MPs spend huge amounts of time, unnoticed by most, responding to constituents’ requests for support. Many are looking for money help over pensions and other benefits because confusion often reigns.
It’s not just the re-naming and re-definition of entitlements. It’s also hard to keep on top of changes in how to claim. Too often those who try are put off by the bureaucracy, the phone bills and the feeling it just might not be worth it. And a sense of isolation amongst those who aren’t internet-connected is compounded when processes depend on the web. It’s especially true in communities some think of as ‘traditional Labour’ ones where, arguably, the need for demystification and for practical support is greatest.
Meanwhile my research shows that in Bristol alone over £16 million in Pension Credit and more than £20 million of Income Support goes unclaimed. Yes, that’s in one city alone.
So as an MP elected in 2015, I wanted to reach out, to help my constituents claim what’s rightly theirs. Proactively too, not just responding to those who come asking.
I’m now organising community one-stop shop events open to all local residents at which I bring together financial experts from a range of organisations to give practical face-to-face support over a cup of tea. The primary aim is helping people understand how to claim money that’s rightly theirs. But the events’ reach and value is already extending.
I already have working links with attending organisations, so it makes sense for me as the local MP to act as a hub. In a market-style set up in accessible community venues, I bring together residents with the Council’s welfare and money advice team, Age UK, staff from the Job Centre and other parts of the DWP, Care and Repair, Bristol CAB, South Bristol Advice Services and others.
The local water companies now also attend, explaining schemes that help those struggling to pay their bills, and offering money-saving freebies. Meanwhile the local Fire and Rescue Service sign up residents for free home fire safety checks, and local PCSOs pick up any wider community concerns.
Volunteers and councillors do a terrific job hand delivering several thousand invitations through south Bristol letterboxes, raising Labour’s profile on money issues that affect residents’ everyday lives. As community activists, councillors can play their part during the events as well.
We mustn’t forget the value in these deliveries and advertising through all the other ‘usual channels’. Those who come really value the advice they receive but there’s also an increase in calls to my office on the days when invitations are delivered. And those who on the face of it ‘did nothing’ with the invitation still learn their Labour representative is on their side, helping break down bureaucratic barriers.
Naturally there’s a promotional role for press and social media, but other community engagement is just as valuable – asking local schools, for example, to notify families. And as ever, word of mouth is vital.
Each time scores of my constituents learn of entitlements they didn’t know they could claim, they get hands-on help too. Even those who find they’re not able to have anything extra tell me they appreciate being assured they’re already getting their full entitlements. The most recent event saw experts swamped as a steady stream of residents sought help well over the advertised time.
I’m looking at extending the range of experts available in future, as well as focusing on other themes that really matter to my constituents.
As Labour representatives I think we must remain focussed on working hard for those we represent, and seek to represent, especially during turbulent times. Events like these don’t capture the glare of media publicity: they’re too ‘bread-and-butter’; too important to people’s real lives. But they do resonate with those they’re aimed at. Surprising numbers of constituents mention them to me in passing: in shops, at coffee mornings and on doorsteps. Not just Labour supporters, either. The positive feedback is a result of genuine appreciation of work aimed at improving their lot.
These events are truly touching a nerve among residents, and there will be more to come.
Karin Smyth is MP for Bristol South