’s housing and jobcentre problems. She set up meetings with council officers and pushed councils to provide Eddie with housing and support. She even went as far as to pay the deposit on the Haringey flat out of her own money.

Eddie was evicted from the Haringey flat in 2016.

The Haringey flat – like the Kilburn one – was in ruins at the end of Eddie’s tenancy.

That was because Eddie had exactly the same problems in Haringey as he’d had in Kilburn.

The Haringey flat was tiny – again, it was all that Eddie could afford in London as a housing benefit recipient.

There was only one room in the Haringey flat. The bed, kitchen, living space and all of Eddie’s belongings were crammed into that small, stifling space – a space that he could not air properly, or keep clean:

 

 

 

 

 

 

———————————————–

Continue reading

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Got a voluntary job – and then sacked from the voluntary job, because someone “better” came along… how unemployment rolls. More on #UniversalCredit…

There are longer transcripts from these interviews at the end of this post.

I recorded the two interviews below last Wednesday at the Universal Credit protest outside Stockport jobcentre.

The first interview was with Mark, 46.

Mark signs on at Stockport jobcentre. He receives Universal Credit. I’ve spoken with Mark before.

The last time I spoke with Mark, he was pissed off, because the jobcentre wouldn’t let him use a jobcentre phone to make a call about a voluntary job at a local cafe.

This time, Mark was pissed off, because he’d managed to get that voluntary job, but had just been sacked from it.

The person who’d taken him on had received three more applications for the role and had obviously decided that one of applicants was an improvement on Mark.

To Mark’s surprise, he was told that he’d never actually got the job, even though he was very sure that he had. He was told that his few weeks in the job were actually meant as a sort of training course. This so-called “training course” had suddenly come to an end, which meant that Mark had to go.

This explanation for Mark’s dismissal was clearly made-up-on-the-spot garbage, but Mark had to wear it. This “We Want You – No, We Don’t Want You,” stuff happens all the time to people who are out of work:

Mark said:

“I’m getting nowhere fast… I landed it [the voluntary job] myself at the housing office, didn’t I. The coffee shop. Got sacked two weeks ago… I lasted 11 [sic] weeks. She sacked me two weeks ago. Apparently, she got three more job applications… [they said it was a] training course… it wasn’t training. I put in for a job… [then] she said it was training. I did 11 weeks and they sacked us.”

So, there was that.

Since we were there and since there’s nothing else in the news, I asked Mark what he thought of Brexit negotiations. I usually ask people this, to see how people who are most affected by austerity feel as the Brexit shambles progresses (if “progresses” is the word).

Mark said:

“Brexit? It’s a joke. I’m sick of hearing about it. It’s pissed. [We’ve been in the EU] for 40 years. How do you untangle that? I can understand why David Cameron, [George] Osborne walked out of it. They only put it [the referendum] out for a joke, but now it’s for real…

“I kind of wanted to stay [in Europe], so I put the opposite vote in for it, because I thought we [people without money] would get shafted either way. So, I voted for Leave, but I didn’t really mean it…it doesn’t make any difference. We’re still going to let every fucker over here. We still going to have people buying BMWs and foreign cheese and wine. It’s not going to make no difference. It’s just about… how much more do we pay for the privilege of buying it all?”

So, there was that as well.

The next interview was with Steve, 17

Steve was standing across the road from the jobcentre in a group of five or six kids. They had noticed the Universal Credit protest banners outside the jobcentre. They were waving at the protestors outside the jobcentre and yelling “Free the weed! Free the weed!”

Continue reading

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Why can’t Labour decide where the hell it is at on Universal Credit? Hello?

Update at the end of this post

Readers of this site will know that last week, Stockport council’s cabinet agreed that full council would vote next meeting on a motion which called on the government to halt the Universal Credit rollout.

Such a motion would hardly strike terror into Tory hearts, but it was marginally better than eff-all, so I wrote it down in my notebook seeing as I had a spare half-page and was at the meeting.

It’s all turned to turds, anyway.

On Wednesday, I attended the Stockport United Against Austerity protest against the launch of Universal Credit at Stockport jobcentre (the UC rollout started in Stockport on Wednesday).

A Labour councillor name of Laura Booth was there. She told me that councillors were still fighting about the wording of the Universal Credit motion they’d vote on.

