FOR over four years, I have been campaigning against universal credit outside Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre with a few others.
We offer people going in and out of the jobcentre any help and advice that we can and provide food parcels and solidarity.
We are seeing an unprecedented number of people living in extreme poverty. Many of the people that I speak to every week are desperate not only for food and heating but also compassion.
We are living in a world where the demonisation of the poorest and most vulnerable is becoming the norm, but we must do whatever we can to challenge this.
To highlight this, I’d like to describe a recent day for us outside the Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre.
I arrived at the jobcentre and was almost immediately met by a lovely lady by the name of Vicky. She had travelled all the way from Salford with some extra food parcels containing goodies such as fruit, UHT milk and margarine. When you have nothing, these essentials become luxuries and you treasure them.
I was then joined by Gordon, who brought some food parcels and later on by Roy who wasn’t feeling very well, but he still came along to help people.
The first to ask for our help was a woman and man I had met before. She, her partner and children had been illegally evicted the week before Christmas. They lost everything, including all the Christmas presents for their children. We gave her some milk and a food parcel.
Even though the work we do is welcomed, it shouldn’t distract from the fact that we shouldn’t have to do it in the first place. If there were enough social houses, then people would not find themselves in need of our help.
I spoke to a young man who was very shy at first, but after a while he opened up and told us his situation. He went to check his bank account for his benefits payment over Christmas but found it empty.
He managed to contact the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) but was told that he had been sanctioned because of an appointment he missed the previous year.
He missed an appointment over 12 months ago and was now being punished for it. He had no food over Christmas and was forced to rely on the kindness of others. When I offered him some food, the first thing that he said to me was: “I haven’t got any money. I can’t pay for this.”
I told him that money wasn’t needed and tears ran down his face. I urged him to appeal against his sanction. It is abhorrent that the government continues to target individuals like this.
Later, we also spoke to an older lady who had failed her Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) medical and had been forced to sign on.
She’s 63 years old and has numerous medical conditions. She simply should not be in this situation. She must be entitled to her pension.
We advised her to appeal against the medical and she replied saying she didn’t even know that was possible. It seem her adviser has told her nothing.
I stopped and spoke with another man and woman entering the jobcentre later that day. The man was only wearing one shoe and his ankle was twisted slightly. He was also using a makeshift walking stick.
I asked them if they were ok and they told me that it was their first time signing on and they had been warned that they must attend.
Getting medical attention should have been their top priority not attending a jobcentre appointment. However, the man and woman were afraid that, if they cancelled the appointment and went to accident and emergency instead, then their claim would be dismissed. I informed them of their rights and handed them a leaflet.
The benefits system has been designed to punish people like them. To put it simply, the whole thing is inhumane. The amount of control the government has over the poorest and most vulnerable in society is obscene.
Their first thought is that they must comply with a system that hates them, that actively discriminates them and abuses them, much like an abusive relationship, but a person cannot walk away from the system.
The only way of escape is to find a well-paid, full-time job, but there aren’t many of them around any more, especially for people without many qualifications.
At the end of the day, I spoke to a lady who leaving the jobcentre. She asked me if it was usual for the advisers to ask lots of probing questions about her children.
“No, that isn’t usual,” I told her. “They should not be prying into your personal life.”
“It’s not fair,” she said. “I know that I’m doing everything right; I’m not stupid. Just because I’m young and have children doesn’t mean that I’m stupid. I’m just glad that I could prove her wrong and I challenged her. Others might not have done.”
I advised her to make an official complaint and how to do so. I’ve had to do this once before and it works. So, if you are reading this and undergoing the same problem, then please make an official complaint. If you have a decent MP, then do it through them.
Even though there were only a few of us there that day, we helped lots of people and I hope we gave them some hope, support and solidarity.
We also provided food and some warm packs that had been donated. We handed out approximately 12 food parcels in two hours. That’s a lot, but they were needed and are needed every week.