Stephen is an adviser with a Citizens Advice Bureau in Glasgow.
In normal times it’s a challenging and rewarding role, and one that provides an first-hand view of the effects of government policies ‘on the ground’. In recent years this has chiefly related to the consequences of welfare reform and the introduction of Universal Credit.
Now it provides a frontline view of the social damage being wrought by a pandemic-recession.
In the first weeks of lockdown, once we were all sent home, Citizens Advice Scotland rapidly launched a national helpline service to ensure we were still accessible to the people who needed help. My first calls came from furloughed workers, struggling to make ends meet after losing 20% of their income. Later weeks saw an increase in consumer enquiries, as customers struggled to obtain refunds for expensive flights or to cancel pre-brought services they would no longer be able to access.
More recently, with the furlough scheme coming to an end, I’ve been getting more calls about from workers who have been made redundant, or soon will be. We expect to see a lot more. A colleague who has worked in welfare rights for over a decade told me she expects that what’s about to hit us will be even worse than 2008.
Thinking about it too much can get overwhelming. It’s hard not to feel personally responsible when you can’t help someone.
I take it one call at a time.
Millions of people are about to get their first taste of a social safety net ripped to shreds by a decade of spending cuts. Many of these new claimants won’t even be subject to the full, ‘authentic’ experience of our new welfare system; knowing what was coming, the government increased Universal Credit to a slightly more livable rate. Still, I find myself hoping that any first-hand experience of the benefits system will help to undo the damage of the past decade’s ‘Benefits Street’-style stigma.
Despite the pain of losing their jobs and the difficulty of making ends meet on paltry benefits payments, these callers are the lucky ones. I’ve spent dozens of hours over several appointments trying to help someone who lost his job and can’t find alternative work. He can’t claim Universal Credit, or any other benefits, because he is not from the UK and he has No Recourse to Public Funds as a condition of his stay. Despite a pandemic-induced recession and a jobs crisis, the government has refused to review the policy.
He has a dependent wife and a newborn daughter.
What do they expect him to do?