Monday, 30 September 2013

A Day in the Life of 'Hard Working People'...

Apologies for using the most over used phrase of any Government in the title of this piece, but I want to show how life itself gets in the way of the best laid plans - and how Government policies, Banks and Institutions serve to grind down us 'Hard Working People' to tip us over the precipice into poverty.

Husband and I are in the precarious position of being Self Employed and Low Paid as we have caring duties for our youngest son with autism to cope with. We own our home, although of course technically the bank does, as we have a mortgage gained in better days when work was more plentiful. Today is mortgage payment day. Today a cheque my husband received from working, and which he deposited into his business account on 19th September (some 11 days ago) has not yet cleared in time to pay the mortgage. Cue frantic phone calls to the bank, who said the cheque 'should' clear in next few days, husband deciding that was not good enough and so a face to face confrontation in the town branch was called for: and myself getting on the phone regarding the mortgage to explain the circs and asking for a few days leeway.

My husband held the whole queue up in the bank while he took them to task about the cheque clearance and was also joined by another businessman with the same problem. Luckily our bank that holds the mortgage were understanding and have given us until Friday to make the payment. Breathing space for a problem that should never have occurred. Yet 90 minutes of wasted time to sort out. Due to austerity and having a family of 6 there are no longer even meagre savings to fall back on. One set back with an uncleared cheque throws our entire lives into chaos. It is frightening that one small detail can have such a significant impact on our lives.. our very roof depends on that cheque cleared in time. The bank let us down. The very organisation that has let the whole world down. Privatisation at its nauseating worst.

Our 90 minute frenetic panic and those awful thoughts of "What shall we do? Can we borrow the money from our parents if all else fails? What if the bank won't let us make the payment in a few days? Think, think..." It's scary David Cameron and George Osborne living on the 'Hard Working Edge'. Continuously plotting family finances on the big wall planner in the kitchen a month in advance. It takes time and energy and it is damned draining.

I make no apology whatsoever, that ever so often (and I know many other people either on JSA or Tax Credits do the same) have a 'What the hell..' moment once in a blue moon. By this I mean you get so weary plotting every bill payment, watching what you eat, what you wear,  that the sheer daily grind gets you down and you blow a bill payment on a tea in Pizza Hut for the kids, a new pair of shoes, a new hair-do. Then comes the guilt and the sheer worry of how to pay the bill you've just blown. But hell, for those few minutes it felt good to have that 1 treat. It made you feel part of the human race. Cameron and co would call it irresponsible but thats because they have never walked in my shoes for a month, or 6 or 12. Continuous daily grind and we work! I have nothing but admiration for those seeking work and unable to find any.

This week if that cheque takes longer to clear will I be able to get to Friday with the school lunches? Or will I be begging grandparents for help? The 1st of the month our bills on direct debits are paid. I have budgeted for that money as I do every month, but the food shopping will have to wait until Friday when I receive my Working Tax Credit payment. My husband is beginning a new venture shortly, to go alongside his DJ work so we can increase payment from self employment if all goes smoothly. But it depends on 3 other people. I hope they won't let him down. This week both my younger sons will come home with letters for the France trip. Last year I let one son go to London for a theatre trip. I will have to tell them, at a push, possibly only 1 son can go on the France trip at a cost of £400 plus the spends and new clothes. We cannot afford for both to go. Who do I disappoint?

Turn on the Tory Party Conference. Huge slogans about Hard Working People everywhere inside and outside the venue. George Osborne talking about crackdowns on the jobseekers. Iain Duncan Smith in The Guardian talking about crackdowns on the sick and disabled and talk of a Job Centre 'Celebration Week'. It is hard not to be fearful when you are the ones experiencing the fallout of being one of the 'Hard Working People' - but the Tories do not mean you because you do not work hard enough - you claim tax credits. Therefore you are classed as another burden on Tory Big Society.

Husband is out today; funnily enough looking for work. Making the contacts, chasing up wedding venues, doing the things the self employed do to keep the roof over their heads. Yesterdays 'strivers' but not allowed into the club of 'Hard Working People'.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Ed M : It's time Disabled Children's Parents got a Fair Deal too

Watching Ed Miliband at Labour Conference pledge 25 hours childcare and wraparound childcare for parents who work reminded me of the day Gordon Brown spoke of the first Sure Start Centres. A welcome sign of early years help for stressed out parents. With Cameron having axed approximately 576  Sure Start Centres since 2010, never has there been a time of such early years inequality for the poorest children, but likewise there has never been such a golden silence on the position of disabled children whose parents may like to work too.

