Universally Discredited: Stop this madness 

UCREDITUNIVERSAL Credit is making headlines again – and that will continue throughout the winter unless the Government comes to its senses.

For the uninitiated, Universal Credit (UC), is this government’s flagship Welfare Reform.

It’s an all-in-one benefit system that replaces several existing benefits, including housing benefit and child tax credits, with one single monthly payment.

So what’s going wrong?

The main issue is that people moving onto UC are faced with a six-week delay before receiving their first payment. Nationally, more than a quarter of claimants have been waiting even longer than that. Months, in some cases.

stackSuch delays are totally unacceptable. They are needlessly pushing many people into debt and rent arrears, causing great stress, especially to the most vulnerable, and can lead to eviction or homelessness.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says UC is “an online service” and last week used that to justify their telephone helpline charging callers 55p per minute.

Well I’m sorry but how on earth can hard-up people be expected to pay a premium rate to get help in claiming money that they are actually entitled to? What’s morally defensible about charging those most in need of the money for help with their claims?

The DWP says encouraging people to use UC online helps with their digital skills and employability. That’s fine, but those struggling financially are less likely to have a smartphone, tablet, PC or even their own internet connection. And you can’t just cut people adrift like that.

For me, social security should do exactly what it is supposed to do – offer a safety net for those who need it and help to get people back into work.

When Oldham agreed to become an early adopter of UC in 2013 we envisaged working with the DWP to help identify problems and produce a more effective system before it was rolled out nationally.

That simply hasn’t happened and unless a debate led by Oldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams is successful in Parliament today (October 18) then I really fear the impact in the months ahead.

Sadly there’s a wealth of local data showing the true impact of UC here in Oldham.

Oldham Food Bank has seen a 77 per cent increase in people getting food parcels due to benefit delays or changes in the last two years, for example.

oldhamfoodbankAt Oldham Council our benefits advisers are spending an average of one hour and ten minutes on the phone just to help each claimant through the online application process.

Politicians – and that’s from all sides – are now uniting with public sector bosses, advice services and the voluntary sector in calling for the national rollout of UC to be stopped.

Even the National Audit Office, the body overseeing government spending, has said that UC is “driven by an ambitious timescale” with “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”. We can’t all be wrong, surely?

Universal Credit just isn’t fit for purpose as it stands and our society should be treating vulnerable people much better than this.

Instead of continuing to try and save face and push on with this rollout, the Government should acknowledge these failings, press the pause button and stop this minimum six-week delay. And do it now.

The consequences of not doing so, for many people and families, don’t bear thinking about.

With winter on the horizon some could be facing the coldest months of the year making the hardest of choices, like whether to heat their home or feed themselves and their families.

This is a Government that has talked a lot about creating ‘an economy that works for everyone’ and its concerns for those who are ‘Just About Managing’ – so how on earth does the UC rollout fit with that stance?

Please spare a thought for those affected by this as we head towards the festive season and visit the Oldham Foodbank website here to find out how you can help make a difference for local people in crisis.

strictly-kershaws-2017_Facebook_and_webAnd finally this week: after thousands of steps, 12 weeks of practice, two outfits and two left feet, I am as ready as I will ever be to strut my stuff on Friday at Strictly Kershaw’s.

Although I’m used to speaking at public meetings and debating issues with large groups of people, this is really going to be something very different.

I’ll let you know how I get on in next week’s blog.

You can still buy tickets here and (please!) sponsor my efforts at my JustGiving page here to help keep Dr Kershaw’s on course for its challenging fundraising targets.

Jean

Credit Unions: Needed more than ever in 2017

OCU - Logo
I CHAIRED the Annual General Meeting of the Oldham Credit Union (OCU) last night.

I’ve been chair of the OCU for around 12 years now and I’ve seen its offer change significantly in that time.

In 2017, Britain continues to face a mounting debt and savings crisis and Credit Unions can help with the issues faced by many individuals and families.

These were highlighted by a new survey into personal finances this week.

