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Supporting Families & Communities in Cwmtawe

By

Dear Mr Osborne

(and you can read-along, too, Mr Balls)

There is an important lever of economic management you’re both ignoring.

The poorer a citizen is, the more their expenditure benefits everyone.

They won’t save it (although they may use some to pay down debt, or at least hold creditors at bay.) They’ll spend it.

And they mostly won’t spend it on trendy consumables. They’ll spend most of it on basics – food, shoes, clothes, transport. You know, the stuff they need they can currently barely afford. So increase the spending power of the poor, the fairly poor, the less well-off….., and you’re basically giving the whole economy a sensible, controlled boost. There will be a lot of people just that much better off, better-fed, better-clothed.  Trade and employment can only benefit. And somewhere along the line, your tax receipts will perk up, too. Something for everyone – what’s not to like ?

And this doesn’t have to be state-funded (though you must know in your hearts that current rates of what was once called Social Security are shamefully low, and more generous benefit rates would also promote all the above effects listed above).

No, the main oomph could come from one simple source: higher wages at the bottom. (I know, I know……….squeals of pain and statesmanlike intimations of doom from some employers – but in truth the argument about the minimum wage. was won 15 years ago. And one day the living wage will seem a self-evident truth, too )

The case for making low pay as defensible as drink-driving has two legs – which is good. We’re all human ( I do try to believe you are, George), not stools.

The first leg is this. What right does anyone have to go into trade for profit (and have his trade confederation  plead the iron laws of profitability)  if his or her enterprise is not in fact profitable ? And that costing has to include buying in the necessary labour at a rate which allows the labourers to live on their wages, without state subsidy.

And the second leg is the argument set out above – steady expenditure by the majority in society who can afford to save, or spend on sillies, only marginally, if at all, is the bread, the staff, of economic life. It is good for everyone, (including the employers and entrepreneurs, provided they choose their services and  products sensibly).

All of this a propos of an excellent article by Katie Allen in today’s Observer, which I commend to all our readers: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/oct/26/lowest-paid-rise-productivity-puzzle-low-wage-growth-uk

3 selected quotes from the article – but please do read it for yourself.

” Labour says average wages after inflation are down £1,600 a year since 2010. Another estimate, from Professor Paul Gregg at the University of Bath, is £5,000 a year. Real wages are some 20% below where they would be had trend wage growth continued over the past six years, he says.”

“The Resolution Foundation has also looked at ordinary workers experiencing growth without gain. Its Commission on Living Standards highlighted distribution changes. In 1977, of every £100 of value generated in the UK economy, workers in the bottom half of the earnings distribution received £16 as wages; by 2010 this share had fallen to £12. Workers in the top 10% increased their share of value from £12 to £14 over the same period.”

“One solution to this problem of low and falling pay that is not talked about enough is simply to pay more at the bottom. How do you that before productivity rises? You do it so that productivity will rise.”

By

Autumn Review 2014

Not so long ago, at the beginning of this year. here at CATCH,  we felt rather embattled.
We were going into the second half of our first year of operation. It was clear that there was a need locally for what we were trying to do, and that there was some support in the community for us as we did it.

But as our experience lengthened, and perhaps particularly after the local Job Centre started sending people to us, so did our understanding of just how bad things were for many people in Cwmtawe – and how much of that hardship was fairly clearly due to deliberate Westminster policy at various levels. We felt we had to bear witness – it was in fact part of our mission statement that we should do so. We had set up the website. And yet, inevitably, actually running the food bank took up most of available volunteer time, and the publishing and campaigning aspect came a poor second.

It was a David and Goliath situation, a recipe for both bitter anger, and frustration.

As we approach the last quarter of 2104, there are, perhaps, some crumbs of comfort. The actual situation hasn’t changed for the better (see previous blog, re Job Centre withdrawal from cooperation). But there are perhaps some reasons to feel that the terms of public perception and debate are beginning to shift.

It is, for example, beginning to approach accepted wisdom, however much the Westminster government fights it, that we are still in the longest squeeze of general living standards for 150 years. And even the government’s own watchdogs have this month reported that child poverty has increased again dramatically (even though, again, ministers pop up on TV to deny it) and is set to get worse – see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/state-of-the-nation-2014-report-published.  There have been several useful interventions from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Mosty recently, for example, look at http://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/2014/09/sanctions “Benefits sanctions are adding to bleak prospects for young people ” by Dr Beth Watts, who  is a Research Fellow the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Environment and Real Estate, Heriot-Watt University. She is currently working on an ESRC-funded project exploring the ethics and effectiveness of welfare conditionality.

The very day I am writing this, The News Statesman has made available online a long and thoughtful article on the whole food bank phenomenon – and while some may regard the New Statesman as ‘one of the usual suspects’, the original source of the article is not – it is by James Harrison, Associate Professor in the School of Law at the University of Warwick,  and Co-Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice, and was originally published in the magazine Lacuna. Find it at http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/10/foodbank-dilemma.

