An impassioned debate over claims that strict sanctions on benefits claimants are causing severe poverty ended with Stockton Borough Council passing a motion criticising Government policy.
The motion called for a review of the Department for Work and Pensions‘ (DWP) sanctions where benefits claimants, including those on Job Seekers Allowance, who miss an appointment or is late can be left without any money at all for five to six weeks.
Several councillors speaking at the authority’s full council meeting said they had examples of where the policy was being used “unfairly” while deputy leader Jim Beall branded it as a “deliberate, cynical measure” to alter the unemployment statistics.
However Conservative councillor Andrew Stephenson argued against the motion saying the sanctions helped people back to work.
The motion concluded:
“The Council resolves to write to our MPs requesting that they raise this deplorable situation with the responsible Minister urging an immediate review of national policy and guidance on sanctioning.”
Council leader Bob Cook told of a case where a young man got a letter informing him of a morning appointment but didn’t receive it until the afternoon and lost his benefit.
Meanwhile Cllr Norma Stephenson said she knew of 19 families on the Hardwick estate who had been sanctioned while Cllr Barry Woodhouse cited the case of a Billingham resident who lost her disability benefit for having zero points, only for a review to say she had 33 points.
Cllr Eileen Johnson said she had a friend working for the DWP who told her staff had been in tears “because they can’t bear what they are doing.”
> But they carry on doing it nevertheless…
Cllr Norma Wilburn said she had heard a national story on the radio about an amputee who had lost his benefit because he couldn’t answer the phone. She said: “This seems like a coordinated attack on the vulnerable. This is evil.”
Cllr Mark Chatburn, Ukip, said the policy was “deliberate” and “the epitome of nasty.“
> This from the representive of a party who’s members have called for the unemployed to be denied the vote and banned from owning cars.
The motion was passed and Stockton’s two MPs, Alex Cunningham, Labour, and James Wharton, Conservative, will be contacted by the council.
Source – Northern Echo, 22 Jan 2015
Christmas spirit is taking over Teesside this year as groups of volunteers plan to feed and clothe the homeless and others in need over the festive season.
Friends Faye Forbes Spencer and Zoe Lonsdale, both of Billingham, have set up a 12 Days of Christmas project for the Billingham and Stockton areas, and have already had offers of help from dozens of kindhearted people as well as bags full of donated clothes, tinned food and toiletries.
Faye decided to set up the Billingham-based project after reading a message on Facebook suggesting it.
“The initial idea was to go out on to the streets with hot food for the homeless, but we realised they can often be hard to find as they tend to hide. We approached some shelters, including Prefer Homes and the Moses Project, so now we’re working with them.
“We’ve asked what they’re in need of for donations, and we’ve got kitchens to cook in over of the 12 nights in the run- up to Christmas, from the 12th to the 24th.
“The shelters are helping to get the word out to homeless people to let them know we’re going to be there, so we’re not sure how many people will turn up.
“We’ll just have to take the first night as it comes and learn from it for the next.
“We’re not just giving out food though; we’re also there to meet people and have a chat with them.
“I didn’t want to be just one of those who drops off donations on the doorstep, it’s also about interaction.”
Faye said she and Zoe have already had to sort out dozens of black bags full of kind donations, and were grateful for every single item.
“I didn’t expect it to get this big. People have been absolutely fantastic. We’ve had plenty of coats, hats, scarves.
“The things we’re lacking in now are shoes and duvets or sleeping bags.
“Loads of people have been brilliant, and I can’t name them all, but one lady used to own a warehouse, and she donated what she had left over, loads of toiletries, which I’ve been able to use to make little washbags we can give away. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s offered help. It’s been hard work sorting it all, and Zoe and I have put as much of our own money into it as we can, but if we can make just one person’s Christmas better, then it’s worth it.”
Faye said the group has also had offers of help from Billingham’s Asda and Iceland.
Anyone wanting to get involved can friend request Faye Forbes Spencer on Facebook and ask to be added to the 12 Days of Christmas group.