To be frank, although 'New Labour' under Blair and Brown made huge leaps on childcare support, and Ed M is also looking to pledge more help, no party is talking about the plight that befalls us parents of disabled children at all.

My youngest son (youngest of 4) is autistic. He is only 10 months younger than my 3rd son and I had planned to return to work under Blairs government after a few years, as basically having the boys back to back, meant huge childcare bills back in 1998/99 which meant work did not pay at all. However my son's disability put paid to that initially and as he grew older I realised he thrived more with me 'on hand' than if I was working full time. I made that difficult choice to firstly stay at home and care then work part time self employed, even though it threw my family onto working tax credits and the poverty line. However, the vast majority of parents with children with profound disabilities have no choice but to stay at home and exist on the measly and quite frankly scandalous 'pay' of Carers Allowance at £59pw.

The problems parents of disabled children face are multi -problematic. If the choice is made to work, then who provides the care? Can you name specialist nurseries in your area that cater specifically for disabled children? I can't. Can you name any ordinary nurseries who have the specialist childcare knowledge of a range of disabilities that you would feel comfortable leaving your child with? I can't. Can you name a nursery prepared to take your disabled child? Again I can't.

And that is just for early years. So what are the options once your disabled child starts school (providing they are not so profoundly disabled that this is impossible)? Will an employer understand you having to leave work at the drop of a hat when a 'situation' has occurred at school? Is there a good quality breakfast/after school club that can cope with your child? The answer again is probably not.

And the cost? Nurseries/After School Clubs/Childminders are rightly justified in asking higher prices to cope with a child with a disability as it involves more input, more care and more patience! I certainly do not begrudge childcare providers asking/needing more money as looking after a disabled child is challenging for us parents! But we cannot afford these increased costs IF we manage to find a childcare provider.

And while a disabled child's peers sail off to High School and their parents heave a sigh of relief as childcare costs come to an end, at aged 11/12 this is not the case for the disabled child. They may need wraparound care until they are young adults! Again show me the list of childcare providers willing to take care of disabled teenagers at low cost? Hardly any or none at all most probably.

So I ask Labour and Ed Miliband to extend  childcare opportunities to parents of disabled children. Talk to parents of disabled children. For those where work is impossible due to the nature of the disability of their child, ask them what support could be given to improve their quality of life. After all, Andy Burnham is keen to get a One Stop Shop system of Health and Social Care.

It costs 3 x more to raise a disabled child than it does an able bodied child. Parents of Disabled children need more support, more options and the same level playing field of choosing to work if they want to as parents of able bodied children. Now is the time for Labour to start that discourse. Now is the time to act.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

How is Austerity affecting the Working Poor?

It was somehow ironic that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report today that shows 700,000 people in Wales (where I live) are living in poverty. More shocking but not surprising was that 51% of this total WORK and therefore are the Working Poor.

My family will be included in these statistics as we are self employed and low paid and get by with the help of working and child tax credits and also care for our youngest son with autism. We are making those everyday choices that other people who are working poor are making too.

We haven't got to the "Heat or Eat" stage like many people who are more unfortunate than ourselves, but we have got to the "Don't put the fire on: get a jumper and a quilt" instead. This autumn has taken a turn for what I personally describe as "Tory Inflicted Narnia" weather wise. However this follows hard upon the  Narnia Spring that saw us having to have our heating on until the first week of May 2013. In common with many other rural areas the snow lingered in April and so did the time we needed to keep the heating on.

This is the first year I have put a stop on turning the heating on when the house is cold. We simply cannot afford to put the heating on from September to possibly April 2014. Eight months of heating my house at £100 per month is not an option: not when we pay £110 per month for electricity too on our dual fuel tariff,

Aside from heating, difficult choices are being made in the supermarket weekly. The meat quantities I used to buy are drastically reduced and more minced beef bought as it is so versatile in recipes. You may decide it is a good thing that the treats like crisps and biscuits have been cut entirely. But it's monotonous when you can't have the odd packet of crisps/ biscuits in front of the TV at night. I like drinking chocolate before bed but the price has rocketed so I have cut this out too. Indulgent puddings, fancy cakes, yogurts, all have taken a tumble and my imagination has been fired on how to replace them.. Hence my new blog Big Food for Big families.  where I attempt to show how I feed filling nourishing food to bigger families like my own.

