Going back or moving on

Its that time of year when thousands of children and young people in Bath and North East Somerset are returning to school, going to a new one or starting school for the very first time. Parents will have been getting out last years’s uniform and realising it doesn’t fit. Lots of them will be taking up hems, passing older chldren’s clothing onto younger ones, picking up reduced uniform at school and receiving donations from friends. But what if you can’t do any of these things? Perhaps you have a child who is big or small for their age or all the uniform you had has worn out. Some schools, especially secondary schools now have quite strict uniform policies, including for PE and sport, and for footwear. It all adds up and for some families its a big outlay at once.

5 years ago we wrote a report on the cost of uniforms and other school items like trips, and confirmed that it really is a very costly exercise which some people simply cannot afford. We were very pleased that the Council reviewed the affordability of uniforms and came up with some proposals for schools. We were even more pleased that they used our report Adding up :Education Costs in Bath and North East Somerset and found it valuable.

One of our recommendations – the simplest ones are always the best- was that schools did not insist on clothing from particular suppliers but allowed parents to buy the clothing they could afford, and badges to identify the school could be sewn on. I wonder how much schools have adopted this approach?

Some older children will be getting ready to go off to University and many will be budgeting for the first time. Student loans are not enough to cover the high cost of housing in many areas so we would encourage all those young people to plan ahead. Find useful tips on our website http://www.adviceguide.org.uk on managing money and renting but most of all if things get out of hand, ask for advice from the University, Students’ Union or CAB as soon as you can. The good news is that the Government has given Citizens Advice some cash to subsidise the costs of phone calls to our Adviceline, so its cheaper especially from mobiles, and for people who have a package phone deal the new numbers are part of that so calls are free! CAB BANES can be reached on 0344 848 7919 every weekday except Tuesday from 10-4. Its often better to ring your local bureau if there’s a local problem, say with a landlord, so go onto Adviceguide and get the number you need. And don’t let worries get in the way of study and socialising!

Housing: bedroom tax for some, illegal evictions for others.

The good news is that CAB BANES has quickly found a replacement Interim Director. Gill Whitehead has been Operations Manager for a while so knows the area and how we work really well, but has lots of ideas about how we could work even better for our population.
Another bedroom tax case stood out this week. Eileen is a very vulnerable client with serious mental health problems which have resulted in recent hospital admissions. She has lived in her home for 15 years, bringing up her children there single handed. Its a 2 bedroomed social housing property which she loves. She’s unable to work and her Housing Benefit is reduced by £13 per week for her under occupancy so she has to find that from her £101 per week benefit which is meant to be used for food, bills, clothes, travel, phone, TV. She’s already stopped using her gas so has no hot water on tap. The thought of moving is far too stressful but she might be able to consider it if she had time and no fear of getting behind with her rent. The Council have been great helping her with the shortfall but this cannot go on for ever. She even thought about renting the spare room but although it was fine for her children to share whilst growing up, its too small for one person to have all their belongings in – all the things which if it were your own home you’d have in the rest of the house. Things like TV, computer, sports equipment. If the council can’t go on helping Eileen then she’s likely to have another breakdown. Wonder how much that costs the health service?
2 shocking potential illegal evictions this week, both with people in shared accommodation. One was given notice (incorrect at that) for no legal reason in the middle of a fixed term tenancy. No arrears, had caused no trouble but happened to be pregnant. Lots we can do to help mitigate and manage these situations and at least the most vulnerable people feel they can seek our advice, assistance and advocacy.
Back to the good news. Now that the Council have reversed the cuts they were applying to our funding, we are able to return to offering a home visiting service mainly for older and disabled people. Cheers and sighs of relief all round!

A rose by any other name

I wonder what Shakespeare would have made of the various terminology for the reduction of Housing Benefit for people who have more bedrooms than meet their immediate basic need? Spare Room Subsidy, Under Occupation Charge or the more informal Bedroom Tax has been in the news twice this week. A Government commissioned study, Evaluation of Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy, has found that 80% of tenants affected found it very or fairly difficult to pay the shortfall left by the reduction in Housing Benefit and that some were having to decide between paying the rent, eating or fuel. Some were using short term credit to stave off the arrears. The Liberal Democrats are now opposing the Subsidy,Charge/Tax which would appear to be because of the hardship caused to disabled people and children of separated parents particularly – as the government study shows. What often goes unsaid in these debates is that tenants who move into private rented housing with the necessary number of bedrooms will often be paying a higher rent thus costing more in Housing Benefit than if they stayed in their social housing. BUt why shouldn’t people move into smaller accommodation as their children move out? Well, some would like to be able to put up grandchildren overnight whilst the parents work or because this is one way grandparents are useful and like to be involved; some would like dispersed families to be able to come and stay; some give and receive support in their communities and both would suffer if they had to move away. Yet more would like to move but are deterred by the lack of suitably sized and located housing. Here in Bath and North East Somerset we have a fantastic Welfare Support scheme which can help people with the subsidy whilst they look for other accommodation but the funding from the Government for this may end in 2015. If this is so, then its a good job the Financial Conduct Authority has proposed a cap on interest rates for payday loans and has already restricted the amount of times a loan can be rolled over. Thanks must go here to all the campaigning organizations, including Citizens Advice, and the people who have told their shocking stories, who have pressed for these changes. These are significant changes and could not have come at a better time if people are going to be in greater need of cash if local support for the most vulnerable goes. At least they’ll be less worse off then they might have been.