A meeting is also being held in The King’s Arms, Billingham, tonight from 7pm, which people can attend for more information.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 11 Dec 2014
Foodbanks in the North are so desperate for supplies they are having to travel hundreds of miles South to collect parcels.
One bank in the region needs a staggering four tonnes of food every week just to meet the massive demand in the run up to Christmas.
While another is even handing out hot water bottles and thick coats in a bid to keep children warm this winter.
The Sunday Sun newspaper has joined forces with foodbank charity The Trussell Trust to help boost stocks and make sure everyone can enjoy the festive season.
Matthew King, assistant manager at Newcastle’s West End Food Bank, the busiest in the UK, said:
“We’re at the stage now where we are having to drive to places like Surrey and Sussex just to pick up parcels to help meet the demand.
“We have a shortage up here at the minute so we’ve been driving down South to stock up and bring the food back up.
“Last week we gave out 300 parcels of food and this is increasing as we get deeper into winter.
“All contributions would be gratefully received.”
Mr King said they are currently only able to meet the demand by looking outside the North East.
“We estimate we will have fed 55,000 mouths by the time this year ends.
“We are the busiest foodbank in the country, mainly because of the large areas of poverty we have here in the parts of the West End of Newcastle.”
Now, we are urging people right across the North to pack a food parcel and hand it in to their local foodbank in the coming weeks.
Nigel Perrott is from Middlesbrough Foodbank.
“We often find it’s that period right after Christmas when there’s a real shortage.
“In the run up to the festive season people can be very generous and helpful but, once that Christmas spirit has gone, it becomes harder to meet the demand.”
Jill Coyle, from Billingham and Stockton Foodbank, said they were also taking in items like hot water bottles and children’s winter coats.
“We’ve seen children coming in with flimsy clothing on and, of course, it’s getting much colder now.
“People have been so generous in the run up to Christmas, but there is always that demand for more.”
Figures released by the Trussell Trust, which runs foodbanks across the North, show that between April and September 2014, over 25,000 people were helped by the charity’s Gateshead, Newcastle East and Newcastle West End food banks alone.
That breaks down to 4,289 a month – more than treble the 1,316 people per month in Newcastle and Gateshead who accessed a foodbank in the nine month period between April 2013 and December 2013.
Meanwhile a further 912 were catered for at Middlesbrough’s foodbank during the six-month period.
Critics of the Government’s welfare reforms claim organisations like the Trussell Trust are becoming an unacknowledged and unpaid part of the welfare system.
Changes to benefits since 2012 include raising the minimum job seekers’ sanction from one to four weeks and the start of the so-called “bedroom tax”.
Mr King said there were no signs of the demand for foodbanks slowing.
“Everyone who comes here has been assessed, it’s not just like people are walking in off the street.
“They have perhaps received vouchers from health workers, school liaison officers, Citizens Advice staff or social workers.”
Naomi Stevens, from Durham Foodbank, said they have 26 distribution points right across the county.
She added:“There is always the need for more and we welcome any contribution people can make.”
Mandy Martin, of Chester-le-Street, County Durham, has had parcels to help get her and her two children through the winter.
Mandy, who has a three-year-old and a five-year-old, said:
“The hardest thing was to accept that I needed help.
“The changes to the benefit system have really affected how much money we had coming in so I felt coming to a foodbank might help get us back on our feet.”
Christopher Gallin, who lives in Throckley said:
“The foodbank stops people from going hungry. They do so much for families who are struggling and provide hot meals to keep us going in the winter.”
The region’s foodbanks desperately need:
- Tinned vegetables
- Tinned meat
- Dry pasta
- Tinned fish
- Dried milk
- Tinned soups
- Tea bags
- Biscuit and snack bars
How to give to foodbanks:
To find out about where to drop your food parcels off at go to newcastlewestend.foodbank.org.uk or middlesbrough.foodbank.org.uk or Billingham.foodbank.org.uk or durham.foodbank.org.uk
> But don’t forget, these aren’t the only foodbanks in the North East. There may be one nearer to wherever you live, and they need donations just as much.
