From time to time I arrange day visits around a theme so that I can meet people across the voluntary, public and private sectors involved in making a better society in Dudley. In early July I spent a day finding out more about benefits, poverty and debt. 

Having heard that there was an increased demand for basic provisions from food banks, I was keen to find out what was really going on and get under the skin of the benefits system. Universal Credit has just been rolled out in Dudley. The Cameron government’s flagship reform to the benefits system had the laudable aim of making claiming much easier, wrapping six benefits into one, as well as encouraging those who are able to seek work. I wanted to see how it was working.

Throughout my day, I was shocked by what I discovered.

Bishop Graham finds out about benefitsMy first visit was to Brierley Hill Citizens' Advice, often the first port of call for people who are utterly confused by the benefits system. To claim Universal Credit you need an email address and bank account and many of the most vulnerable people in our society have neither of these. The online forms can be complex and difficult for many people to understand. Making a genuine mistake can set you back to the beginning again. The help of Citizens' Advice volunteers makes a big difference to struggling claimants but I kept hearing about their frustration with the system.

I heard also about delays in benefit payments being made and people having to wait up to 12 weeks for their payments to begin. Imagine no income for such a period. How would you pay rent or buy food or pay your utility bills if you had no savings? This can all too easily create the arena for loan sharks targeting people, others being taken advantage of, or a downward spiral into mental illness.

Bishop Graham at the Black Country food bankThe Black Country Food Bank is one agency that is there to provide some support for people in desperate need. Churches are, apparently, its greatest donors. So thank you for all you are doing. I saw around the warehouse and was deeply impressed with the systematic organisation of the stock and the compassion of the staff. But, please, give baked beans a miss for a while – they’ve got enough to make a significant dent in the ozone layer! Their needs change from week to week and are posted on http://www.blackcountryfoodbank.org.uk/what-can-i-donate/ Now is the time, away from their bumper donation periods of harvest and Christmas, when the shelves are running low.

Bishop Graham at Castle & CrystalLater in the day I visited a debt and finance support team, hearing about some of the chronic situations that they come across daily, and visited Dudley Council Plus which can provide emergency loans via the Castle and Crystal Credit Union. As a diocese we support the work of this credit union, and I’ve opened a personal account with them. They need other local people to do the same so that they can support more people in need http://www.castleandcrystal.co.uk/savings_how_to_join.php

Poverty remains a scourge on the face of British society. It stacks the odds ever higher against people and it results not just in material disadvantage but poorer health, poorer education, poorer work, poorer housing and poorer opportunities. As Christians we are called to live in the imitation of Jesus who came to “preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release the oppressed" (Luke 4:18). When we are good news to those living in poverty, when we take care to hear their stories and not be blind to poverty, and when we speak out for what is intolerable in a healthy society, so a momentum for change grows and God’s Kingdom draws near.