food-bankI once attended a talk by a DWP employee on Universal Credit. There was a power point presentation that looked like it had been made by someone who had never seen one before. The term “benefits assessment unit” was used where “family” would have been more appropriate. But best of all there was this gem:

“Of course, your job will be obsolete because the government is making the benefits system so much simpler” Perhaps, he suggested, we could give our clients job search advice instead.

I remembered that lecture at the beginning of last month, while watching this exchange at DWP questions between the chair of the DWP Select Committee, Frank Field and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions , Shailesh Vara:

Frank Field:

“A benefits adviser has been working in the food bank [in Birkenhead], and the number of people having to come back for a second bag of food has dropped by 65%. Whenever the Secretary of State refers to this experiment, he talks about “benefit advisers”, while other senior people talk about “work coaches”. Might the Minister persuade the Secretary of State to say that his phrase is not an offensive one? If someone who is hungry thinks that the person at the food bank is a work coach, it might put them off going to the food bank in the first place.”

Shalesh Vara:

“Both terms are applicable. May I just say that we should not get bogged down in the terminology? The important thing is to make sure that people actually have support to get them back to work … our long-term plan is working. We want to make sure that as many people as possible are in work so that they do not have to resort to food banks.”

For the uninitiated, “Work Coach” is the term used by the DWP to describe the people who oversee signing on, police job-searches and refer petty misdemeanours (arriving a few minutes late, not filling in a job search record properly, applying for too few jobs) through to decision makers to consider a sanction. They were previously known as “personal advisors”. Both terms are misleading. They neither “coach” nor “advise”.

There was no way I could imagine the presence of a “Work Coach” causing a 65% reduction in demand for food parcels. Sure enough, a bit of digging revealed that the Birkenhead benefits advisor to be an independent Welfare Rights worker from a nearby advice centre. People like me and the audience of that terrible DWP lecture.

What this shows is that, in Birkenhead, as elsewhere a very large proportion of food need is caused by the mistakes, maladministration or deliberate cruelty of the DWP. The Birkenhead Benefits Advisor is clearly very good at his job. A part of his effectiveness is in the fact that he is working in opposition to the DWP, not as part of them.

There is also a completely separate pilot scheme, in the Lalley Welcome Centre in Manchester, involving DWP “work coaches.” The project is in its early days and no information is available on its effectiveness.

The Lalley project is very much beloved by the government at the moment. The project originates in a letter from Sister Rita at Lalley to Ian Duncan Smith, suggesting that he make DWP workers available to the service. This rather audacious request was enthusiastically taken up by Mr. Duncan-Smith who not only provided the workers but also announced his intention to extend the project to Food Banks nationwide.

It will be worth watching this project very closely as it will no doubt be trotted out to justify government policy down the line.

A quick look at the Lalley Welcome Centre’s website page reveals the food bank to be an off-shoot of a longer running advice and support centre. This means that users at Lalley Welcome Centre already have access to the independent welfare rights advice that made such a difference in Birkenhead. Lalley’s existing welfare rights advisor may even find that his work is made easier by direct access to the DWP.

If the Lalley project is successful, my prediction is that this background will not be mentioned and the same results will be expected from the mere presence of the DWP at every small scale food distribution project. If the project is unsuccessful, of course, we may never hear about it again.

Frank-Field-551678And there are good reasons why the Lalley experiment may not be successful. People who run food banks are usually highly sensitive to the likelihood that users will be feeling anxious, embarrassed and desperate and are careful to avoid do anything that might suggest judgement.

A DWP presence would drive a (work) coach and horses through their efforts. It may make a visit to the Food Bank even more of an ordeal. In some cases it may prevent people from accessing support at all. Hopefully the people at Lalley will have put careful consideration into all this. Foodbanks nationwide will want to do the same. The biggest food bank, the Trussell Trust has indicated to campaigners that it is not on board with the plan.

Frank Field seems confused. The description of “benefits advisors” as “work coaches” is wildly inaccurate. They are two separate things.

This would be an understandable mistake in a lay person, but from the Chair of the DWP select committee it is not so easily forgiven. He has presumably read the report from which his 65% figure originates, “A route map to ending hunger as we know it in the United Kingdom.” It largely contains sensible examples of best practice of interest to the voluntary sector. At no point does it recommend the presence of DWP staff.

Mr. Vara on the other hand is opportunistic. He answered a question on the Lalley project earlier on in the debate, so he must be well aware that it is different from the Birkenhead initiative referred to by Frank Field. Nonetheless he was happy to both co-opt and erase the work of the Birkenhead Welfare Rights Advisor in order to promote his own agenda. And what’s more, to conflate benefits advice with “support to get back to work” as though the two were the same thing.

It was all very similar to that terrible DWP speaker who thought careers advice was a better occupation for us Welfare Rights Officers.

You only have to put it into a different context to see how ridiculous it is. I can’t imagine a worker at the HMRC saying: “We’ve simplified the tax system- independent tax advice is obsolete.”

It is taken for granted that the rich can seek advice on the areas of law that touch on their lives and arrange their affairs to their best advantage. I provide the same service for the poor and people act as though there’s something disreputable about it. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me, with feigned concern about whether it concerned me that I might be helping someone to “work the system.”

Behind the double standard is a Victorian morality. The poor should just accept what they’re given whether that’s benefits sanctions, baked beans, or pious advice on getting a job.

Meanwhile 16% of jobseekers have been sanctioned in the past year. Hardly anyone challenges a sanction but of those who do 60% see their decision overturned. It’s no wonder an experienced Welfare Rights worker can reduce hunger by 65%. Knowledge is a weapon in the class war, and the Tories want to see us disarmed.

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