Author: kirstyagoodall

Are food banks always a good thing?

Are food banks always a good thing?

I don’t think anyone would argue that our increasing reliance on food banks in this country is a good thing. But to talk in negative terms about food banks in general and the service they offer would, I suspect, be a far less popular viewpoint.

One of the council’s roles is to support those North Lanarkshire residents who are most in need which clearly includes someone who can’t afford to pay for their next meal. So any argument from us that isn’t obviously in favour of foodbanks might appear rather incongruous and before you’ve heard us out, just plain wrong. However the media aren’t letting up and some really good progress, which could lead to a whole lot more great progress, is being overshadowed because of this. The time has come to say our piece.

There have been endless headlines over the last few years talking of the dramatic increase in foodbanks across the country and of the number of people whose hunger and poverty have driven them to seek out the food parcels that these charities provide. New foodbanks have opened across many towns in Scotland as people struggle to cope with welfare cuts and a general climate of austerity. And donation points have become a regular feature in most supermarkets.

But do we really need all these foodbanks? Or rather, shouldn’t we be seeking to NOT need them rather than accepting them as a necessary growth sector?

Our argument would be that whilst foodbanks will probably always have a place in society as they have done in one form or another throughout history, they should remain small local charities that deal with the exceptional situations, not national organisations opening branches across the country and creating a new social norm. We need to be looking at the reasons why someone can’t afford to put food on the table and trying to put these right.

Unfortunately tackling the issues isn’t nearly as easy as handing out a food parcel. I’m not for a second suggesting we should withhold food from people who are hungry and desperate. What I am trying to do is present the views of colleagues who work so hard to provide practical support and empower residents to be in a better position to help themselves.

The problem is that our welfare system is complicated, under resourced and almost certainly flawed. But at least we do at this stage still have one and whilst it’s there we must make full use of it. If we start to rely on temporary fixes, which bypass the system and depend on goodwill, the system will break down and then we’ll really be in trouble.

Back in 2014 when it was apparent that there had been a huge increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks for help, we set about looking at what we could do to improve the situation. The council got together with the NHS, local advice centres, food bank charities and any other agencies with an interest in addressing the issue locally. Unsurprisingly we all agreed that it was important to establish and tackle the route of the problem, as well as offering a food parcel to alleviate the immediate crisis.

This agreement led to us setting up a system of referrals where all the local agencies (or at least most of them – Rome wasn’t built in a day!) work together to ensure that every avenue has been explored to tackle the longer terms problems and give at least some power back to the individual. I could go into a long explanation of how our system works but I’m not sure this is the place – though if anyone is interested in knowing the details of our Food Referral Pathway, just ask as we have loads of information about it. The important thing to know is that the number of people being sent to food banks in North Lanarkshire has, since we adopted this approach, reduced by 24%. This completely bucks the national trend and is surely a very good news story. And our hope and increasing belief is that this trend will continue.

So I suppose what we’re saying is, let’s not always look for the instant short-term fix. Food banks have a very important place in society as an absolute last resort. But if we can all work together to give people the help they need to understand and use the system as it’s meant to be used, then food banks shouldn’t need to be a growth area and surely that’s something we should all be striving for?

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The benefits maze – and how to get through it

The benefits maze – and how to get through it

Okay so there’s no way round it, many of us will, at some stage or stages in our lives have to approach the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and ask for help. Sadly the systems in place set up to provide that help are often complicated, far from intuitive and they keep changing, so even if you’ve had previous experience of applying for benefits, chances are the goal posts have shifted since then.

And in the current climate there is a definite sense that the systems are designed to find a reason to turn claims down. It’s not rocket science really – with welfare cuts amounting to £30billion there is obviously less cash to hand out. However, we do still live in a country that offers welfare support and funds are supposed to be available to those in greatest need. Remember also that our team has successfully generated more than £100m for NL residents from DWP claims over the last 5 years. Some of these are as a result of identifying benefits that residents didn’t know they were entitled to, but others are claims that the DWP had initially turned down. So no doesn’t always mean no if you know how to navigate your way and who to ask when you need help.

