Yesterday afternoon I spent an interesting couple of hours following the #CABlive hashtag on Twitter. This hashtag aimed to give the reader an insight into the day-to-day workings of Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country and, it must be said, made for fascinating and eye-opening reading.
Having had cause to use the services offered by the CAB myself a few years back, I was already aware of how busy many bureaux are and the wide range of issues they deal with – but I was genuinely taken aback by the large number of tweets referencing clients who were having problems with the new benefits system; particularly with ESA applications or Work Capability Assessment appeals.
There is already a huge amount of anecdotal and more statistical evidence that shows how badly these benefits and the tests for them are failing, and how they are causing great distress (and sometimes physical or mental health problems) for many of those being forced onto them.
As I read the tweets yesterday, I wondered if these changes to the benefits system were already having an impact on the number and type of client that CABs were seeing, so I asked this question:
The Twitter team from the CAB in Bolton, Lancashire responded, telling me that they’d had a “massive” increase in their workload since the benefit changes went live. They also very kindly forwarded some extremely revealing statistics to me, which I examined with great interest.
The Bolton stats show that, comparing January 2011 and January 2012, the staff at that CAB dealt with more clients overall during this January just gone – but by far the biggest increase (approximately a third more than in January 2011 by my reading) was in the number of clients who had problems which related to benefits.
The reason for such a large change in the figures? Simple. The implementation of changes to the benefits system began in earnest in the months between the two sample figures.
Admittedly, this is only one comparison over a brief period of time (although the rise in the number of clients seeking advice on employment, immigration, debt, housing, and community care were only slight compared to the benefits figures) and these results are only from one CAB (although, anecdotally, I am sure the figures will be similar elsewhere) – but it shows that the new system is already having negative effects.
However, CABs across the country are actually facing a government double whammy. Not only have the numbers of clients gone up as a result of economic downturn and changes to the benefits system, but many bureaux are also facing crippling financial cuts as a result of upcoming major reductions in legal aid funding.
Maybe I’m a little angry about all this, but, to me, all this smacks of a spiteful, nasty attempt by the rich and powerful to create an underclass of poor, deprived and vulnerable people, who are in the situation they are in through no fault of their own – yet who are also being demonised, vilified and made to suffer by having hope snatched away from them because the government doesn’t care.
And they don’t.
So, when the economic system rips you apart by creating debt, joblessness and homelessness, you are failed by the DWP even when you can’t physically work, and a lack of legal aid and other funding means there’s no more CABs or other community legal resources, what are you going to do?
You may think I’m scaremongering here, that it’ll never happen to you – but don’t be so sure of that. It could happen to anyone. A combination of economic downturn and the policies of the last two governments have produced what is well on its way to being a perfect storm of poverty and deprivation of almost Victorian proportions in this country.
And we’re rapidly reaching the point where there’s no safety net for ordinary people any more.
It’s happening. It’s happening here and now. And changes to the legal aid and benefit systems mean that more people are suffering and organisations like the CAB are under threat. When the worst happens and we lose these crucial community resources, when there’s no-one left to help the vulnerable and deprived pick up the pieces, what then?