Cornwall is a region of contrasts – it’s home to stunning landscapes, but beneath the scenic veneer is a place of shocking poverty.
Last year, Cornwall was named the second-poorest region in northern Europe. In 2016, one in four children were living in poverty, and low-wage, insecure jobs in the area dominate. Years of central government neglect has left the region with crumbling infrastructure and a stagnant local economy.
The introduction of Universal Credit – a government reform that rolls six benefits into one and will see many struggling households lose out on thousands of pounds a year – has hit Cornwall families especially hard.
But Unite Community Cornwall is fighting back against the government’s assault on these households. In the last year, the Community branch has hosted computer help sessions for those claiming benefits – an absolutely vital service for an area where computer literacy skills are low, as is access to broadband and other technology.
Since last April, the sessions are held every Friday from 11am to 1pm at the All Saints Community Centre in Camborne, where Unite Community volunteers have helped hundreds of people.
“The lack of public transport and access to the internet has made these sessions a lifeline for so many people,” explained West Cornwall Unite Community chair Zoe Fox.
She told UNITElive that thanks to the group’s technical officer Daniel Bachelor who helped refurbish the computers, as well as the community centre itself which allows Unite Community to use the premises for free, people can get the help they need to get their full entitlements.
“We had an elderly couple come in, one who is disabled and the other in their 70s – neither were able to use a computer and hadn’t claimed any benefits before,” Zoe explained. “We helped them secure pension credits which they were entitled to – that’s about £200 a week!”
Zoe told of a single mother who came in with her 13-year-old son – Unite Community volunteers helped her navigate the labyrinthine process of claiming Universal Credit.
“Her example shows you how hard-up households are losing out under Universal Credit. Because her son had just turned 13, she will have to work 10 extra hours but her benefits will be cut by £25 a week – it’s madness.”
Zoe says that besides the weekly benefits help session, the Unite Community branch in Cornwall is active in other respects – most recently, the branch, which meets once a month, supported Disabled People Against Cuts’ (DPAC) national day of action in April.
They’re planning a big turnout for upcoming events, such as Unite Community’s Stop Universal Credit demo on May 24 and the TUC national march in London on May 12. The branch is also providing advocacy training so that volunteers can support people in tribunals, if for example, their benefits have been wrongly stopped.
Unite Community co-ordinator for the South West, Brett Sparkes, explained why Unite Community Cornwall’s computer benefits help session is so critical for the local area.
“One of the main issues with Universal Credit is it’s in built ‘digital by default’ aspect,” he said. “This causes real problems in the rural South West where broadband is limited and with many without the skills to use the online service. Add to this the closures of local libraries and a lack of public transport services and it becomes extremely difficult for claimants to keep to their agreement.
“Unite Community members are at the forefront of helping people with these issues,” he added. “This is a vital service for the poorest region of the UK where much work tends to be seasonal and low paid.”
Find out more about Unite Community Cornwall by visiting their Facebook page.