Some wanted to vote to Stop and Scrap Universal Credit. Others still wanted to go with Pause and Fix – as though anyone on the planet thinks that’s even possible. Pause where? And Fix what?

Universal Credit is a disaster from beginning to end. Fiddling around with little bits will achieve nothing. You know the one about trying to polish a turd? That.

Anyway.

Don’t you just want to destroy the world.


Update:

God help us all.

This is the motion (page 8) on Universal Credit going to the full Stockport council meeting on 29 November. The motion calls for the council’s chief executive to write to Amber Rudd to request a pause to the Universal Credit rollout. Bet that’ll worry her.

This is hopeless. Tells you where Labour is on Universal Credit, though.

From the council’s 29 November agenda:

Motion (iv) Universal Credit

This Council notes:
– cross-party backing for the principles behind Universal Credit (UC), including the
amalgamation of benefits, access via one application portal and ensuring work always pays;
– the work of this Council and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to help and support people in
relation to navigating the changing benefits system and mitigating the risks of change; and
– that despite this, the Government’s approach to UC rollout has raised significant concern in relation to monthly payments in arrears, overuse of sanctions, the pacing of transition and rollout; opacity in relation to the benefits entitlement, and cuts to the benefits system which are not reflective of need.

This Council further notes concerning reports that for many people, this has led to:

– exacerbated poverty and hardship, in particular for those living with disabilities;
– increased poverty for low income working families;
– people having to choose between food and rent;
– indebtedness due to delayed payments;
– increased rent arrears for tenants in social and private housing relating to the removal of the former direct payments system;
– making it harder for victims of domestic abuse to escape relationships;
– disadvantages for non-IT literate people; and
– instances where these factors have led to loss of employment.

This Council believes that

– measures contained in the recent Budget to provide resources to help improve the taper and help with return to work are to be welcomed, but as the Children’s Society has noted, they do not and cannot fully address the aforementioned concerns;
– as such, this Budget represented a missed opportunity to bring in both these measures immediately and pause Universal Credit rollout completely, allowing for the full review needed to fully address these problems.

This Council therefore resolves to:
– continue to work with partner organisations to mitigate as far as possible the risks and
challenges associated with this month’s UC rollout;
– request that the Chief Executive write to the Secretary of State for Work & Pensions urging a pause to further rollout of the ‘Full Service’ system;
– in that letter, emphasise the need to address all of the above points, with particular emphasis on ending the current system of monthly payments in arrears; and
– request that the Chief Executive write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer requesting that funding be urgently found to address the needs of UC recipients and plug the wait times gap.

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#UniversalCredit rolls out in Stockport this week. Bloody battles loom over this disaster

Universal Credit rolls out here in Stockport this week. People making new benefit claims will have to claim Universal Credit from this Wednesday.

This will be a disaster. The whole benefits scene already is.

Readers of this site will know that I’ve been interviewing Universal Credit and other benefit claimants at Stockport jobcentre for much of this year. Stockport United Against Austerity holds regular demonstrations outside the jobcentre, which I join. I interview people who sign on at the jobcentre as they come and go.

Stories of sanctions (sometimes one following straight after another and lasting for months) are already all too common among people who use that jobcentre.

People already talk about delays to the start of benefit claims and problems accessing much-needed assistance. I’ve talked with people who’ve been years out of work and can’t get basic help to secure voluntary jobs. Some already claim Universal Credit. Some claim JSA or ESA.

Stockport jobcentre is the only jobcentre in the borough. You’re dreaming if you think that the jobcentre has the staff or resources to manage a tide of complex Universal Credit claims.

Funds for people in poverty are being targeted for cuts even as Universal Credit rolls out

There’ll be a great deal of local attention on Universal Credit in Stockport in the coming months.

Stockport United Against Austerity is campaigning to stop and scrap Universal Credit.

Last week, the Stockport council cabinet agreed to a SUAA demand for full council to vote to call for a halt to the Universal Credit rollout. Council votes on that motion at next week’s full council meeting.

The council needs to do a great deal more than that.

It is not. Quite the reverse.

As we speak, Stockport council is preparing to plunge the borough’s poorest citizens into further hardship.