The research, by MoneySuperMarket, showed many people are getting into even more debt – and the vast majority blame the rising cost of living.

Studio Shot Of Worried Couple Looking At BillsMore than a third of adults said their debt is going up because of rises in transport costs, household bills and grocery costs.

Another issue now is that whilst inflation is slowly rising – up to a 32-month high in February – most people’s salaries are continuing to flatline. This means their spending power is steadily declining.

Inflation is expected to hit 2.4 per cent later this year, mostly because of the weakness of the pound, and this means people who are already in debt will find it even harder to ever get back into the black.

With the possibility of interest rate rises to come, these are very hard times for many people.

The average debt per person in the North West is £5,811 – just below the UK average of £6,372 – and its known that younger people (in the 18-34 age bracket) are racking up debt much quicker than those nearing retirement age.

A third of people surveyed admitted they rely on cards and loans just to get by from month to month, so it’s clear this is a widespread problem in the context of an insecure labour market where zero hours contracts also mean a steady, predictable income is a pipedream for many.

Good Bad Credit Signpost Showing Customer Financial RatingSo, what can Oldham Credit Union do to help?

OCU is a not-for-profit, democratic co-operative owned and controlled by its members. Its philosophy is about mutual self-help and it is not run on the same basis as lenders like banks and building societies.

Their services are there for anyone aged over 16 living or working in our borough. They try to promote the savings ‘habit’, provide fair loans at competitive interest rates, and provide advice on managing finances. They have a range of services on offer for different circumstances.

Imagine, for example, being hit with an unexpected car repair bill that needs doing immediately so you can get to work. In this scenario, some people without access to affordable credit end up falling prey to high-interest lenders or loan sharks.

OCU works with Greater Manchester Police and the Illegal Money Lending Team to keep people away from loan sharks because borrowers don’t just risk high interest repayments. Sharks often also employ extreme collection methods that include intimidation, threats and violence.

That kind of behaviour isn’t welcome here and we want people to know there is a responsible alternative in Oldham.

OCU offers access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans. It works closely in neighbourhoods offering Junior Savings clubs and Community Collection Points in some areas.  Members include people who cannot access a bank account and don’t have any substantial kind of savings buffer – and it continues to develop partnerships with organisations like Regenda, Great Places, First Choice Homes Oldham – and Oldham Council – to tackle financial exclusion.

An example of how OCU can help is a Jam Jar budgeting account. This is a simple way of ensuring key bills like Council Tax and rent get paid. When opening an account, people agree how much they will pay towards each key bill per month and the OCU does the rest. Any surplus left over is then available in your OCU Savings Account. A Jam Jar account is free (subject to a one-off £1 joining fee) and you can also have benefits paid directly into the account.

Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At BillsDespite the clear need for Credit Unions – there are about 350 across the UK – we’re small compared to this sector in other countries. UK Credit Unions have assets worth around £1.32bn and 1.2m members, but globally we’re small players in a sector boasting more than 208m members and assets worth $1.7tn.

That’s why UK Credit Unions are trying to raise their profile now through increasing awareness and getting more members from all income groups – and the OCU is no exception.

This all needs to be done at a sustainable pace. A three-year business plan has seen OCU grow in recent times and the range of services is now expanding.

A new Engage Pre-paid Visa Card and E account offer members modern online payment services and, in the year head, OCU will launch a new loan offers and an automated Lending Decision system for members.

MAServiceIf you’re facing any kind of financial difficulties or issues, I’d also recommend the Money Advice Service, which is a not-for-profit government organisation set up solely to advise people on their finances. You can find it at: https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en

Credit Unions provide a public good filling an important gap in the market: and not just for people who are rejected by High Street banks. Many join because they want their money to be used to support the principles of ethical lending.  If you want to find out more, visit the OCU website at www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.  If you don’t already have an account, why not open one now?

OCU needs to appeal to that wider audience in future but our overriding goal – offering Simple Affordable Fair and Ethical financial services – has never changed, and it never will.

Jean