Wages are not keeping up with inflation, benefit rates have been frozen for three years, and the number of people turning to food banks is ever increasing.
For most of us, things seem pretty bleak.
While we wait for governments to fix the problems, there are people all over the country who are trying to do something to support those who have the least. And they are doing some amazing things that are having a real impact.
In March we held a workshop in Aberdeen to celebrate the good examples in Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and to consider what else can be done. We had a great turn out, with over 60 people from a variety of backgrounds coming to share their ideas and passion for reducing the need for food banks in their community.
We heard about the good practice already happening in the North East, including Food Poverty Action Aberdeen’s extensive alliance of organisations and their upcoming action plan for tackling food insecurity.
We learned about local community projects, such as the Tillydrone Community Flat and their involvement in the Sustainable Food City Partnership Aberdeen Action Plan.
We heard how advice agencies have made it easier for people to use them. For example, Aberdeen City Council’s Financial Inclusion Team changed to an 0300 number instead of a “private number” so people are more likely to answer their calls, they text people with appointment reminders, and they run surgeries in community centres.
We also learned about centralised referral pathways, including Cash in Your Pocket. They take referrals from support services and pass them to the most relevant money advice agencies. This means support service workers and volunteers only have to call one phone number instead of keeping track of several agencies.
People thought local partnership working has improved in recent years and, despite the harmful effects of welfare reform, the North East is working better together.
There’s a lot to be proud of. But, of course, there is always more that can be done.
People felt local agencies could work even closer together to reduce the number of agencies people have to go to in order to receive the help they need. Ideas for addressing this included the development and continuous updating of an Aberdeen City registry of agencies with a brief explanation of services they provide, in the same way Aberdeenshire Council does. People also thought more co-location of services and advice hubs should be developed, just like the Here for You Centre.
There was a call for more training for staff who work with vulnerable people because many felt people accessing services were not always treated with the respect they deserve.
The most powerful part of the day was when local residents spoke about their experience of navigating the social security system. The challenges they faced with Universal Credit and the Tax Credit system highlighted the problems inherent in both systems.
We heard the in-built wait for a first payment and administrative issues, so well associated with Universal Credit, cause rent arrears and force people to turn to food banks. Though there are mechanisms within Universal Credit that are supposed to prevent these issues, we heard many examples when these were not properly implemented and someone was left to fend for themselves with the help of their local community.
“It is so hard to ask for help for food, for someone like me who has worked, paid taxes and NI. I don’t want to ask for charity.”
We also heard about the impact zero hour contracts have on families. The stress and uncertainty caused by low wages and insecure hours is bad enough, but when you add the uncertainty of getting enough hours to maintain a working tax credit claim; the bureaucratic difficulty of proving this; and the effects of HMRC being unsure if enough hours are being worked and suspending your tax credit award; it’s easy to see why so many working people are turning to food banks.
“We need to get rid of zero hours contracts.”
Despite the challenges, the take away from the day was overtly positive. People felt motivated to do more together and everyone took away personal actions to improve their community by tackling food crisis and reducing the need for food banks.
One person pledged to develop a checklist of financial assistance available and ensure all workers know how to access them before they resorted to issuing food parcels.
Another committed to run more “town meal” style events where free food is provided and the focus is on eating together as a community.
Someone is going to increase their knowledge of benefits so they could make more appropriate referrals for people in crisis.
Someone else said they would encourage people to access income based solutions.
There are big, big challenges for people on low incomes. Low wages and changes to social security continue to devastate the lives of the most vulnerable of us all over the UK. But there is so much local communities can do, and are doing, to help mitigate these effects. Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire have many excellent examples of people making herculean efforts to make sure no one goes without food. But more importantly, despite doing so much, they are driven to do even more.
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Author: David Hilber, Project Officer