Part of the ethos of Pennine Lancashire Community Farm is constantly trying to support and enable our volunteers to develop and grow according to their needs and that of the society around them. This fits into our central Step into Employment Program which incorporates:
- Step One — Ecotherapy. This is the broad term we use to cover a range of topics based around horticulture and the outdoors, including rustic furniture making, landscape gardening and traditional skills (dry stone walling, green woodworking, etc.).
- Training / Enablement. Many individuals, having completed on average between 6 and 18 weeks of ecotherapy activities, are at a point where they are looking for and would really benefit from an opportunity to access slightly more formal training alongside ecotherapy. This includes essential work-focused qualifications such as Health and Safety at Work as well as more specific courses such as Horticulture or Mental Health Awareness.
- Gardening Services / New Life Project. The third step is the social enterprise aspect of PLCF, our Gardening Services. This element provides gardening services to other community groups, organisations alongside private individuals.
Within the overall Step into Employment Program we also provide for a limited number of real paid employment opportunities. These are designed for individuals who have benefited from the main program, continued to volunteer and shown a real aptitude in supporting, and enabling others. This project recognises that the best people to engage specific target groups, like those living with or recovering from mental health difficulties and or substance misuse issues, are people with personal experience of those issues who can then provide that Peer to Peer support.
Now, at the risk of getting political, the biggest challenge for us an organisation, and the individuals entering onto the program, is dealing with the benefit systems. A prime example of this is the newly introduced Universal Credit system. On the surface I, like many others with years of experience in the charity / public sector, welcomed the concept of moving away from multiple confusing benefits to a single all embracing system. Unfortunately the reality is we, as an organisation and the individuals we represent, remain to be convinced that it is fit for purpose.
The reality, rather than the model, demonstrates the parts don’t fit together
A case in point:
J represents a man in his thirties who has been unemployed for nine years, plus, due to substantial physical health issues and mental health challenges, he has a vulnerability to anxiety. After showing a huge commitment to the programme J was offered, and accepted, a Peer to Peer post with us, noting his biggest concern about accepting the position was the benefit agency.
Three months into employment the biggest challenge has not been his work but the benefits agency.
Initially we suggested J went onto Universal Credit, which took the proverbial six week period to go through assessment, during this time J was left with little or no financial support, and received numerous confusing letters and notifications from the various different existing benefits agency / organisations e.g. Job Seeker Allowance, Council Tax, Housing Benefit etc.
To add to the confusion to date, despite J’s income from his employment remaining the same, his expenditure remaining the same, J has been given five different entitlement figures ranging from £35 to £638. As you can appreciate, for the practicalities of setting and working within a budget, this is challenging to say the least, furthermore it causes great anxiety.
With J’s anxieties increased, he has felt compelled to quit the benefits system altogether, losing out on the financial support he’s entitled to, or to quit the job. We have to step in, to provide that essential support. So far this has resulted in over three hours of the Office Administration Manager speaking to the different benefit agencies to address and sort out the matter.
I would love to tell you that after such huge efforts all matters have been satisfactorily resolved, however the DWP informed us that this problem stems from the Universal Credit Department being out of sync with HMRC. This leaves the Borough Council to wait for these two organisations to sort their issues out, before it can effectively deal with Council Tax rebates, and J with unnecessary anxieties and uncertainties.
So I plead with the Government to resource its agencies sufficiently when rolling out such a policy, to support it’s staff, and not rely upon people in the private and third sectors to pick up such work for them. Any such scheme should be fair, efficient, transparent and above all, humane, failing any or all of these criteria, as Universal Credit is doing, means it simply can’t be fit for purpose.