Helen Chandler, Mental Health Advocate, Advocacy Centre North
Some of my colleagues have already shared some of their service user’s stories, so I wanted to share the story of someone I have been supporting. Welfare Advocacy is a huge demand on our services and thanks to the story of I, Daniel Blake, we wanted to use this and put into action dedicated support for those who have struggled like Daniel. Like my colleagues had, I have used a fictitious name to protect his identity.
Colin had for many years been awarded Disability Living Allowance, Middle Rate Care Component and Lower rate Mobility Component. He has an acquired brain injury, severe epilepsy and related depression, and so relies on others to help him with all his paperwork. He depends on his son for help at home to maintain his independence. However, Colin was transferred for a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) medical assessment last summer and following this was awarded 0 points.
He therefore was turned down for the new benefit. Even worse, the decision was not conveyed to him for over five months! Now he has finally received notification of the decision, he is seeking a mandatory reconsideration. The months of uncertainty have caused him untold anxiety and impacted on his physical and mental health.
We strive to help people like Colin, and this is why we have made the important decision to provide a welfare advocacy service. We have to fundraise so that this work can be continued, therefore, please help us through donations and/or sharing our I, Daniel Blake campaign wide and far. This is greatly appreciated. #EveryPoundCounts
Martin Gollan, Support and Development manager
Changes introduced today, to Child Tax Credits and Universal Credit could push 200,000 children into poverty. From 6 April 2017 the changes will restrict these benefit payments to the first two children in a family and any child born today or after will not be eligible for additional support. From next April all families claiming Universal Credit will have payments restricted to the first two children even if a third child was born before April 2017.
Families affected by the new rules, first announced by George Osborne in 2015, face loosing up to £3000 per year according to Child Poverty Action Group and the IPPR. These changes come into force at a time when official statistics show record numbers of working families in poverty.
Commenting on the figures Oxfam said “there are now more people in poverty in the UK than there have been for almost 20 years and a million more than at the beginning of the decade”.
Further welfare changes are planned for 2018 as restrictions on claimants tighten and Universal Credit is rolled out across the country. The new chancellor, Philip Hammond was criticised after delivering his first budget, for not making any mention of poverty and taking the opportunity to reduce the impact of welfare reforms on the ‘just about managing’ families that the government has said are its priority.
Advocacy Centre North’s crowdfunding campaign is raising funds to provide expert support for families caught up in the nightmare of poverty and help them to navigate a system where claimants have 20% chance of being sanctioned and 49% appeals since 2010 have been successful.
If you want to help support families that are facing increasing risk of poverty visit Advocacy Centre North’s crowdfunding page
Margaret Mound, Mental Health Advocate, Advocacy Centre North
As a Mental Health Advocate, I have recently been shocked by the way that the most vulnerable people claiming Universal Credit are being treated.
Someone I work with suffers from depression and anxiety. He is aged 58 and is illiterate – only able to write his name. He has a probable learning disability and memory problems. His Universal Credit claim is run by the Jobcentre plus 100% online. They make NO exceptions.
With no computer, no phone and unable to use a mobile phone he also struggles to use buses as he cannot read bus numbers and sometimes gets off at the wrong stop. He relies upon others to take him to appointments and to remind him of them. Advocacy is crucial in this situation, as he cannot understand much of what is said in the Jobcentre appointments and cannot remember afterwards what has been said. He does not understand phrases such as “you need to reset your password”.
He did not understand that his Universal Credit payments included rent and so when he received a payment which was backdated into his account, he did not realise that he had to pay his rent from this, especially as it had previously been paid direct to his landlords. His landlord threated to evict him from his home due to rent arrears. This put him into a downward spiral of panic and further depression/anxiety. As his Advocate I contacted his landlord and set up an agreement to repay the arrears, and the threat of repossession was withdrawn on this basis.
The Jobcentre required a GP fit note, but he did not understand what this was, so I supported him to obtain this from his GP, which avoided a benefit sanction. Together with the Welfare Rights team we helped this man challenge the amount of benefits he was receiving which resulted in a lengthy ongoing battle to get a backdated payment.
The Department for Work and Pensions policy to manage claims online really disadvantages people like this. The Jobcentre refused to send letters out to my client despite them hearing that he has no computer or skills to access or understand what is sent online. Appointments made online would easily be missed whereas a letter sent to his home could be explained to him by his Advocate or family.
Sadly the Jobcentre staff didn’t understand the role of an Advocate and refused to let me sit with him during the appointment, this meant I was not able to support him in the way he needed. I was only able, with difficulty, to take notes to help him understand and to remind him of what was required of him.