Source – Sunday Sun, 07 Dec 2014
A major new campaign has been launched to hit back against any negative portrayal of Stockton from the controversial show Benefits Street.
The Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign is a light-hearted response to what is expected to be a less than flattering portrayal of the borough when the Channel 4 series airs next year.
And people across the borough and beyond are being encouraged to show their love for Stockton by sharing photographs, videos and stories.
A new website – http://www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk – and social media accounts have been set up to kick-start the campaign.
The decision to film the second series of Benefits Street in Stockton caused widespread outrage, with some accusing Channel 4 of using “poverty tourism” to chase ratings.
The first series made stars of some of its cast but was described by critics as “poverty porn”.
After the story broke , Middlesbrough FC fans at the Riverside Stadium unveiled a banner reading “Being poor is not entertainment”.
But despite the fierce local and national criticism of the show, Channel 4 chief executive Ralph Lee said the broadcaster’s output would not be “censored”.
He defended the channel’s right “to tell the stories of some of the distressed parts of our society”.
Leader of Stockton Council, Councillor Bob Cook said:
“We did everything in our power to persuade the producers of Benefits Street to turn their attentions elsewhere. Sadly, you can’t win them all.
“What became clear, though, was that lots of people agreed with us that this is not a good thing for the borough.
“So, we’ve decided to focus our energies on turning a negative into a positive. We’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to respond to a series like Benefits Street is to celebrate, with good humour and quiet confidence, all that is great about our fine borough.”
The campaign will give people the opportunity to share their views on what they love about Stockton.
The council will support the campaign, but now want to “hand it over the public”, said Cllr Cook.
“This is a borough-wide campaign for the whole of Stockton-on-Tees. We’re delighted that our local media – The Gazette, Northern Echo and BBC Tees – are in agreement with us and have agreed to unite in their support of us.
“Whether you’re from Stockton, Billingham, Yarm, Eaglescliffe, Thornaby, Norton or Ingleby Barwick, we’d love you to get involved.”
Benefits Street is expected to be aired in March 2015 and the Positively Stockton campaign – also known as “Psst…” – features a major event that same month.
Billed as The Loudest Whisper, the event on Friday, March 13, will see a whispered message passed around the borough – starting and ending in Kingston Road – where the series is being filmed.
The message will be passed from person to person using human chains as well as all kinds of transport, from horses and rowing boats to buses and bikes.
The event, which will also raise money for Comic Relief, is being organised by Wildcats of Kilkenny frontman and proud Stocktonian Mike McGrother.
“There has been an assumption from the producers of Benefits Street that we’re a community that needs to be given a voice,” he said.
“To present this as ‘factual’ television designed to engineer some kind of social benefit is a bit arrogant I think.
“There’s an abundance of community pride in Stockton – it’s just not our style to go shouting it from the rooftops. But if we’re faced with a series that seeks to paint us in an unfair light on national television, we shouldn’t take that lying down.
“Through the Loudest Whisper event and the Positively Stockton campaign, we can dispel the myths that will inevitably be trotted out using the sense of humour, community spirit and understated manner people in our borough are renowned for.
“And it’s all for Comic Relief. Our voices, though quiet, will be heard!”
The new campaign also has the support of Stockton’s MPs.
Alex Cunningham, Labour, in whose Stockton North constituency Benefits Street is being filmed, said:
“There is much for us to be positive about our borough from the talent and resilience of our people to the powerhouse of the local council and other organisations doing their best in difficult circumstances to create jobs, improve our town centres and make life better for us all.
“It is tremendous that our community is reacting in such a positive way.
“Doubtless Channel 4 will claim our campaign would never have happened but for their unwelcome intrusion into our community, but they will be wrong again – there have been many positive initiatives over the years promoting our success, which is perhaps why the borough is seeing its population grow and why it was voted one of the best places in the country to do business.”
James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, said:
“If you look around you in Stockton you see things getting better – more jobs, more investment, a town and community proud of its past and looking to its future.
“We need to talk up what makes us great and this campaign is a brilliant addition to that. Benefits Street will show what they want, we will show the truth and talk up Teesside.”
