Helping to mend the safety net
The Liberal Democrat Conference last month agreed a policy motion, "Mending the safety net", on ways of stopping people from falling into poverty caused by problems with social security nets. Leaving aside the heated arguments for how this would best work, how about involving those we are talking about in having a needle and thread too ?
Whatever the ways we have of mending the safety net, those who need it must be able to understand the letters that they are sent from the officials concerned.
I am not blaming the officials, they don't necessarily know how what is written is perceived, but what can be done is listen to the recipients. I was a volunteer advisor with CAB for 40 years, and know how many people just do not understand what they are being told.
Sometimes this is because of a learning disability or general literacy problem. But many people in this situation pass onto friends and relatives who also cannot understand fully.
As a fully trained and experienced advisor I sometimes had to ring the department to get clarification.
We heard in the debate about how people are sanctioned for not complying with the rules. They have not necessarily understood properly the rules they have to obey strictly and to the letter so they are not sanctioned.
There are letters not understood about being able to claim other benefits.
There are many letters not understood that gives a refusal of a benefit, but does not make clear that an appeal can be made, and what the time limit is. To say nothing of understanding why it has been refused.
What I propose is that the party campaigns for a liberal solution: a customer testing panel.
This could be made up of actual claimants who would meet up with relevant officials, read proposed letters, and feedback what they thought it meant. Such a panel could rotate around the country to ensure one group did not get into understanding the departmental lingo, and regional differences were ironed out.
In return it would save time and money for the relevant department. Think what it would mean to those claimants to be welcomed into the office, even given tea and biscuits; what it would mean for them to be listened to; what it would mean for them to make a difference; what it would mean for the thousands who would receive letters they could understand. Surely it would raise confidence and skills.
This suggestion is truly empowering and Liberal , let's go for it!
* The author Suzanne Fletcher was a councillor for nearly 30 years. Now retired, she is active as a campaigner in the community both as a Lib Dem and with local organisations. She also does voluntary work with an advice agency. She is chair for Liberal Democrat Seekers of Sanctuary.