On the ground, however, the situation remains as challenging as ever. Our experience at CATCH is that there is a significant minority within the local community, whose circumstances appear to be ‘normal’, in that they are householders, and perhaps parents of children in local schools, and yet, in fact they are clinging on, just, in terms of keeping their domestic show on the road, from one week to the next. And inevitably, some in fact fall through the now attenuated safety nets we once took for granted. Relationships fracture, tenancies are lost, couples split and individuals become homeless. When your income is less than you need, ‘capital’ of all kinds is quickly exhausted, and life becomes bitterly, desperately, hand to mouth. Once you are this far ‘down’, there are almost no levers you can work to improve your situation. Once there was what we called a welfare system – remember ‘Social Security’ ? To a large extent, the levers have been hi-jacked, and the system is being used for quite different purposes.

Another challenge we face is how to relate to what might be called the ‘Rowntree poor’. CATCH recently had an appeal day at our local Tesco, and the volunteers all remarked on the warmth of the response we received from the vast majority of shoppers. People knew about CATCH, and were happy to support us with donated goods. There is still work to be done, however, to cross-apply this level of approval into it being ‘all right’ to come to CATCH for help, or to persuade your son or daughter, niece or grandson, neighbour or friend, to do so. And it’s a task where it’s hard to strike the right tone and find the right ways of reaching out.

And the fact remains that so much of all of this is the outcome of government policy and calculated politics. It could have been otherwise, and it urgently needs to be otherwise.

By

Job Centre Plus, Job Centre minus…….

On September 29th, 2013, for the first time, CATCH’s local Job Centre, on Wind Road, Ystradgynlais, sent a client to CATCH, with a docket, and CATCH was able to give that person a food pack.

On September 26th, 2014, a Job Centre official rang CATCH to tell us that Wind Road Job Centre had been told “from on high” that they must cease this practice.

At first, the official agreed that CATCH could provide a referral form for local Job Centre officers to use to send people to CATCH. By the time we had delivered some forms to Wind Road, perhaps 45 minutes later, that decision had been over-ruled. Henceforth, there was to be no referral at all (though curiously, they did send two people that morning). And from September 27th 2014, that has been the case.

In the almost-year between those events, 39% of CATCH’s food packs were issued to people coming to us with a Job Centre piece of paper.

That piece of paper was never a ‘voucher’, in CATCH’s sense of the word, and we came to treat it as the opening of a conversation, not a voucher to be honoured. It very rarely gave any indication of why the person needed our help. On occasion, we had the sense that the docket had been given simply because the person had asked for one. In a few cases, it was not even clear what connection the person had with the Job Centre.

But in fact, in the vast majority of cases, the bearer of the docket was not receiving his or her full benefit entitlement, and CATCH was able to help them..

Sometimes it was a matter of what is politely called ‘benefit delay’ – which actually meant that for the time being they were receiving no benefit at all.

Every new claim involved ‘benefit delay’ – and every change of circumstance meant that an existing adjudicated claim became a ‘new claim’. The Department of Work and Pensions themselves did a good deal of shifting and juggling between JSA and ESA, and each shift made an existing dependency into a ‘new claim’.

In other cases, the person had been sanctioned – we’ve written about that elsewhere – at times for as long as 13 weeks. They might get an emergency payment of around half their proper entitlement. They might not.

And then there were the ‘deductions at source’, which reduce the ‘amount the law says you need to live on’, to well, LESS than ‘amount the law says you need to live on’.

Why, after working with CATCH in at least this limited way, was Job Centre collaboration withdrawn ?

No explanation was offered.

To be fair, the arrangement was always exceptional. The DWP regional office had originally refused to cooperate with CATCH, and then the local office suddenly started doing so. But CATCH knows from its contacts with other food aid programmes in Powys, that it was always the only one receiving even this degree of co-operation. So its withdrawal brings CATCH into line with the other food aid programmes.

If you consider the circumstances of most of the people who were referred to CATCH by the Job Centre (see above), you can see why the DWP could prefer not to do anything that might assist the collection of verifiable statistics.

Current DWP policy as handed down from London has a good deal in common with the old Poor Law – shame the recipient of benefit, and set benefit receipts at a level that amounts to a severe disincentive to claim.

For a time, locally, that was at least tinged with some humanity. Someone has decided that cannot continue……..

 

By

CATCH launches second blog

The experience of CATCH’s first nine months’ operation as a food relief project has shown us that actually this specific, now-focussed, material need is very real – but it is from being either the beginning or the end of the story.

We are seeing people in multiple deprivations, with varying time-lines.

Possibly the most fundamental deprivation is that we are seeing people who have too few rights – the current direction of what was once the social security system all too often recasts them as in effect ‘the enemy within’ – whose every action, inaction, declaration, is to be viewed with suspicion or even hostility.