Every claim is different, there are loads of different benefits and rules vary between them so it would be impossible to give all the answers here. What I can do is to run through some common issues that it would really help you to be aware of if you want to avoid hassle and receive all that you are entitled to.

Applications…

For most benefits you’ll need to complete an application. Unsurprisingly these can be quite complicated so get help if you are at all unsure. Advisers like our welfare rights staff and those working within Citizens Advice Bureaux know about the scoring systems used to assess applications so can help to ensure that you include all the important things.

Assessments and Claimant Commitments…

For some benefits the assessment is a simple process of reviewing the information you have provided on the form. For others a telephone interview or a face to face meeting will be required. And if the benefit is dependent on a health condition or disability you might be asked to attend a medical assessment. Our welfare rights colleagues would strongly advise that you seek advice from an independent source in advance of any meeting.

Benefits like Job Seekers Allowance require that you meet with a DWP job coach to agree a set of weekly targets. These targets will make up your ‘claimant commitment’ which you will be asked to sign. You will be expected to achieve these targets and provide evidence of this. It is extremely important that you don’t agree to something that you are unlikely to achieve because it could affect your payments. Seek advice in advance of your meeting and consider taking someone with you on the day.

Sanctions…

For some benefits if you fail to meet your obligations you may be sanctioned, which means that some or all of your benefit will be stopped for a specified period of time. For example, if you miss a meeting with your job coach or fail to apply for as many jobs in a week as you agreed to in your Claimant Commitment, you could lose money. Just remember that you always have the right to appeal a decision.

Appeals and Mandatory Reconsiderations…

If you have been unsuccessful in applying for a benefit or have been sanctioned, you always have the right to challenge the decision. The first stage of this process is to request a Mandatory Reconsideration. If you are at all unhappy with the decision it is important that you request this reconsideration as soon as possible after you have received the letter. If you don’t make your request within a month of the date on your decision or sanction letter, you may lose any right to appeal. The process normally involves a phone call from the DWP followed by a letter confirming the ‘reconsidered’ decision. If you are still unhappy, our guys would strongly urge you to seek help to guide you through the full appeals process.

Not much fun, all this requesting reconsiderations etc. It can be time consuming and tedious but sadly there are no shortcuts. Always consider getting help though – our welfare rights guys and their counterparts in the charitable sector are used to all these cumbersome processes and can help make the experience a lot less gruelling than it might otherwise be.

So if you do have questions, feel free to post them here but if they relate to a specific claim you might need to sit down with a Local Social Work Officer, Housing Advisor or an Independent Advice provider. You can get a full list of options on our website at http://www.northlanarkshire.gov.uk/yourmoney or you can call our Your Money line on 01698 403170. Alternatively, call in at your local Citizens Advice Bureau and they too can point you in the right direction.

Good luck.

 

 

 

Welfare Reform, what’s been and what’s coming

Welfare Reform, what’s been and what’s coming

Some of you may have noticed my deliberate mistake. Turns out it really is a further £30billion that’s still to be saved and not the £25billion that I quoted in my last blog post – at least I can’t be accused of exaggerating the facts. Sadly that’s not even the full picture since the on-going cuts to local authority budgets will inevitably compound the issue by removing resource from services designed to help people who are struggling. Not that I wish to sound overly defeatist – councils across the country are no doubt doing their best to ensure that cuts don’t affect service delivery, but there is, inevitably, a limit.

It’s by no means a pretty picture, though most will agree that there was a need for reform of some description, and the policy makers down in Westminster do have a whole ideology for the future of welfare which the planned changes are supposed to support. The on-going political mudslinging hasn’t helped in keeping track of how welfare reform in its current form has come to be. So, without getting too embroiled in the detail, here’s my attempt at a short synopsis of where we were and how exactly we got from there to here.

