Saturday 19 June 2010 was the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) welfare training day hosted by the NUJ Extra charity.
Chair Chris Wheal and administrator Lena Calvert led the afternoon’s discussion on what welfare officers can and should be doing to assist branch members.
NUJ Extra was set up 100 years ago to assist the families of journalists killed while reporting during the First World War. To be eligible for financial assistance now you must have held an NUJ membership for one year.
NUJ Extra do not subsidise incomes, instead they pay out grants for items to improve the current situation of the individual. That can include such things as buying new equipment. Day-to-day costs can also be covered, such as travel, deposits and essential utility bill assistance. Each individual is allowed to apply for multiple claims. NUJ Extra does hold one rule firm though – they do not pay off credit card debts.
Debt was the second point of discussion. It was considered by all who attended the day that this issue is going to be an increasing concern for branch members during the current climate of recession, job losses and multi-billion budget cuts.
The underlying issue of debt, as with claiming benefits and tax credits, is the stigma involved with asking for help. That is the second biggest hurdle. The first is accepting you have a debt problem. But once help is sought it becomes a simple process of prioritising your debt. Debts that lead to convictions or prison sentences come first, then those that mean losing accommodation or a vital service. All other debts, including credit cards, fall well behind the first two.
There are plenty of debt advice lines, including Thompsons Solicitors, the NUJ lawyers. All you have to do is Google “Debt Advice”. But be wary of advice lines that seek to charge and profit from giving assistance. Thompsons also have a very informative fact sheet on debt.
The stigmas surrounding benefits come from old labels – being a scrounger or taking handouts. But as Steve Johnson from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and Child Poverty Action Group said, it should never be forgotten benefits are your entitlement in a just and democratic system.
Johnson delivered clear and simple advice, such as claim for everything and inform all benefit departments of any changes. Do not expect different departments in the same building to talk to each other. As he explained at the beginning of his talk, when dealing with benefit offices take logic and common sense and throw them out the window. Johnson also delivered a stark warning to anyone caught in the immigration system. Claiming benefits, even successfully, can affect union members immigration status. It can and has led to people being detained, incarcerated in detention centres and ultimately deported.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) replaced incapacity benefit in October 2008. It is tougher to claim successfully and claimants are expected to regularly attend training courses, work-related activities and medical assessments. Failure to do so risk the claimant being penalised.
For people working but on a low income Housing Benefit is an option and something all low earners are entitled to. As is Working Tax Credit, a very under-advertised financial assistance by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC).
To qualify for Working Tax Credit you must be over 25-years-old and working 30 hours a week or more. If you are disabled or have children living with you the minimum hours of work reduce to 16. The income cap for a single claimant is around £13,300 or for a joint claimant is around £18,100. The amount of credit you are entitled to is incremental, the more you earn the less credit you receive.
Both Housing Benefit and Working Tax Credit can be claimed together and both are straight forward claiming processes – the HMRC Working Tax Credit department can do your whole claim over the phone – and as long as you keep the departments up-to-date with any changes in circumstances, both will run smoothly and that extra assistance will make all the difference.
From illness or injury, to job loss or financial struggle, your branch welfare officer is there to assist members on what to do, who to speak to and where to seek help – be it benefits, tax credits, debt or seeking assistance from NUJ Extra – and assistance is best sought immediately to avoid an escalation in the issue.
London Photographer Branch members can contact branch welfare officer Jason Parkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.