He feels that the system is punitive and he lives in a constant state of fear that his benefit will be stopped because he has failed to do something required of him, such as to attend an appointment only notified to him online.
Vulnerable people need the support of an Advocate to help them to get through this nightmarish system and to gather together evidence to use to push for changes to the system, so that they can be treated with the dignity they deserve.
Please show people like me service user your support through donations and sharing our I, Daniel Blake campaign wide and far because #EveryPoundCounts
Clare Bethell, Community Advocacy Coordinator, Advocacy Centre North
It has become a common thing – I see it on a daily basis, how many service users here at Advocacy Centre North are let down by the welfare system, being assessed as having no entitlement to benefits however, when it comes to the appeal they are granted the benefits they were entitled to in the first place! The distress they feel during this process and the anxiety when wondering how they will cope are awful things to witness.
I wanted to share Peter’s story here, so you can get an insight to his everyday struggles. To protect the identity of my service user, I have used a false name:
Peter has a chronic and serious health condition as well as mental health issues. He is highly reliant on his sister who provides personal care and support at medical appointments and this support enables him to maintain his independence. Consequently, he was originally awarded the enhanced rate of Personal Independence Payment (PIP).
At medical assessment last summer, the assessor did not let his sister come into the assessment. He was awarded 0 points. This decision had a major impact on Peter’s physical and mental health for many months leading up to his appeal. Unlike the assessment, the appeal took into account the substantial medical evidence supporting his case, so the Department for Work and Pension’s decision was overturned and enhanced PIP was once again awarded.
For people like Peter, we understand the need and demand for a Welfare Advocacy service. Therefore, we campaign for this and ask for your help by donating, or just simply taking a few minutes to share our I, Daniel Blake inspired fundraising campaign, so that we can help the real Daniel Blakes of today. Thank you. #EveryPoundHelps
Gem O' Connor, Neurological Advocacy Co-ordinator, Advocacy Centre North
After watching Daniel’s struggle to get the benefits he needed, I couldn’t help but think of the service users I work with and how similar some of their experiences are. As an Advocate I find myself continually frustrated, seeing people being turned down for benefits at assessments time and time again only to be successful when it gets to appeal stage. Between the assessment and the appeal (which can be months), I have seen people suffer increased anxiety and distress – they’ve been unable to function in their daily lives when in effect, they have been entitled to the benefits all along.
I’d like to share a service user story. I have changed her name to protect her identity:
Dawn has a learning disability, mental health issues including anxiety and depression and chronic arthritis. She attends a project for people with learning disabilities four days a week and depends on this to maintain her confidence, self-esteem and well-being. Additionally, she had a Care Act Assessment which assessed her as having substantial needs, hence the funding for her placement.
Dawn attended a Medical Assessment last year. Despite the Medical Assessor being aware of all these factors, it led to Dawn being awarded 0 points and therefore, she was taken off her allowance and advised to apply for Job Seekers Allowance.
She didn’t have the capacity to go through the job seekers process as you can imagine. On hearing the result she was understandably in a state of panic and distress for many weeks and the staff at the project she attends were alarmed about the decline in her mental health.
Eventually, with the support of her Advocate and a Housing Support worker, she was able to overturn the decision on appeal but only after she was first turned down for a Mandatory Reconsideration of the decision.
I knew my colleagues would feel the same as I did after watching I, Daniel Blake. I was overjoyed when I found out we would be looking to employ a Welfare Advocate to provide focussed support to people like Daniel.
So we launched our campaign. Please help us by donating to and sharing our campaign. Every pound donated helps. Thank you.
Sally Young Chief Executive
Having just got back from a week's holiday in sunny Spain the night before, and having got the early morning train down to London for an NCVO Board meeting, it would be fair to say I would have liked a quiet night in. However, I was privileged to be able to attend the The Gateshead Awards as Simon Elliott (our Chair) and myself presented in awarding the Voluntary Organisation of the Year to the Gateshead Older People's Assembly.
I don't use the word 'privileged' lightly, but it was genuinely humbling to attend these community-focused awards. This was the seventh time they had taken place and the ceremony was chaired by the dapper Bob Moncur, who is a Freeman of Gateshead.
There were several awards but each category honoured local people who had given their time freely - as a young carer, a young achiever, sports achiever, sports club, sports coach, young sports achiever, voluntary organiser, and lifetime achievement award.
This wasn't a flash affair with evening gowns at a posh hotel with a fancy dinner, costing £50 plus a head; but a genuine, community-focused event at Gateshead Civic Centre with a tasty buffet and a warming atmosphere.