If history bores you, or you’re quite clear on how we arrived at today, skip the next 3 paragraphs!

Once upon a time, the banks gave out too many loans to people who would find it hard to pay them back. This put huge pressure on banks, leading to the commonly referred to ‘credit crunch’ of 2007. The effect of this went on to cause serious global issues in the financial industry – remember queues outside the Northern Rock and a £37billion (tax payers money) bailout package to rescue the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB and HBOS? In other parts of the world things were even more dramatic – the result, in 2008, being the worst global banking crisis since 1929.

During the next year the country officially entered recession, our interest rates were reduced to half a percent and in 2010 the new Coalition Government turned the spotlight on public spending as an alternative explanation for the state the country was in. To be fair, the labour government had already introduced the idea of reform by proposing to replace Incapacity Benefit with Employment Support Allowance in 2008. But the budget of 2010 went far further than this, proposing reforms that were designed to “reward work and protect the most vulnerable” whilst making the benefit and tax credit system “fairer and more affordable”.

There followed many months of discussion and consultation and frankly widespread opposition to the proposed plans. But eventually, having invoked a centuries old law to overrule the House of Lords’ rejection of the bill (a law that had only ever been invoked 6 times before), the government passed the bill, which we now know as the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

Since the passing of the bill we’ve seen some big headlines in the media around the Bedroom Tax, the Benefit Cap, cuts to Child Benefit, the demise of Disability Living Allowance and the introduction of Personal Independent Payments, Ian Duncan Smith’s very own ethos changing Universal Credit, and, most recently, the debates about Working Tax Credit. How is it then that so little progress has been made in making the savings that have been planned? £2.5billion amounts to less than a tenth of what’s to come!

On closer inspection it seems that although big new benefits like Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment have been introduced, they have yet to be rolled out to the majority of those who are likely to be eligible. So the country is, essentially, running a dual benefit system and will continue to do so for several years to come – not the most cost effective approach but possibly inevitable given the extent of the changes.

I should say at this point that changes resulting from the Smith Commission Report are potentially so significant in terms of the additional powers they give to the Scottish Government that it’s difficult at this stage to predict how the passage of welfare reform across Scotland will be affected. But even allowing for this, we’ve got to expect to feel a big change over the next few years. And, as is so often the case, the devil is undoubtedly in the detail.

When I was planning this blog, I had envisaged a timeline providing details of exactly what will happen when. However I now see that this would amount to listing a whole host of adjustments to current payments, each of which would require an additional description to make any sense and which will almost certainly be subject to change – not exactly a riveting read, or of much real use! Age limits are adjusted, taper rates are increased, caps are capped, backdate options are reduced, rates are frozen, eligibility criteria are changing… you get the picture I’m sure.

There are a few big hitters. Universal Credit is one and I think we’ll leave that for another post. It’s still in the very early stages of implementation so we’ve got a bit of time there. Another is Personal Independence Payment – PIP. This has been around for a while now but the transfer of current claimants of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) over to PIP has only just begun.

The transfer is taking place randomly across the UK. So at any time over the next few years, if you currently receive DLA, regardless of whether you have a ‘life time award’, you will receive a letter inviting you to claim PIP. Some may find the content a little misleading – the reality is that if you receive this letter, you must either submit a claim or submit a request for an extension within 4 weeks of the date on the letter, or your benefit will be stopped. So it’s not so much an invitation as an instruction. If you know anyone who receives DLA please pass on the message to keep an eye out for this letter and to seek help from the council or an independent advice agency if they are at all unsure about what they should be doing.

We’ll make sure and flag up any imminent changes on this blog as the details emerge and of course if you have any questions in particular you can comment here, visit our website at northlanarkshire.gov.uk/yourmoney or call our Your Money line on 01698 403170.

