People are visiting the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre in growing numbers as cases of hardship are on the increase. VIEW editor Brian Pelan talks to two of its advice workers, Gerard and Peter, about what they are witnessing on the ground
On a daily basis the East Belfast Independent Advice Centre (EBIAC) on Templemore Avenue deals with the stark reality of austerity and cuts in people’s welfare benefits.
The staff inside the building are the unsung heroes who, somewhat similar to a surgeon, try to stem the hardship inflicted on working class citizens who attend the drop-in clinics in growing numbers.
Deputy manager Gerard Morgan, who has worked at EBIAC since 2004, said they have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of people using the advice service.
“We would have up to 35 people a day using our drop-in service,” said Gerard.
“We’re working in an impoverished area. A lot of the work we do is benefit related. Benefits by their very nature are the lowest amount of money that the Government says that you need to live on. Whenever there are benefit cuts, sanctions or freezes and inflation rises, it effectively means that you are impoverishing people even further from what you said they have to live on.
“We have also seen a massive rise in the number of food bank referrals. We used to never have any food bank referrals. We have everyone coming in – from young mums to pensioners.
“I remember a pensioner calling in. He found it very difficult to ask for help but he had no other option. He didn’t smoke, drink or gamble. He said that he had noticed his money going less and less further. He was a proud man but became quite tearful as he told me his story. He was literally broken at the fact that he had to ask for food. This is an example of a person who just doesn’t have enough to live on.
“It’s nearly shameful to say that it has now become a part of our service. We’re living in a society where some people just can’t feed themselves. I have children myself. To not be able to feed your own children is a terrible weight to carry.”
Gerard was keen to point out that EBIAC offers a range of services.
“Our service has a holistic approach to advice. We look at the impact on people’s lives.We look at their finances to check that they have everything they are entitled to. A lot of the time we’re referring people to counselling. We have witnessed a big increase in this area.
“The minute we get some one through the door we will have an overall look at the issues affecting them and see if we can help them or refer them to another service.”
I asked Gerard was it difficult to leave the daily stress – caused by helping vulnerable people – behind when he went home.
“I think it’s impossible not to take some of those feelings with you when you go home. You would have to be a very cold fish indeed not to be affected. “I have always wanted to fight for the underdog. Because of what I’m dealing with I really value what I have. I value going home and I value my children. I value the opportunity to sit with my wife in the garden and have a glass of wine.”
It was enlightening to chat to Gerard. He’s someone you would want in your corner when you are fighting bureaucratic decisions. I also took the opportunity when I was at EBIAC to talk to Peter, who works as a tribunal representative. He represents people who are appealing against benefit decisions.
“I look through the appeal papers to see what evidence the Department for Communities has for turning someone down. We will try to find evidence that counteracts what the department is saying,” said Peter.
“Ninety percent of the people we’re dealing with in connection with the move from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) have mental health issues.
“The whole decision-making process has been outsourced to Capita. It annoys me that public money is being paid into the private sector.
“Tribunals are held in Cleaver House, opposite Belfast City Hall.
“One of the tribunals I attended had to be adjourned as the person I was representing was sobbing so much they couldn’t answer any questions.”
Peter also revealed to me an incredible statistic in terms of the amount of cases they are handling.
“We’re winning around 75 percent of these tribunal cases,” said Peter.
“Some people just give up, though, before their case gets to the tribunal stage. The whole process if you are appealing can take six to eight months, and sometimes even longer.”
Peter recalled a case where a woman got a decision against her overturned.
“I said to her: ‘I’m really glad you won the case’. She said: ‘I’m happy for you too’.
“I was glad she said that to me. It’s not just a case of professional satisfaction. It’s also personal satisfaction as I really felt for the situation she had found herself in.”