Usha Bance, profile piece

In each of our volunteer newsletters, we speak to someone whose hard work is making a difference to the Foodbank and to the lives of the people who we support. This month, we spoke to Usha Bance, Income Maximisation and Foodbank Project Adviser at Cambridge & District Citizens Advice. Usha works with us as part of our joint financial inclusion project, which was launched eight months ago.

Read on to learn more about the support the project provides and how it is transforming the lives of our visitors.

What sort of advice and support do you provide to Foodbank visitors?

The advice and support we offer varies on a case-by-case basis. Most of the time, we provide access to unclaimed social security payments, which people often don’t realise they’re entitled to in the first place. Second to that would be energy bill support. If someone needs to pay their energy bills but can’t afford them, we can look at how we can help. This includes making sure that the account readings are up to date, ensuring that the payments are correct for their usage, looking at whether the payment method is right for them, running an energy switch comparison and talking about energy efficiency measures they could implement at home. If they have energy debt, we can support them by helping them to apply for energy hardship funds or energy grant payments which can completely write off the debt if successful. It’s normally a variation of those two things, but there isn’t a typical issue people face because everyone is different. Everyone’s needs are unique, and each appointment varies because of that.

Even when we know what advice or support to offer, sometimes, Foodbank visitors can be reluctant to receive it. I think this occurs because people, especially those who aren’t used to the situations that they’re in, can feel embarrassed, stigmatised and apprehensive. So, we have to be aware of not just the financial needs of the visitors, but their feelings too. With this in mind, once initial contact is established, we offer visitors the option of keeping in contact outside of the Welcome Centres. The most important thing is ensuring that those who need support are able to access it.

What has been the impact of the partnership with the Foodbank on its visitors?

It’s been fantastic – the Foodbank team are so inspiring and brilliant. It’s been a real pleasure to work alongside them over the last eight or so months. I’ve had such positive feedback from Foodbank volunteers and they have said to me that they are so glad that we are here to help and provide further support to visitors. But, we wouldn’t be able to do that without access to the right information.

I had a client at the Welcome Centre in Cambourne who has two children and a husband who works full-time. She was receiving £83 per week and was, understandably, needing the support of the Foodbank. After meeting with her, I went through the payments that she was entitled to and found that she was actually eligible to claim £273 per week – almost a £200 weekly increase. This is money that she has always been legally entitled to, but was unable to claim because of an overly complex system. She now no longer needs the support of the Foodbank.

Another client I worked with has a disabled child and spoke to me about receiving support for her broadband payments. Because of her child’s disability, having access to the Internet was incredibly important and the idea of not being able to get online was a real point of stress for her. After looking at her social security payments, I found that she wasn’t receiving everything she was entitled to. Once we sent off the relevant forms, not only was she able to claim a significant uplift in her weekly payments, but she was also able to claim backdated payments which totalled around £6,000. This is a lifechanging amount of money for someone who is in desperate need of support.

Why is the social security system so complicated to navigate?

To put it simply, if someone is looking to claim benefits but doesn’t know exactly what it is that they’re entitled to, they aren’t able to access it. Due to new technology and guidelines, I feel the advice that the DWP give clients is based on just what their job role is and doesn’t spread beyond that. It could be down to employees on temporary contracts only being trained up on the specific role they have been taken on for and not beyond that. Also, legacy benefits are now old benefits and there are still many people on them. Eventually, they will migrate over to Universal Credit but for now, some people find it difficult to call the benefit enquiry lines as they feel they are waiting for too long to get through to the relevant department. This does have an effect of increased anxiety and leads to people in need missing out on receiving potentially significant funds. In today’s world, almost everything is dealt with online, which can be a barrier for a lot of people too.

How can Foodbank volunteers signpost visitors to the Citizens Advice support that is available?

Signposting for support can be difficult because it’s ultimately down to the individual. Everyone who is supported by the Foodbank is welcome to speak to one of our advisors, but the stigma of receiving social security payments can put people off. I would just ask that, in these incidences, please don’t feel the need to pressure your visitors in speaking to us. The most important thing is ensuring we work together in a collaborative and caring way so that we can support those in need through a complex and challenging time.

If you’re a Welcome Centre volunteer and would like to you know more about referring visitors to Cambridge & District Citizens Advice, please speak to your Team Leader.