To find out more about the Positively Stockton-on-Tees campaign, and how to get involved, visit: www.positivelystocktonontees.co.uk
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 28 Nov 2014
Campaigners have pointed out that rail tickets near the Prime Minister’s own constituency are cheaper that those in the North-East.
Teesside passenger group Coastliners spoke out after David Cameron said the region’s decrepit Pacer trains would be replaced – but fares would have to rise to pay for the new rolling stock.
It was revealed on Friday that the Prime Minister had declared that “those trains are going” when asked about the unpopular Pacers, which run on Northern Rail lines across the North of England.
Mr Cameron rejected his own Government’s suggestion that the 30-year-old carriages could be modernised rather than replaced.
Instead, bidders for the Northern franchise will be asked to draw up plans to replace the trains.
But the Prime Minister said fares must rise to pay for the upgrades when the new contracts start in 2016.
However, research by Coastliners, which represents rail passengers on the Durham coast, suggests it is a myth that North-East fares are cheaper than those elsewhere in the country.
Coastliners’ Peter Walker said:
“Don’t forget that Campaign for Better Transport‘s London-based staff have admitted that we in the North pay as much as if not more than those living further South.”
“Oxford to Tackley, nearly in Mr Cameron’s constituency, is nine miles, and the day return is £3.50, or £3.40 single.
“If the fares level decides what type of rolling stock is provided, his argument implies that Pacers should serve Tackley and Class 166 diesels should be sent to our coast line forthwith.”
Mr Walker pointed out savings to users of the Oyster card meant that many London journeys of similar length similar to, or greater than, those on the coast line were far cheaper :
“London to East Croydon, some 13 miles, works out at £3 single for an Oyster-card holder.”
Mr Walker also questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that Northern Rail fares were the most heavily subsidised in the country.
Source – Northern Echo, 07 Nov 2014
A blind woman said she will fight to have her benefits reinstated after being told to get a job.
Natasha Pogson was called up to a controversial ‘fit-to-work’ assessment – part of the government’s overhaul of the welfare system.
The 28-year-old was born blind as a result of being premature – arriving at 26 weeks and weighing just 1lb 11oz.
But an assessor ruled she was not eligible for help and told her she must actively look for work through Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).
Natasha’s previous benefits amounted to £162 a week under the disability allowance scheme but this will fall to £72.40 under JSA.
Natasha is in the process of appealing against the decision and slammed the system for making her feel like a benefits cheat.
“They make you feel so small, almost suggesting I am making my disability up,” she said.
“The reason for me not qualifying is apparently because I can cross a road with a blind dog in a place I am familiar with, but that isn’t always the case.
“There has been times I have fallen over in the street and not been able to get my bearings until someone comes, even with my dog there.”
Natasha, of Malvern Road, Billingham, is among thousands of people who have had to take part in the assessments.
Those who claimed incapacity benefit, income support for illness or disability or severe disablement allowance, are transferred to a new payment called employment and support allowance (ESA).
The tests, carried out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), decide whether claimants are still eligible to receive support.
Participants must score 15 to be deemed unable to work. Natasha scored nine and was told she was “no longer assessed as having limited capability for work”.
“The assessors ask questions such as how many fingers are they holding up, or they would lift their arms and ask if I could do the same without telling me what they were doing. I felt stupid.”
Dad Karl, 47, is Natasha’s main carer. He said he was disgusted by the answers his daughter received.
“Natasha has enough problems without people questioning her ability and intention.
“I understand the Government is trying to get people off benefits, but you have to live in the life of a blind person to know what they go through.
“For Natasha to qualify for JSA she has to be able to travel for up to 90 minutes on her own, which is completely unrealistic.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said:
“The assessment is designed to look at what work someone can do with the right support – rather than just writing people off on sickness benefits as happened in the past.
“The decision on entitlement is made after considering all the evidence, including evidence from a claimant’s GP, and people have the right to submit extra evidence or appeal as part of the process.”
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, 19 Sept 2014