We said goodbye to our Chief Exec at CAB BANES this week.  Jan Westrope has retired after 8 years in the hot seat during a time when the problems experienced by the public who seek our help have increased and become more complex, austerity measures have particularly affected the people on low incomes who we mainly see, and funding has become harder to get. Staff and volunteers took a break along with some of our Tustees, to raise a glass to Jan. We will miss her ideas, generosity and determination that everyone should be provided with the best tools and support to do their job.  Friday was a particulary tough day with our volunteers grappling with technical dfificulties in claiming benefits, identifying unclaimed benefit, bereavement, separation, the under occupation charge (or “bedroom tax”) and chronic ill health.  Its no wonder people are struggling.  Many of these problems will get fed back to Citizens Advice in London as Social Policy issues.  They collate all similar problems and prepare reports for Government based on real life evidence that things aren’t working or are unfair.  The extortionate costs of ringing Job Centre Plus from a mobile got changed, partly as a result of us all raising it as a problem.  And just the fact that we can highlight problems is a useful way to express frustration at some of the things we encounter.

Advice for the future pledge #advice4future is a campaign run by Citizens Advice nationally to mark the 75th anniversary of the service and to gather support for a service in the future.  Many people don’t use CAB all the time but everyone knows someone who has or who has volunteered their time to work with us. We were the Big Society before that phrase was coined by David Cameron, using well trained and supported volunteers to help people solve their problems – at the same time, enabling and educating people with problems to solve any future issues if possible or even to become a volunteer, learn more and help others. I count myself amongst such lucky people when I needed help following the sudden death of my father. Many say its a comfort knowing the CAB is there just in case you have a problem you don’t know how to handle it, don’t want to talk to someone you know and are confused by what you’ve found online. A range of free help is offered from providing information up to and including representation at courts and tribunals depending on the problem and the needs of the individual, and also gathering stats about laws and procedures which aren’t working well so that we can lobby for change. We want to be able to continue to do this and know people want us to, but with cuts and austerity its not so certain.  Everyone can help us highlight the importance of the service by signing the pledge.  So all of us actual or potential clients, volunteers and trustees can go to www.citizensadvice.org.uk/adviceforthefuture to say we want the CAB service to be there for anyone who needs it.  We are very thankful for all the support we get – like the Big Society, gratitude works both ways.  

Platinum anniversary for Citizens Advice

The first CABx are 70 years old this year, springing up as the result of the war, answering queries about coupons, rations, housing, what to do when soneone dies. For coupons read food vouchers, for rations read benefits and this is pretty much what we still advise on but with a whole lot of added debt.
Look at https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=8PjDgvc6TVU for what was going on in 1942.

This week has been Carers’ Week, following on from Volunteers’ Week, making it hard not to make the connection. Many people caring for older or disabled relatives, friends or neighbours do so without payment or for a pittance. Carers Allowance is £61.35 per week and not everyone is entitled to that. However, 2 bits of good news on the caring front this week. A new Carers Centre opened in Bath, providing advice, leisure, befriending schemes, breaks and emotional support for carers. All the details are on http://www.banescarerscentre.org.uk. Professional carers often get a bad press, with horror stories from care homes about the treatment of residents, so its easy to forget the regular “caring caring” which is going on all the time in people’s homes. The pay is so low for such vital work that it was good to hear that HMRC have actually ruled that carers should be paid during their travel time between visits. Shocking that employers tried to get out of this so that carers often had to rush frenetically between calls, unlike others, say, District Nurses or Social Workers. Read more on https://www.unison.org.uk/news/articles/unison-welcomes-travel-time-victory.

Volunteers’ work gets recognized by Buckingham Palace.  2 of our volunteer advisers were selected to go to a garden party at Buck House as recognition of the work that they do.  Nothing out of the ordinary or achieving against all odds, but Hugh and Stephen are people quietly getting on with the job of helping people solve the problems of benefit delays and stoppages, rising debt, the costs of living and insecure employment. Stephen has learnt Polish and used it to spread access to advice to our sizeable Polish community by working in an Outreach we set up in a local school. This week is Volunteers’ week and whilst some are being feted at royal garden parties, “let them eat cake” is definitely the message for the other 135 volunteers advisers, triage assessors, administrators, researchers and client support workers at the CAB in Bath and North East Somerset.  Anyone interested in cake or other activities can check on our website www.cab-banes.org for how you can help us and we can help you.  We can safely say there is never a dull moment.