I spent some time with the Austerity Uncovered tour this week, getting a chance to participate in the North East and Yorkshire legs of the project. Two particular visits made a big impression for me.
In the Citizens Advice Bureau in Newcastle city centre, Chief Executive Shona Alexander described the huge surge in their workload caused by people confused and panicked over the changes to welfare benefits, and struggling to make ends meet. Suicide threats, something never experienced by the bureau before, had led to special training for staff having to be laid on and regular contact with the Samaritans.
And at the same time as coping with more and more people desperate for help, CAB staff were constantly having to seek out new sources of funding in order to keep the centre open. The Bureau had an excellent team of 85 volunteers, but it still needed hard cash for overheads. And who, Shona wondered, was counting the costs of the ill-health caused by the cuts, in terms of things like extra visits to GP surgeries and A&E, and an increase in mental illness?
The picture at the Salvation Army centre in Southwick, Sunderland was similar. Families caught in a cleft stick by the bedroom tax: unable to pay but unable to move either, due to the shortage of accommodation with fewer bedrooms or the loss of local support networks. Using money supposed to be for food to pay the rent, and relying on food banks and breakfast clubs to plug the gap.
We heard about the changes to the local high street over the past few years, and how this had affected life in the area. Butchers, bakers and greengrocers had been replaced by pawn shops, cash for clothes shops and loan companies. The use of labels like ‘scroungers and skivers’ clearly made the Salvation Army manager, Graham Wharton, very angry. He said the majority of people he saw were proud people who wanted to work, but couldn’t find jobs with enough hours and pay to live on.
Mulling over all of this on the train home on Sunday night, I was glad that I had had the chance to go on the road with the TUC bus. But how much better would it have been if those politicians clamouring for yet more cuts in public services and benefits had also heard some of these same first-hand stories. It makes the tour even more important, as we’ll be using the personal testimony we hear to produce a documentary film to help hammer the message home, and support the next stage of the TUC campaign For a Better Future.
Lesley Mercer is the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy’s Director of Employment Relations and Union Services, and TUC President until September 2013. This article is cross-posted from her own blog.