Out of that, we are seeing people who have been cash-starved for significant periods, to the point where they have little stock or capital left. Indeed, many are quite seriously indebted, to an extent which – through repayments – further depresses their income. Every need becomes a current expense, and the shrunken income cannot support it.

Further to that, the wider social safety nets that might once have supported them are themselves shrinking and shrivelling, so that collateral issues eg housing, health; debt; addictive issues, are not exposed to sufficient professional support.

And the officially-preferred ‘way out of poverty’ ie employment simply is NOT that road for many. Those in work are often on low wages, short hours and hard conditions. Those not in work, in Cwmtawe, have few opportunities; and the longer they are out of work, the steeper the climb back becomes.

HARSH TIMES HARD FACTS is launched as a second blog within the CATCH website which will allow us to bear witness to what we are seeing, and to make some small contribution to the wider social/economic debate. It has been long in gestation, and frankly, posting of reports, comment, and links here is always likely to take second place to actually ‘doing it’ in CATCH. But we will do our best…….

By

Harsh Times, Hard Facts

Today – and the fact it is April 1st is just an unfortunate coincidence – CATCH launches a second blog as part of its website.

Noticeboard has been with us from the start, and continues to be a valuable platform for all kinds of news and report about what CATCH is doing.

Harsh Times, Hard Facts – the new blog – will look wider and deeper and harder at the situations and policies which underlie the need for organisations like CATCH to be operating at all.

It will not always make comfortable reading.

Sometimes you may not agree with what we say, or link you to.

Sometimes you may want to contribute what your own experience has been.

In some of the topics we hope to look at, hard official facts are hard to come by – that is very much part of the present picture.

There are even instances where it is hard not to suspect an official willingness to mislead.

If you have personal experience of things we tackle, we will treat anything you tell us as a matter of confidence – that is, we will never cite it in a way which is traceable to you.

You can contact CATCH at talkback@catch-online.org.uk.

We have launched Harsh Times, Hard Facts with a post introducing a major area of concern, based on the stories we are hearing from some of those we help – the use and nature of sanctions within the welfare system, and particularly payments made to those on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

We also hope, as a regular feature, to offer a round-up of some of the stories in the press which have caught our eye.

By

Sanctions in the welfare system

A benefit award letter begins with a form of words something like:

“This is the amount the law says you need to live on”.

Ministers like to talk about ‘this country’s generous welfare provision’, but any-one who takes the trouble to check the figures knows that basic benefit rates are actually desperately low. For both JSA and ESA, the weekly rate for a single person under 25 is £57.35 a week, and for one over 25 £72.40. Full details of all pensions and allowances are here:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/275291/Benefit_and_Pension_rates_2014-15.pdf

At these levels of income, any further reduction very quickly makes a difficult situation impossible – ie for the recipient to keep body and soul together in even the most limited way, without going into debt or being at additional risk of eviction or loss of services.

Yet ‘sanctions’ are now a routine part of the week by week administration of a claimant’s position. That is to say, a desk officer in eg the Job Centre has the on-the-spot power to reduce payments, or even halt them entirely, for a specific period.

CATCH’s experience is that those sanctioned do not always have a clear idea of what they have been sanctioned for.

It appears that there may be no obligation upon the office or the officer to issue, so to speak, a fixed penalty notice, across the desk at the point of sanction, to declare the specifics of the sanction being imposed.

There are persistent rumours and speculations – and we are talking nationally here, not just locally – that local officers and their desk officers, actually have ‘targets’ to meet – they are tasked to sanction ‘so many’ clients (‘customers’, as they now like to call them !) within a specific period. This is something we have no proof of, but if true, it would certainly make sense of some of the circumstances we hear about.

CATCH asks three questions :

1. Is there not a issue of straightforward human rights here ? Whatever is done, and for whatever reason, it should be properly administered. It should not be, in effect, casual and informal.

2. If the sanction is meant to be a stick within a proverbial ‘stick and carrot’ regime, how can the sanction be effective in changing behaviour, if the claimant is not crystal clear what the penalty is for, and what they must do to avoid further penalty ? (And if this is the stick, where is the carrot?)

The alternative implication is that behaviour-change is not the main or only intent – that the sanction is partly or purely punitive, its intent to confuse and de-stabilise.

3. What is the official ‘scenario’ about how the sanctioned claimant is actually supposed to survive on an income that is by definition now LESS THAN “the amount the law says you need to live on” ?

How does increasing debt, reducing ability to pay fares or keep a phone working, threatening hygiene, general presentability, or even malnutrition and homelessness, improve the claimant’s chances of getting back into mainstream working life ?

CATCH wrote to the Department of Work and Pensions on March 4th 2014, and again on March 22nd, seeking clarification of some of these issues. We have yet to receive even an acknowledgement.