There have been occasions, as we are lucky enough to have 2 grandmothers living nearby, where visits to Gran have been arranged "to order". By this I mean the weekly food budget needed a stretch- and a visit to Grans at tea time will feed the kids for 1 evening. Sad but true and I make no apology. I have a sneaky feeling other families with relatives nearby may be doing the same thing on occasion.

When you work you like the Chinese takeaway on a Friday night perhaps, a holiday, decent clothes for the kids - nothing elaborate, just a few things to make work worthwhile. Yet the Working Poor who claim tax credits are being made to feel these odd treats are not allowed for them- it must be nose to the grindstone of Government enforced Dickensian work.  Working Poor are being turned against the Poor in society - yet we are all in the same boat vilified by a Government who cannot see beyond their rich privileged noses,

Rhetoric on Universal Credit proposals doesn't help when part time workers, especially those self employed are accused by Mark Hoban of "pursuing hobbies, earning nothing" whilst claiming tax credits. Working is not enough roars the Coalition, - you working poor must work more, longer, harder.

The Governments  response is to tell the working poor to work more hours, change jobs, or in our cases cease self employment and find paid employment. This will be more than "encouraged" under plans for Universal Credit where an element of "force" will come in.

The Working Poor have a whole tsunami of problems to face: Bedroom Tax, Council Tax, low pay, caring duties are all in the mix too. It is time Government stopped pouring scorn on those working to get by in austerity and put into practice : A Living Wage, Zero Hours and Agencies outlawed and regulated respectively, an onus on employers to provide more Full Time positions and a complete understanding of the position women especially are facing with  child benefit frozen, caring duties, no affordable childcare and no childcare at all for disabled children.

The Working Poor were yesterday's "strivers" Mr Cameron in your Governments own rhetoric. In my opinion  ANY government should be "striving" to support people by implementing policies that promote a healthy work/life ethic. This Coalition are positively campaigning against this. They must be stopped NOW!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Budgeting? Welcome to the world of the Master Jugglers Mr Gove!

Michael "Gaff" Gove is at it again! Not content with making an omnishambles out of education he has turned his thoughts to families who have had to resort to visiting Foodbanks to get by and feed their families.

Gove says ‘I appreciate that there are families who face considerable pressures.
‘Those pressures are often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances."

Have you managed a families finances on JSA and income support Mr Gove? Have you managed a budget where parents in a family work and are low paid? Probably not. I can tell you that many parents are extremely adept at managing a families finances. I know I am. There have been times over the last year when our self employment was more ebbing then flowing when I was managing to feed a family of 2 adults and 4 boys aged 13-23 on £50 a week - and that includes washing powder and cleaning products! Could you do that Mr Gove? One of your colleagues Iain Duncan - Smith  allegedly spent £39 on a breakfast last year. Families struggling against austerity are geniuses in stretching and balancing family budgets. Before you or your party ask, my flat screen TV was bought a few years back - by careful budgeting in the good times of self employment. Too late to send it back now!

We get working tax credits. The reason for this is because my husband as a DJ works in pubs and clubs who have cut their work and the rate of pay has been unchanged since 2002! He is also an ECB Cricket Coach. He coaches many private school kids whose parents can afford the coaching lessons. He also wants to coach young children into taking up and excelling at the sport and in turn benefiting their cricket clubs. Call it Big Society in action if you like! But we do not receive a Living Wage and in the winter months we carefully budget for our circumstances. We plan minutely Mr Gove for the
lean times ; the hard times. And there have been many more hard times since the Coalition came into power!

A few years back we had 4 school uniforms to buy every August.. always budgeted down to the last penny as my boys would arrive at school in September in correct school uniform with blazers. The cost then was in excess of £500. Working Tax Credits helped us out as they do now.  I have 2 boys left in High School and my 21 year old has just returned to college to do an access to Uni course. I cannot afford the £3 per son in High School  for lunch = £6 per day for school dinners. So they have packed lunches. We are having to support our 21 year old too for a year although he has several interviews for part time jobs lined up, to help him out with his college costs. But we live in a coastal rural area and are forking out the £9 a week bus pass for him. Some things I budget monthly for like the mortgage, council tax and utility bills. Other things like food, petrol, my disabled sons drama school fees ( one treat I will not bargain over as it is a huge benefit for him) I budget weekly for. So you see Mr Gove far from "not being able to manage my finances" I am a master juggler of making ends meet on a weekly and monthly basis, as are thousands more like me!