The awards were given by senior Councillors, officers, aldermen and The Mayor. I really liked that over 4000 Gateshead residents had participated in the voting. Cllr Allison Thompson, the Mayor of Gateshead, finished the evening by noting that "local people are at the heart of Gateshead". The Gateshead Awards properly recognised the hard work and dedication of individuals and groups that "made Gateshead a better place to live, work, visit and play".
As I reflect on the day that focused on some very high level, strategic discussions in London on the value of social action, I saw the reality tonight. So thank you to Gateshead Council for organising these awards to recognise and commemorate the value and work of local volunteers. But most importantly thank you to those people who give their time and commitment so openly and freely to help others and their communities.
Having been a “Friend” of Tyneside Cinema for many years I try my best to be faithful refusing to see a film in any other venue. I was delighted with the opening of the Tyneside Bar Café a few years ago, as it meant I could combine two of my favourite things – film and food, in the beautiful surroundings of an art deco building. I have celebrated many significant events in my life in this place, so it holds a special place in my heart.
A cold and wet November evening last year, I decided to bite the bullet and see the well discussed “I Daniel Blake” film. I had been resisting simply because I face the issues in this film in my day job. I just didn’t fancy mixing work with my film-going pleasure.
Tyneside Cinema not only offered a showing but organised after film discussions with actors from the film and local academics – perfect! I have to admit that I left having experienced an emotional roller coaster of a night – anger, frustration, sadness and even tears. The places I work and volunteer featured heavily in it, so this was a visually interesting watch as well as a very personal experience.
The next day I came to work with a ‘film-hangover’, fired up to do something proactive about the issues that Ken Loach and sixteen films had identified. Talking to colleagues about how the film mirrors or differs from our experiences of supporting people who are seeking benefits or appealing medical assessment decisions. We all agreed that the value that advocacy support can bring to such situations, really needed to be promoted on the back of this media wave.
We soon got to work planning a new role in Advocacy Centre North. Although we cover a wide range of support needs under our current projects, we had already identified a gap in provision for people at the hard end of national Welfare Reform. We often debate the impact our service users face of the decline in advice and help for people around benefit changes and our struggle to link them up with the appropriate services. What we needed was a dedicated Independent Advocate to focus on helping people to navigate the benefits system, and this needed to happen quickly with the roll out of Universal Credit looming in April 2017.
With the support from our forward thinking Board of Trustees at Newcastle CVS, we were able to recruit to the post within a matter of weeks. Without the usual time constraints of grant funding we were able to pilot the new position and try Crowdfunding as a way of resourcing the continuation of this much needed work.
...So our campaign was launched. Please help us by donating to and sharing our campaign. Every bit of support helps. Thank you.
Jacqui Jobson, Director, Advocacy Centre North (part of Newcastle CVS)
In this week’s Spring Budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond chose to raise national insurance on the self-employed, which could cost individuals up to £589 per year. The decision of the Prime Minister a day later to put back the NIC increase until the autumn does nothing to mitigate the costs when it will be introduced. What the Chancellor however had nothing to say about were the changes to the government’s welfare reforms. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has forecast that without changes to in-work benefits almost a quarter of UK households with children will be living in poverty.
As a charity in the heart of Newcastle, working with some of the most vulnerable people in the city, Advocacy Centre North sees at first hand the impact of welfare reform and the distress and chaos it can cause to ordinary people many who will be working in low paid jobs or the ‘gig economy’.
That’s why we are creating a new post of Welfare Advocate who will be able to support people for whom Universal Credit could mean the risk of losing all or part of their income. Newcastle already has the largest and busiest foodbank in England. We want our Welfare Advocate to make sure it doesn’t get any busier.
To fund the new advocate post we have launched a crowdfunding appeal with support from director Ken Loach and the producers of I Daniel Blake to match the £16,000 that our trustees have invested. Many of the scenes in I Daniel Blake were filmed a few hundred metres from our Newcastle office. Advocacy Centre North is committed to helping people in crisis, real life Daniel Blake's and this is an opportunity to support a unique response to the challenges of welfare reform.
Jacqui Jobson, Director, Advocacy Centre North (part of Newcastle CVS)
For those of you who may not know, I, Daniel Blake is the story of a man who is unable to work following a heart attack and finds himself struggling through the complexities of the welfare benefits system. If you haven’t seen the film already, I recommend you do, as it is a window into what is happening to the most vulnerable people in our communities right now.
Our Advocates have supported many real Daniel Blakes, through our services. On a daily basis we receive phone calls from distressed service users who don’t understand why their benefits have been reduced and how they are going to manage. Like Daniel, many have disabilities, in desperate need of support and feel caught up in a complicated process that is hard to understand and find a way through.
