Old problems and new: advising people on benefits issues at Tower Hamlets’ food banks

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We know that up to two-thirds of the people turning to the foodbank for help are having problems with the benefits system. That’s why since August 2013, a CPAG adviser funded by the Pears Foundation has been working in a foodbank centre in Tower Hamlets, helping people resolve the benefit problems which have brought them there, and gathering evidence about how and why people use foodbanks.

As the result of Big Lottery funding, in the past few weeks we’ve now expanded from one to three welfare rights advisers, and I’m one of the new advisers. As a result, we are now able to operate in more foodbank outlets across Tower Hamlets and assist more people to overcome their problems with the benefit system.

A typical day might involve helping a client challenge benefits sanctions, arranging short term benefit advances for a client waiting for their benefit to be assessed and requesting appeals for clients found to be well enough to work. Our aim is always to resolve the problem on the spot so the client doesn’t need to turn to the foodbank again.

After spending two years away from frontline advice, I’ve enjoyed getting to grips with real benefits problems again. Welfare reform has brought several new challenges in the time I have been away; some recurrent problems are unfortunately a lot more familiar.

Universal Credit brought me bang up to date: The new benefit has been rolled out in Tower Hamlets since February – albeit for a very few claimants who meet the “gateway conditions”. We’ve already met a couple of foodbank users who have managed to get through the application procedure for Universal Credit despite clearly not meeting these gateway conditions.

Both clients were left in limbo while they waited for a decision on their claim and turned to the foodbanks in desperation. We called the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and pointed out that you can’t claim Universal Credit in Tower Hamlets (and most of the rest of the country) if you are sick or not a British citizen - or disabled, or a student, or a parent, or a couple, or a carer, or homeless… the list is quite long.

Our clients were quickly off Universal Credit and back onto Employment and Support Allowance and we made sure they were paid Employment and Support Allowance from the day they claimed Universal Credit. It’s clear to us that as Universal Credit goes live nationwide, advisers are going to need to know exactly who can claim in their area and who to call when problems crop up.

I was in more familiar territory when I met Mel in Bethnal Green last week. Mel has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder and her Jobseeker’s Allowance was sanctioned as she was missing Work Programme appointments. We challenged the sanction, arguing Mel had “good reason” for the missed appointments: the Work Programme provider hadn’t paid Mel travel expenses since January (despite their contractual obligations to do so). Mel was out of money and had no option other than a two hour walk to-and-from the provider’s office every week. Her breathing problems meant she was sometimes close to collapse in the street and had to turn back.

Mel’s good reason was accepted and the sanction was lifted. The DWP agreed to make a same-day payment of the backdated benefit that she was owed after three weeks with no income. The next day Mel received… just over £6! More phone calls and trips to the bank followed as a bank holiday with (virtually) no money loomed. A contact at the DWP office eventually made sure Mel’s money was paid late on Friday evening.

This was a salutary reminder for me (but no surprise to foodbank users): no matter how welfare reforms take shape in the next five years, until the DWP get the basics right and the system does what it promises, vulnerable families will be forced to turn to foodbanks when their money runs out.