Years ago, when I first started taking food door to door in the massive swathes of areas affected by poverty here in Pendle, I soon realised that what I needed was a big book of rules to tell me what people were entitled to and what the procedure was if something went wrong.
How naïve was I to think that I could throw ‘the book’ at officials who were leaving the families I met to starve?
Fortunately, I was introduced to someone who was even better than the book and that person was Joanne Barker. She was the newly appointed head of the Welfare Rights Department for Lancashire County Council.
Over the years Joanne and her team have fought for scores of the people I’ve referred to them, ensuring that they get what they’re entitled to.
One of these people was a nurse who had become terribly ill with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia and could no longer work.
When I first visited this lady, her teenage children were eating boiled rice with instant gravy. I left them some food and then I came home and cried.
This was four years ago when cases like this were still relatively unknown and unheard of. My father in law had been the Medical Officer for Health and it would have broken his heart to think that one of his nurses and her children had been reduced to this.
This nurse, whose vocation was to care for the sick and dying in our NHS hospitals, was being denied disability benefits and the result was that over a year later, her children were starving, and the bailiffs were at her door.
Joanne’s team fought for my nurse, going through all her paperwork, making a case and then standing beside her in court to give her representation. The judge asked how on earth this woman had ever had her benefits denied and why the case had come to court? She was awarded every penny she had been entitled to from the day she became too ill to work but the stress, the poverty, the heartache of seeing her children denied food, heating, clothing, school trips, friends round for tea, shopping or cinema or ice skating and every-little-thing-that-might-cost-money trips with their friends had taken its toll.
It was soul destroying. People in offices with warm houses and full bellies had the power to destroy the soul of my NHS nurse because they had no souls themselves.
Last year, Joanne contacted me and said the cuts to the Welfare Rights department were so sweeping that there would be little help for anyone, anymore. She and her team would no longer be able to represent the vulnerable in court. There would now be a time scale on how long it would be before they could even return peoples’ calls.
Today, Joanne posted the following on Facebook. I asked if I could re post it on my blog or if that may jeopardise her job. She said she didn’t care about her position, she cared about the truth and everyone needed to know what it was really like and why we had to vote this government out.
Joanne Barker is one of the rarest and most wonderful women I have ever had the honour to know. Here are her words;
Thanks, once again, for reading this
“Watching Theresa May on the Andrew Marr show, and the rhetoric of making the country better for British people, I’m confused as to how that will ever happen when the government are;
* Putting more children than ever in poverty
* Cutting NHS services which will impact on everyone
* Cutting public services which will also impact on everyone
* Privatising wherever they can so goods and services get more expensive in order for companies to make a profit
* Making sure zero hours contracts and minimum wage jobs are still rife which means in-work benefits are still needed to enable people to just about survive if they are lucky.
* Ensuring more reliance than ever on charities and volunteers to help local people cope with virtually no funding for anything, and the ever increasing cost of living.
* Cutting the Welfare Bill, over 50% of which goes to pensioners.
* Cutting benefits to help people in work.
* Cutting benefits to people with life long disabilities and health problems which severely restrict their work opportunities- even if they were well enough to work in the first place. Then they are treated like scroungers for having a disability they can do nothing about.
The number of benefit recipients that you could legitamtely label as a ‘scrounger’ or ‘work dodger’ are miniscule, I rarely see such claimants and when I do they get short shrift.
Why are we not making society fairer by making sure multi-national companies and super rich executives pay a fair tax bill in proportion to what your average employee pays?
Why are we not prosecuting anyone who commits fraud and obtains public funds, like MP’s and like commissioned services that fail miserably and are basically incompetent and reckless?
I could go on and on about wasted expenditure, unfair policies, but for me the biggest issue is local people understanding the impact on their communities.
You might live in a nice house and think if everyone worked hard they’d be fine but that is not true. Thousands of people, if not millions, are working very hard, doing their best, and working to the best of their individual abilities – yet can’t afford a decent home and decent food and the fuel to stay warm and cook.
You might think the cuts to benefits are only affecting ‘scroungers’ – not true. Thousands of genuinely sick and disabled people find themselves unable to survive, the stress and anxiety makes their health deteriorate further – some are lucky and have short term health problems and can get back to work, for the rest I despair. As poverty increases, inevitably the health of more and more people who are struggling deteriorates putting further strain on services already breaking, and crime increases as people are desperate.
All of these changes will become more and more visible no matter how hard you try to ignore them. The local and general elections matter – use your vote but don’t make a decision based on what the media tells you. Open your eyes and look around you, listen to people who work in public services, your children’s teachers, NHS staff, local government officers, your local church – then decide who truly cares about you and your family and friends, every time it will be your local public servants who are disappearing rapidly.
Vote for them if nothing else.”