Guest editor Mary McManus: ‘ Advice centres are windows into communities showing how cuts are affecting people.’

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By Mary MacManus, manager of the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre

My career in advice services began as a volunteer in 1997.

Not much changed in the initial years but since the economic crash in 2008 and the subsequent austerity policy, the number of people requiring advice began to grow and people’s circumstances began to deteriorate.

We made our first referrals for help with food to a church in 2008. There are now at least three dedicated food banks in east Belfast. Food Banks were not always here, they are a new phenomenon. There has been cut after cut to social security, which means that benefits do not provide people with a minimum essential level of income to survive.

A recent report on poverty in east Belfast by the Northern Ireland Assembly Research Team found that for a single person, social security income is 36 percent of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Minimum Income Standard (MIS). A lone parent with one child receives 50 percent of the MIS and a couple with two children receives 59 percent.

People can also have their benefit stopped overnight due to failing an assessment, being sanctioned or simply not paid due to an administrative error.

The result is people presenting in advice centres in a desperate state needing immediate help to restore an income and referrals to food banks and St Vincent de Paul for charitable assistance with food and fuel.

We see people who have been disallowed benefits such as Employment Support Allowance and due to this their Housing Benefit has stopped. Without intervention from us they would have no income and could be made homeless.

ESA and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) replaced Incapacity Benefit and Disability Living Allowance. People with severe and enduring mental illness rarely if ever had to seek help and advice from us with those benefits. Nor did so many severely disabled people with chronic or permanent conditions such as cerebral palsy or Parkinson’s disease.

Now not only do we regularly help these groups of people with forms, we also may have to help them to appeal a disallowance.

In one case, we had to call an ambulance for a person due to a seizure. They were turned down for PIP despite having a seizure at the assessment.

People in need of social security are stuck in a never-ending cycle of assessments that can traumatise and impoverish them. The only winners are ATOS and Capita with their lucrative assessment contracts

Despite the overwhelming weight of evidence in the public domain regarding the terrible human impact of social security cuts the Government carries on regardless without any major overhaul. They even ignore their own committees and the experts they appoint to carry out reviews.

The National Audit Office has said that Universal Credit could cost more to administer than the old system, but still they press on.

Who is counting the displaced costs of these cuts such as the cost to the health and social services budget?

Advice centres are windows into communities showing how these cuts are affecting people. It is very difficult to witness how the policy seems to punish people on a low income, children, the chronically sick and disabled.

One day, a woman came to us who had applied for a benefit but due to an administrative error, she had not received any money. Months had gone by; she did not have enough money for food or to buy school trousers for her son. Fortunately, in this case, the Department for Communities admitted their error and fast tracked a payment to her that day. Our adviser’s T-shirt was wet from the woman’s tears of relief.

I am delighted that VIEWdigital has chosen to shine a light on the impact of cuts to Social Security in this edition of the magazine. Social Security is there to provide a safety net for when we need it and any of us can at any time. We need to ensure that it is adequate and treats people with dignity.

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