Special report: Benefit sanctions criticised by MP Nick Boles during Grantham Passage visit
Tory MP Nick Boles has promised to take case studies from Grantham to the Government to tackle what he termed the “inhuman inflexibility” of the benefits system.
During a visit to Grantham Passage’s breakfast provision at ChristChurch in Finkin Street on Friday, the Grantham and Stamford MP said it would be difficult to implement any changes to the Government’s welfare policy until after the General Election.
Speaking to volunteers from Passage, which supports the homeless, and its umbrella organisation, Grantham Poverty Concern, Mr Boles said: “With some of these cases it seems to me that there is an inhuman inflexibility that is imposed on them.”
Charity volunteers Ruby Stuckey, Brenda Snowball and Mike Monaghan invited Mr Boles to discuss concerns at the increasing number of people they are seeing who have had their benefits stopped.
Among the worst examples presented to the MP was the sanctioning of a claimant who stayed overnight at Lincoln hospital when their newborn baby was in intensive care.
Mr Boles said: “The sanctions are a worry, and do need to be looked at.”
Yet when asked about what changes can be made, he said: “In the run-up to the election there is not a lot we can do, but we can get the case studies together where the sanctions seem to be most unreasonable.”
He added: “The beginning of a parliamentary term, when people are looking at things afresh, is the best time to make a change.”
In the meantime, Grantham Poverty Concern and the people they help by providing around 10,000 hot meals a year, and, in extreme instances, financial assistance, are wary about the effect of the new universal credit, which begins in South Kesteven for single non-householders on March 23.
Both the volunteers and benefit recipients highlighted the problems of merging the current six benefits – jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, housing benefit, and both child tax and working tax credits – into one monthly payment.
One visitor, Tony Pettit, said: “That is just going to cause mayhem. People are going to borrow in the meantime and then have to pay double or more back.”
Mr Boles encouraged those struggling to contact him, saying: “It’s a hugely distressing time for the people it does affect.”
He added: “I do understand why there needs to be a disciplined system and there needs to be a process they go through, but I do think there are too many of these cases where it does seem inhumanly inflexible.”
* ‘If you treated animals the way we’re treated, you’d be prosecuted by the RSPCA,’ says Passage visitor.
The impact of strict sanctions, and the length of time it takes for benefits to be restored even when valid reasons are provided, were foremost among the issues Grantham Poverty Concern’s volunteers wanted to raise with the MP.
“We had one man whose newborn baby was in Lincoln Hospital intensive care unit,” related Mrs Snowball. “They offered a room so that he and his girlfriend could stay with their baby, but his benefit was stopped because he couldn’t get back in time for his appointment.”
Mrs Snowball also raised points about the difficulty for those without any money to change welfare appointments. She said: “They have to ring a number and hold on for ages. And most of them haven’t got any credit on their phone anyway.”
Mrs Stuckey added: “And after they are sanctioned, it takes so long to reinstate. In this computer age you’d think it would be quicker.”
Acknowledging their points, Mr Boles said that the delays and sanctions seemed to be the main issues.
During his visit the MP also spoke to some of those visiting the Passage for food and assistance, who related the problems they’ve experiencd with the welfare system.
Yet many of the more vocal attendees missed the opportunity to question the politician, due to the time of his visit changing.
Tony Pettit, aged 53, said: “If we did this down the dole we’d get our money stopped - no excuses. I wanted to speak to him about the system. I’ve watched how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
After going through a long period of unemployment, Mr Pettit has recently secured a job clearning 16 hours a week at the leisure centre.
“I was on jobseeker’s but I’ve now got this, and I know I’m very lucky to have that when others don’t have anything,” he said. Nevertheless, without Grantham Passage Mr Pettit would struggle for hot meals, and describes where he lives as ‘bedsit land’.
He added: “If you treated animals the way we’re treated, you’d be prosecuted by the RSPCA.”
Meanwhile a 31-year-old woman who did not want to be identified arrived at Passage with her seven month old daughter, asking for help to buy baby milk.
As her boyfriend has now found work, the benefits she had previously been entitled to have been stopped, leaving them in a precarious situation until he is paid at the end of the month.