No one wants to visit a Foodbank. Contrary to Mark Hobans latest statement that the DWP and Job Centres do not refer people to Foodbanks or issue vouchers
many people are now unable to make ends meet at all, and are cutting back on food in order to pay housing costs and heating bills.

Imagine for one minute Mr Gove you have run out of money after paying the essentials. There are 3 or 4 days until you receive for example, a child benefit payment. You have exhausted all the avenues of getting money : asked relatives too many times, scrambled down the back of the sofa once too often and nothing is left, turned every coat pocket out, hunted behind furniture, emptied a handbag upside down, sold cherished possessions for a pittance What then? The very thought you have to rely on a charitable donation to feed your family for a few days is humiliating, and stomach churning. As a parent you are the provider. When you can provide no more and you have done everything to stretch the budget one last time in vain, the very thought of turning to a Foodbank can be the final straw, that sees many break down in total disbelief they have come to this point. They have made all the right decisions, they have put the children first with no treats or fripperies but the cupboard is bare. 

This is not about bad management of money or finances Mr Gove: this is sheer desperation. A desperation you and your Government refuse and cannot begin to comprehend.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

DWP pull Foodbank lifeline from the Poorest...

I had been given information recently that Foodbank referrals from Job Centres to both Trussell Trust and Independent Foodbanks had fallen drastically over the summer months. In confidence I was told it was because the DWP wanted to see Foodbank visits fall and thus stats on Foodbank use fall. At the time I could not believe that a Government department would deliberately set out to stop people looking for work hold onto a lifeline when JSA may be delayed due to processing, or a sanction had been put in place. The Daily Mirror confirmed the info I had received:

To me it is abhorrent that people literally have the final chance of help at the hour of their greatest need stopped with nowhere else to go.I also find it completely farcical that one minute David Cameron is lauding Foodbanks as "Big Society" in action, and secretly on the other hand plotting to ensure the stats for visits to Foodbanks are made to fall conveniently in 2014 - a year before a General Election.

The cynical use of denying help for job seekers who literally may have no money for several weeks or months due to processing etc is an all time new low for a DWP and a Government who seem to stop at nothing to make sure the poorest and most vulnerable in society stay that way. It is akin to seeing a poor person in a gutter and putting the boot in.

To job seekers denied benefit due to processing delays or sanctions there is only one place left to go and that is the Foodbank. The Government have taken away Social Fund Crisis loans and replaced them with a tiny sum of money in the form of discretionary payments made by councils. However these payments are not ring fenced for use in crises and vary from postcode to postcode in terms of help.

Some new claims for JSA can take 6-8 weeks to process.How is a desperate person to feed themselves in that time? Job Centres, alongside GPs, Social Workers and Teachers have been able to issue vouchers and refer job seekers to Foodbanks to gain the vital lifeline of food in a time of desperate need. Many people do not know where to seek help or often that Foodbank help is available. With the DWP narrowing down option after option the Foodbank is the final open door, job seekers can gain help from.. And now the DWP seek to slam that door shut too.

And let's not forget the Foodbanks are run by volunteers mostly, and the food donated is by you and me. There is no Government input into a Foodbank. It is society that is picking up the very job that the DWP should be doing. So why on earth is the DWP pulling that vital lifeline of support that people in desperate situations need? Stats. Pure Stats. Embarrassed by the soaring rise in Foodbank use and visits, this Government want to present false stats to the nation in 2014 to  show how "well" their "welfare reforms" are working. A disgusting and cynical ploy to lie to the electorate.

And what of the job seekers? Will there be Job Centre Advisors big enough to put their own job on the line by telling people where they can gain help? Not many perhaps. The biggest fear is two fold. There will be those like we see in the press on a weekly basis, who will be so ground down by fear of not being able to eat they will almost certainly take their own lives. There have already been too many reports of people taking their own lives in sheer desperation as a result of IDS's "welfare reforms". Couple lack of food with the Bedroom Tax and you have a tsunami of desperation.

I make no apologies when I tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg that they will have blood on their hands if they continue on this roller coaster going nowhere of "welfare reform" which consistently kicks the poor and vulnerable even further as outcasts from society. Feeding those hit most, at a Foodbank by voluntary donations, was the lowest thing I thought would happen in the UK, a sign that we were turning our backs on people in their hour of need. To then pull the Food out of the mouths of the hungry, when society can help and wants to help, is the act of a Government I want to see booted out of powere as soon as possible. This Mr Cameron is truly Not In My Name.....