‘We often see grown men in tears – they can’t believe they’re here’

Manchester reporter discovers dismay, rage and defiance in Oldham, a town bruised by universal credit and austerity.

Jennifer Williams

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The following article is reproduced from the Manchester Evening News with thanks.

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This is the first of a three part series looking at the deep wounds government neglect has left on an industrial town – it’s a story replicated across the north.

“I can’t even describe it,” sighs volunteer Diana Walsh, sitting down after a gruelling shift. “But we will give it a good go.”

Diana is seated at a small table in Oldham food bank, doors now closed following the Friday rush for tins, clothing and advice. She’s calmly raging about universal credit.

Her colleagues, Lisa Luenig and Zoey Stansfield, are raging too. Ask them how the benefit has played out here, more than five years after the borough was first used as a government guinea pig, and the floodgates open with clearly-articulated rage spilling out in a torrent.

“We often see grown men in tears because they can’t believe they’re here,” explains Diana.

The other two women nod.

“A lot of them, when they realise they’re going to get help, it’s humiliation, relief and being overwhelmed,” agrees Zoey.

“Demand is increasing year on year. Last year it was a 10 percent increase at least. Which is shocking, considering we were one of the initial pilot areas. If anything, we should be seeing things getting better as a pilot area, not worse. Half a decade is long enough to show the government it’s not working. But they don’t care.”

Oldham was a test-bed for universal credit, the six-in-one benefit intended to make life simpler for claimants and create an incentive to get back into work. That was in autumn 2013. Two-thirds of those now coming into the town’s food bank for help in 2019 are in work.

“It’s not just about people ‘on benefits’,” says Zoe, of those receiving UC.

“Universal credit includes working tax credit. Which means they’re working. We have had nurses coming in. There’s not often an acknowledgement that you could be working and claiming UC.”

Others are slipping in and out of poorly-paid, insecure jobs, such as the group of men who came in during the depths of winter. They had been temporary workers over the Christmas period, but the Department for Work and Pensions assessed them off their last wage slip, even though they no longer had shifts to go to.

“They were coming in with £30 for a month, including housing benefit,” says Diana.

“Thirty pounds to pay your rent, feed yourself and keep warm? In February?”

Due to demand, the food bank expanded into the former Three Crowns pub a couple of years ago. Instead of gin and vodka there are now thank-you cards pinned behind the bar, alongside racks of children’s clothes, for the other big trend, say the trio, has been the rise in families coming in for help, particularly since the two-child cap on tax credits was introduced.

That, combined with the housing allowance freeze and arrears built up during the delay in waiting for UC, means more and more families are coming in seeking help.

“One lady came in here today, her brother-in-law had died and his wife couldn’t cope,” says Diana.

“She’d taken six children into her home but she couldn’t get any benefits for them at all. With her own, that’s eight children in a two bed house.

“She hadn’t got bedding or anything for them. Social services are involved but it’s going to take a few weeks, so what’s she going to do?

“There’s no emergency provision. We are the emergency service. But we are not government funded.”

Some of those they see are living in bed and breakfasts. While the family homelessness crisis in next-door Manchester may be higher profile, in the year to December, Oldham housed nearly 400 children in temporary accommodation. While not all of that will be down to universal credit, the team say it is a common theme.

“They go into arrears and then climbing out of arrears is impossible,” says Zoey, on a day when the food bank has seen a particularly large number of families seeking help. “And then the landlord goes to court and gets an eviction notice.”

Diana agrees: “Every day we get these kinds of stories, pretty much. The children get to all of us.

“We are quite hardened in some ways because you have to be, you’re useless if you’re just a heart. But we have a family that is homeless living in a B&B. Five kids. They didn’t even have a kettle.

“If you’ve got one or two chidlren within that space, how do you keep them entertained and keep your privacy and keep them safe? They can’t take anything in with them.”

What happened?

“They just couldn’t afford the rent. And then we’re back to UC.”

Manchester council were on the phone today, she adds, asking about one of their families who had been housed in Oldham.

“But Oldham are also sending families to Manchester. They’re moving them around like they’re just pieces.”

Oldham council has been monitoring the effect of the flagship new benefit since it was introduced in the borough as a pilot. Local housing provider First Choice has seen its arrears rocket nearly two thirds to £473,000 in that time, while last November sanctions – when people are docked money for failing to abide by rules known as ‘conditionalities’ – hit a five-year high at more than 350, a monthly number that has only dropped slightly since.

An officer update to the council in March noted a range of ongoing problems, including more than 900 potentially disabled people being forced to look for work while they awaited assessments. Simply increasing hours or juggling more jobs while on the benefit “was ineffective” in moving people out of poverty, it said, while the threat of sanctions “did more harm than good in terms of gaining or progressing in work”.

Vulnerable people with mental health or literacy problems, or little access to the internet, found their UC stopped due to an inability to deal with online forms, one of the biggest issues the council’s welfare advice teams deal with.

Pointing to research undertaken last year by the Welfare Conditionality project, a joint piece of work between universities including Salford and Sheffield, the council report added: “Working recipients experienced financial hardship, were forced to use food banks, accumulated debt or risked losing their homes because of arrears and had worsening physical and mental health.”

Both Oldham MPs have a catalogue of universal credit tales to tell, the human stories behind those findings.

Debbie Abrahams, MP for Oldham and Saddleworth East, says “not a week a goes by” without her office seeing at least one distressing case related to the benefit.

In recent weeks she has raised in Parliament the case of Sally, a single mum who escaped an abusive relationship, only to have her UC docked by £400 due to her circumstances changing; June, who has a two-year-old daughter and works for the police, told by the JobCentre that UC would pay 85 percent of her childcare costs but still waiting for the money six months later, having had to pay upfront; and Amanda, a single mum with ‘significant’ mental health problems who was sanctioned for failing to fill in an online review, days before giving birth.

Then there was Katie, whose employer made a mess of her returns, leaving her £67 to live on. “Every time I call, they just say there’s nothing they can do and I just have to wait for a decision,” she told the MP. “Please help me, as I’m at the end of hope.”

Those stories will ring true with the staff at Oldham food bank.

In response to our story the Department for Work and Pensions said that the reasons for people using food banks are “complex”, and that universal credit is a “force for good with 2.2 million people now being supported by the benefit”.

“It gives people financial help if they’re unemployed, low-paid or unable to work. People can get their first payment on day one of their claim as an advance and we continue to make improvements,” a spokesman told us.

Back in Oldham, Diana, notes the “sheer embarrassment” she felt when a film crew from Brazil visited to interview them about poverty earlier this year, “because they felt sorry for us”.

Zoey agrees. The wait between applying for UC and receiving payment still remains the biggest hurdle many people struggle to clear, she says, long before they get as far as sanctions.

“That’s when a lot of people lose their homes, lose everything, just trying to survive. And it’s not got any better.”

Summer is one of the hardest times of year for the organisation, she adds, because people go away on holiday so don’t donate as often – Christmas donations have run out, but families struggling to feed kids in the school break are ever more reliant.

“We are running out of stock,” she admits, but they will soldier on.