The council is consulting on plans to close its local welfare assistance fund – the all-important stopgap fund for people who are in extreme financial difficulties and who can’t afford food or basic household items.

This is an extraordinary step to take at exactly the time when Universal Credit is rolled out locally with its built-in debt problems and inevitable setting up of people for serious rent arrears.

Protest this Wednesday

Join Stockport United Against Austerity, Charlotte Hughes and supporters from Disabled People Against Cuts at a protest calling for the scrapping of Universal Credit this week at:

10am-11am
Wednesday 21 November 2018
Stockport jobcentre
Heron House
Wellington Street
SK1 3BE

Regular demonstrations and interviewing will continue outside the jobcentre in the coming months.

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Councils to vote on calling for halt to Universal Credit rollout. Better than nothing although not really.

Attended the Stockport council cabinet meeting last night, where Stockport United Austerity asked if the council would vote to call on government to halt the Universal Credit rollout at its next (29 November) meeting.

The Cabinet said it would.

Which was something, I suppose. Leeds City Council has or is doing the same. If more (how about all) Labour led councils followed suit, that might be a look.

We need something a sight more radical from councils though. I doubt that a few strongly worded letters to government re: the problems with Universal Credit will cut it. Universal Credit rolls out in Stockport on 21 November.

As we speak, the council is considering removing the local welfare assistance scheme which was one of the last threads in the shredded social security safety net. Doesn’t bode well for support for people in extreme financial hardship when Universal Credit really hits.

Update: I didn’t word this brilliantly in the first post. It’s a vote to call on government to halt the rollout of Universal Credit.

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Universal Credit is not the only horror show in town. The entire benefits system is wrecked. I’ll show you.

Fact: Universal Credit is NOT the only benefit which plunges people into debt and desperation.

The entire benefit system is a wreck. Years of staff cuts, privatisation, jobcentre closures, sanctions, benefit delays and a brutal institutional contempt for claimants have left people reeling in a system that can’t even do the basics.

Universal Credit hasn’t gone wrong. It has gone exactly as planned. The application process is difficult. It excludes anyone who can’t use a PC, or navigate complex public sector bureaucracies. It has built-in delays which leave people in debt – rent arrears, in particular. Universal Credit strikes terror into anyone who might need it. Its depravity is entirely in keeping with welfare reform.

I understand why activists target Universal Credit. Universal Credit is a vicious ideological project which will adversely affect millions of working people (potential voters, that is). It has cost billions and will cost more. Its failures can be laid firmly at the door of Tory extremism.

The truth is, though, that every part of the safety net is in shreds. No politician will fix that easily. I’m not convinced that the electorate even wants the net fixed for a lot of people. Chaminda had that right. Destruction of welfare reflects an electorate view of the poorest. I’ve often spoken with people who are struggling mightily, but who agree with some degree of welfare reform. They receive benefits, but say that too many people get benefits when they shouldn’t.

——

Computer Says No

Let’s take a look at a few typical experiences of people who sign on (or try to) at Stockport jobcentre. I attend Stockport United Against Austerity leafleting sessions at that jobcentre and interview people as they come out. Universal Credit rollout starts at Stockport this month. The jobcentre already has some UC claimants.

The interviews below were all made this year. I’ve picked three at random. Readers of this site will know that I have many others.

The theme of these interviews? – Exclusion. Each person went into the jobcentre with an issue and came out with the same issue. Nothing was fixed, or solved. People were no closer to answers to problems than they were when they went in. This is so commonplace that it is standard.

Here’s Kerry:

Kerry was in her 30s. She was out of work. She was trying to sign on for jobseekers’ allowance while she looked for work. Kerry Anne had a job interview set for the Tuesday after we met.

Kerry had filled in a JSA application form. Then, she’d received a DWP text which instructed her to attend a meeting at Stockport jobcentre to complete her JSA claim.

Kerry had turned up to the meeting – only to be told that her paperwork wasn’t adequate. An adviser told Kerry she needed three forms of ID to claim JSA. The meeting ended there.

When I met Kerry, she was standing outside the jobcentre trying to guess what the adviser was on about. Kerry didn’t have three forms of ID. Nobody does. The adviser had not explained what she’d meant.