Next time we’ll be looking at how to navigate your way round the benefit system – successfully.

Bye for now.

 

 

Welfare reform – and why we really need to care

Welfare reform – and why we really need to care

Writing a blog about welfare reform has been on my ‘to do’ list for a while and yet somehow I’ve struggled to get round to it. It’s not like we can stop the big guns in Westminster from making the cuts so why rub salt into wounds by banging on about it?

Well, the reason we persist, the reason why I’m finally tackling this task, is because whilst change is inevitable, if you know what’s coming and where the pitfalls lie, you are better placed to make the best of it and help the people you care about to do the same.

Already we’re seeing young people in North Lanarkshire being sanction and losing out on weeks, or even months worth of money, when in some cases this could have been avoided just by knowing how it all works.

To give you an idea, since 2010 our guys in Welfare Rights have helped residents from North Lanarkshire claim well over £100million in benefits that they would not otherwise have had. And that’s just because we know the system.

The simple fact is that we want North Lanarkshire residents to be okay. We want them to have as much money as they are entitled to. We don’t want our young people to be sanctioned and have to beg from a friend or family member. We don’t want anyone to miss out on an entitlement that they didn’t realise they could claim. We want, wherever possible, to help you challenge sanctions and understand the system. We want, in a nutshell, whatever we can get for North Lanarkshire residents.

But it’s all so confusing. The media blow some things way out of proportion while completely ignoring others. And there’s been so much rubbish written about claiming benefits – phrases like ‘scrounger’ and ‘freeloader’ being bandied around by people who clearly haven’t ever had to pass on dinner so their kids can eat.

My job is to figure out how to tell you what’s going on – to provide straightforward, unbiased information which you can use to work out how to be prepared for the changes that are coming and avoid things being harder than they have to be. And we have been trying – quite hard actually! But the goal posts keep shifting. Changes have been delayed, changes have been changed and we just don’t think that many folk have been ready to listen.

Even without these shifts the messages are unpalatable – I mean who wants to hear bad news before they have to?  The worst of it is that, despite the sharp rise in people visiting food banks and the first increase for years in people sleeping rough, the majority of the welfare changes haven’t even happened yet.

The Government plan is to save £25.5 billion within the next 5 years. The total saved from changes made so far is a mere £2.5 billion. So we’ve got a long way to go.

CORP_00982 welfare reform info graphic2

And there still isn’t clarity about when the outstanding changes will be made.  ‘Sometime’ in the next 4 years is about as much as any of us have to work with.

So, back to the point of this blog. We thought  it might be a handy, not to mention affordable way of conveying some of the finer details that often get lost but which you may really need to be aware of – a way of letting you know when it looks like a decision is about to be made about transferring people from an old benefit to a new one, or when the criteria for a new benefit are clarified.

It may ramble on a bit from time to time because we’re trying to cover the stuff that isn’t yet certain. But it will be true, up to date and our best attempt to give you the facts as soon as we know them. If you have questions about anything we post, by all means comment on the blog, or use one of the many contact numbers that we’ll include a link to.

At the moment this is just a trial. We’ll go for 6 months and see if it helps. If it doesn’t, we’ll pack it in and try something else.

We want to talk a bit about food and how to avoid not having it. We want to discuss money and how to have it. We need to look at how benefits work. Headings like Sanctions, Claimant Commitments, Manadatory Reconsiderations are horrible, clumsy names for processes that you really do need to know about since this knowledge could be the difference between receiving a benefit and not.

We also want to guide you in where to get any help you may need to keep you healthy and on track. And that’s just for starters! Other things will no doubt pop up as the DWP moves forward with the many changes that have been agreed but have yet to be fully implemented.

If there are any subjects you would like us to try and cover, comment here or give us a call. You can also obtain details of where to go for help and advice using the contact details below.

Call our Your Money information line on 01698 403170 or visit us at northlanarkshire.gov.uk/yourmoney

Be back soon!