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'Claimants don't have equal human rights or citizenship'

When Neil Couling, director of benefit strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), told MSPs recently that Job Centres often receive thank-you cards from people whose benefits they have stopped, it provoked gasps of amazement among many of those who work with claimants.

desperate MEASURES: Food bank volunteers have also dismissed the idea that take-up has been driven by supply, not demand. Picture: Mark Mainz
desperate MEASURES: Food bank volunteers have also dismissed the idea that take-up has been driven by supply, not demand. Picture: Mark Mainz

In fairness, he was responding to welfare reform committee deputy convener Jamie Hepburn, who asked if offices were "inundated with thank-you cards". "Yes, that is not unremarkable," Mr Couling replied.

He had previously been talking about how many jobseekers "welcomed the jolt" such sanctions gave them, and rejected claims there is a causal link between food bank use and the benefit sanctions, which can see claimants losing payments for weeks, months or even years.

The comments certainly provoked dismay at the Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) in Alexandria. One of its volunteers, Linsey Close, co-authored a recent report on sanctions, Unjust and Uncaring, which was scathing about their use.

Ms Close became a volunteer after using the service herself. Now she helps clients who she says are often given little detail about why payments are stopped.

Although the DWP says jobseekers should be told why sanctions are being applied, CAB advisors still regularly see people who are confused or completely in the dark about what has happened, Ms Close claims.

"People don't get a letter saying 'you have been sanctioned because you failed to put in 15 job applications'. Instead they are told 'over this period you are deemed not to have fulfilled your jobseeker's contract'."

This leads to problems for those who want to appeal against decisions, she adds. "How do you appeal when you don't know why the payments were stopped? People end up saying 'I think it was this...'."

Fairness is undermined by this aspect of the system, she says: "People's work search criteria can be given verbally, so how do you prove you were ever told to apply for 10 jobs a week, say?"

The idea that cutting payments is welcomed by those affected gets short shrift from her. "If an MP or any of us were five minutes late for work, would you expect to lose your money for four weeks?" she says. "Benefit claimants just don't have equal human rights. They don't have full citizenship as far as I'm concerned."

Ms Close is not a bleeding heart, she explains. She doesn't think people should just be given the money, no questions asked. "But a Job Centre decision-maker can take away your money for food, rent, heating, everything. If it is someone who can't access the hardship fund, a food bank is the only option.

"We have people here saying 'what will I do?' and sometimes there is just nothing you can say. It is soul-destroying."

Failing to meet job search requirements or interviews is rarely if ever a deliberate act, she says: "I have never met anyone who has intentionally put themselves in that position."

Meanwhile, food banks are not leading demand - another claim made by Mr Couling at the committee - according to Joe McCormack, manager of the West Dunbartonshire CAB.

He is one of those behind the West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare initiative, which aims to offer an alternative to "traditional" food banks.

He characterises their approach as "feed and fight".

"Giving out food parcels is only part of the solution, a short-term crisis intervention," he says.

"Unlike other food banks, we do not operate a 'three strikes and you're out' system," he adds.

The West Dunbartonshire scheme is broad-based - with trade unions, the homelessness service, addiction and mental health charities involved, as well as churches.

Importantly, the mindset is about sharing, Mr McCormack says, rather than dependence. "It is about accepting that we all are only a sick note away from personal crisis.

"Such is the state of people's personal finances that it could be any of us next month."

"It is certainly not true that the growth of food banks is supply-driven, as the UK Government has claimed," he adds. "As an advice agency we are concerned about levels of destitution, not just among people on benefits and on zero-hours contracts, but also the underemployed or low-paid generally. The foodshare scheme is about being there at a time of crisis and looking at what people need to move on."

West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, which operates from a number of sites in the Clydebank and Dumbarton area, operates on a relatively trusting basis and doesn't require referrals (for example, from social work). People can come direct.

McCormack does not hold with the idea that abuse is common. "If people are desperate for food, why put them through an added layer of bureaucracy?"

Common sense tells you that few would trade the stigma of using food banks for a few staple food items, he argues. "If people are willing to come to a total stranger and say 'I don't have any food,' that can't be easy."

He believes the public "get" this, pointing to a recent tabloid attack on the food banks run by the Trussell Trust's claiming it was easily to falsely claim food parcels. "The day after that article, food bank donations increased markedly," he says.

Nevertheless, demand remains high, and the network has cut back on what is in each parcel from 26 items down to eight (usually including cereal, beans, pasta, pasta sauce, teabags and fruit if it's available).

This is partly to make donations go further, Mr McCormack says. But it really is the basics - not a replacement weekly shop for people hoping to save on their grocery bills.

The DWP insists it is right that those claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work, and says rules about what could happen if they don't stick to the rules are made clear.

Sanctions are used as a last resort, it says.

But that is unlikely to dampen the anger of those like Joe McCormack who say welfare reforms are driving desperate people to the foodshare scheme, and through the doors of his CAB.

"People are being abandoned by the state," he says. "We've seen suicides, and I think we'll see more."

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Food and drink

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