Upshot: Kerry left the jobcentre no closer to JSA than she’d been when she arrived. She had no idea how to complete her application and no idea when – or even if – she’d get any money.

That sort of scenario is absolutely par for the course. One person after another leaves that jobcentre trying to work out what in hell to do next. There really are times when it feels as though people who try to claim benefits are forced participants in a hellish gameshow challenge – where the prize for navigating one obstacle is a cryptic hint about the next one. The thing is ridiculous. It goes on and on.

Next up: a man in his 30s called Steve.

Steve needed help to buy a cheap pram. Steve and his partner had a baby, but they couldn’t afford a pram for him. Without a pram, they just carried the baby around town.

On the day we met, the couple had asked the jobcentre for a social fund loan. The jobcentre said they couldn’t have one. Advisers said Steve was paying back another loan. Steve insisted that he wasn’t. This went on for a while. The jobcentre wouldn’t budge.

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#UniversalCredit, sanctions, rent arrears, radiation therapy, 8 people living in one small flat…what the hell does this achieve?

When will modern society work out that hating and bullying people in poverty doesn’t eradicate poverty?

Last Wednesday, I spent several hours at Oldham foodbank, speaking with people who’d come in for food parcels. I visit Oldham foodbank from time to time.

On Wednesday, I had a long talk with Mel (name changed), 47. There’s a full transcript from that interview at the end of this article.

I’m posting this interview for a specific reason.

Mel and her family were on the receiving end of a great deal of government and public bile.

I want to show you how that looks from Mel’s side of the fence:

Mel talked about being patronised by frontline officers and targeted by people in the neighbourhood.

Universal Credit officers dismissed Mel when she rang the helpline because her benefits weren’t paid: “He [the DWP officer] said, “there’s thousands like you. You’re not the only one.”

A neighbour had dobbed Mel in with authorities – I think for housing extra family members in her flat.

A secretary at a local school had called Mel’s children and grandchildren dirty: “I didn’t actually punch her…I’m not a violent person but…yeah.”

The list went on. It usually does.

That’s the point I want to focus on here.

I know precisely what government and a judgmental electorate would say about Mel’s family. They would call Mel and her family scroungers. They would hate on the family and think – “Job Done. That’ll Learn Them.” (It’s only a pity that bailed-out bankers aren’t punished as thoroughly for their money-handling problems). Such is our era. The general view is that all that people in Mel’s situation need to sort things out is a kick in the head.

I don’t believe that bashing people when they’re already down is a brilliant social policy tactic. What I do know is that Mel and her family were being crushed by the dysfunctional and abusive public sector bureaucracies that they relied on. That part was absolutely not Mel’s fault. That part was society’s fault. Society approves of institutional aggression towards the worst off and likes to describe people in poverty as barbaric if they respond badly to that aggression. That’s how things roll for the Mels of the modern world.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Mel was ill. She said that she was having radiation therapy. She looked sick. She was tiny and gaunt, and her hair was thinning. She kept saying that she looked old. She was upset about it.

“I’ve got two weeks left of radiation… two weeks left of treatment, three times a week. I look old.”

There were other problems, too – like Mel needed them.

One problem was that Mel was receiving Universal Credit. Universal Credit’s defective payment systems had caused Mel no end of grief. For example: Mel had rent arrears. She couldn’t understand why, because the housing costs component of her Universal Credit was paid straight to her landlord. Her rent should have been covered. It hadn’t been at one point or another, and she didn’t know why. Mel kept getting letters from First Choice Homes about the arrears. She couldn’t repay the money. She would never be able to repay the money. The demand letters kept coming. This happens too often to mention. The threats roll in and roll in. There’s no respite. The debts never end.

So, there was that.

Another problem was that Mel’s flat was overcrowded. Her children and grandchildren were staying with her, because they had nowhere else to go.

Mel said she had seven (sometimes eight) people living in her two-bedroom flat. There was Mel, her five-year-old daughter, her 26-year-old daughter, the daughter’s partner and their three kids (and sometimes another daughter, I think Mel said). The 26-year-old daughter and her family had recently been evicted from their flat, because the landlord had wanted to sell.

There was more.

At the moment, the family relied on Mel’s benefit money to pay for food and clothes. Mel’s daughter had applied for Universal Credit, but had only received one payment in ten months. Continue reading

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