Other stories from those Passage are trying to help, are told below.
* Already sleeping rough
Michael Fowler, aged 30, only recently lost his job, but has already been forced to sleep on the streets. He said: “Sometimes I’ve been able to stay with friends, but I have slept outside some nights.”
He is not yet in receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance, so is unsure how the benefits changes will affect him.
* ‘The government just turns a blind eye’
Outraged at the experiences he and friends have gone through, Mr Pettit added: “There is nothing set up to listen to us. Nobody wants to hear about mental health issues anymore. Suicide rates are at an all time high. And the government just turns a blind eye to it.”
* Transport troubles
Having no money to cover transport costs can have an impact on access to healthcare. In December, while suffering from a serious allergic reaction, Dominic Harris, aged 34, walked from St John’s Medical Centre to Grantham Hospital. Grateful for the support of Passage, Mr Harris said: “Ruby is a saint.”
* Bedroom tax
Robert Sparks, aged 63, is a former hospital porter who had to stop work due to suffering severe epilepsy. He is relieved to have a council home, but is facing £11-£12 a week extra in bills under the new bedroom tax. “They only let me know when it got to over £90. I can’t pay it.”
* ‘87 per cent within 16 days’
Ruby Stuckey was particularly concerned at the time it takes for claims to be processed. In a letter written to Mr Boles last July and forwarded on to Mrs Stuckey, Minister of State for Employment, Esther McVey wrote: “The number of claims processed on time has increased by six percentage points since 2009/10, and currently 92 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance claims and 87 per cent of Employment and Support Allowance claims are processed within 16 days. Universal Credit will help speed this up further and we will continue to work hard to shorten processing times.”
To this Mrs Stuckey asked: “87 per cent within 16 days? That is still a long time for those without any money. And how much longer are the other 13 per cent waiting?”
Ms McVey also wrote: “Sanctions are only imposed where, without good reason, people have not taken reasonable action to give themselves the best possible prospects of getting a job. Each case is considered on its own merits and there is in place a robust system of safeguards that seek to ensure sanctions are only applied to those who wilfully fail to meet their requirements.”
* Support for drop-in centre
Mike Monaghan informed Mr Boles about Grantham Passage’s ongoing work to convert a former storage building behind St Mary’s Church on North Parade into a dedicated help centre.
“We want to do all we can to help get people back into work,” explained Mr Monaghan, project co-ordinator for the centre. In line with the charity’s slogan of ‘giving a hand up not a hand out’, the centre aims to provide practical help to the unemployed.
This includes access to computers, taking into account that benefit applications and most job applications are moving to online. As well as CV advice there will be showers and if required suits available for job interviews, along with safe storage and a kitchen providing hot meals.
Mr Boles offered his support. So far just under half of the £48,000 target has been raised from donations and fund-raising, and the support of Grantham Sainsbury’s.
* How you can help Passage
The Grantham Passage was set up in December 2001, after members of the clergy in the town became concerned at the number of people lacking homes, food and money that were contacting them.
Funded entirely by public donations, and supported by food gifts, they provide hot meals and support including in the form of food vouchers, utility card credit and extra food.
They do this on a daily basis in churches all around Grantham, operating an ‘open door’ policy. Dates and locations below:
* Monday and Fridays, 9.30am -11.30am at Finkin Street Methodist Church
* Tuesdays, 6pm-7pm at Baptist Church, Wharf Road
* Wednesdays and Saturdays, 10am-11.30am St Mary’s opposite Asda
* Thursdays, 12-1.30pm, St Wulfram’s Church Hall
* Sundays, 9.30am-11am, 7th Day Adventist Church, Dudley Road
To help contact Ruby Stucky on 01476 566628 or 07711 428609
* What do you think about these issues?
There are many issues raised in this special report, from the work of organisations like Grantham Passage and Grantham Foodbank, to the treatment of the homeless and the issues raised by changing the benefits system. We would like to hear your views or experiences.
We will respect requests for anonymity, but we must have your name, address, email and telephone number for our records.
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Post: Grantham Journal, St Peter’s House, St Peter’s Hill, Grantham, NG31 6QB