Our Advocates can offer some support but the overwhelming demand on these needs has required us to look towards the recruitment of a specialist Welfare Advocate, who can offer benefit focussed support and meet the high demand.
This is a first for us – we felt so strongly after watching Daniel’s familiar struggle that we asked our trustees if they would support us to develop the work in the absence of any targeted funding. The trustees agreed to invest resources for us to recruit a Welfare Advocate with a view to us fundraising to keep the post going. We knew our service users just could not wait, so we were delighted to have the chance to move forwards with recruitment immediately.
Throughout the 20 years of Advocacy Centre North’s history, we have responded to needs and never more has there been an urgency to respond to an issue that is affecting the most vulnerable. Our Advocates have seen people sanctioned because of the inability to attend appointments due to their disability. We have worked with people who have had their benefits stopped and seen the consequences of sanctions, referring many people to local foodbanks, including the one featured in the film.
We decided to fundraise through crowdfunding because we sense that there is anger about injustice and an appetite for the public to support this campaign and that individuals can donate as a way of showing their support.
It has really helped us to feel that we are doing something to positively change, to support the people of Newcastle and Gateshead who have been hardest hit by social care reforms. We have received a positive response so far, including from the film’s Director Ken Loach who has tweeted his support for the campaign.
We have an ambitious target; however, we are optimistic that it will raise the funds we need to keep this vital service going and to prevent others from going through the same struggles Daniel did.
If you would like to support our campaign either by donating or by spreading the word, please use the links below.
Sally Young Chief Executive
This is the time of year that we get retrospective and certainly 2016 has given us a lot to think about. It might go down as the ‘Year of the Unexpected’ - the decision for the UK to leave the EU and the result of the American election. These two events have caused major political shifts and in the UK, the resignation of a Prime Minister and the formation of a new Government. These decisions have been both the effects and causes of major economic shifts. Other elections have mostly supported the more right wing candidates and/or gone against the current incumbents; with Austria being the only exception so far.
It has been the year of the death of several cultural icons, which makes us yearn for the past and consider our own mortality.
Locally it was the year that the North East Combined Authority didn't come together and get consent for devolution and the drawing down of additional funding and power - but we didn't get an elected mayor (these events are not unconnected).
Within the NHS the funding crisis became more overt but it has been presented in the public domain as the Sustainability and Transformation Plans rather than 'The Process to Dramatically Reduce the Amount of GDP Spent on the NHS' and has been wrapped up within the ridiculous Five Years to Save the NHS, which ties up local managers in planning services rather than delivering them.
For Local Authorities, the relentless drive to cut budgets as the complete loss of the Revenue Support Grant in 2020 looms ever closer appears to be the key driver. Process and planning have overtaken purpose and politics as local politicians and officers find themselves in terrible places with unenviable choices.
Voluntary organisations find themselves chasing fewer external resources, being exhorted not to rely on public funding and be creative. At the same time, cost pressures are rising, the Living Wage is going up, auto-enrolment means additional payments and there are costs of living increases. The Charity Commission appears to be waging a war on charities and trustees, and whilst it is important to deal with key offenders, the overall tone is unhelpful.
Welfare "Reforms" plough relentlessly forward and has become an overt war on the poor. "I, Daniel Blake" tells us what we already know is happening in our communities. Yet the whole austerity project hasn't worked; apart from damaging the lives of millions of people. The key thrust of housing policy seems to focus on keeping house prices up, rather than providing appropriate homes for people.
The very recent noise on social care exposes what our sector has been shouting about for some time. Reductions in local authority funding mean many people are not receiving the levels of care they need to live a decent life. They are assessed out of need as criteria are regularly shifted. The lucky people who get a service have it delivered by organisations under strain. If a few more organisations decide they can no longer provide social care, the local authorities will have to provide a safety net - but there is no money. There is noise of moving away from independent living back to residential care.
And there is robotics and the march of artificial intelligence which is now starting to affect and disrupt the middle class professions.
And I'm an optimist!
This year I reached sixty, it was the year in which I was going to retire; until five years ago. This means I'm blocking a space for a younger person. I note our sector still attracts lots of people with great ideas. I have been energised by working in Gateshead and seeing the fantastic work that goes on there. I have met inspirational leaders who have set up new organisations; FACT and Silverline Memories are just two examples. I am constantly humbled by the thousands of local volunteers who just get on and do good stuff. I'm inspired by the co-operative working and partnerships in the Recovery College and the Blue Stone Consortium.
So my learning is it's still all about people, relationships and trust; but occasionally you have to take a chance because the world around us is moving very fast.
Happy 2017 and onwards and upwards…