‘Everything’s on the internet but I can’t afford it’ – Issues impacting women in Nottingham during Covid-19 (June 2020)

Staff and volunteers at Nottingham Women’s Centre (NWC) have been supporting many women facing crisis during Covid-19. It’s a difficult time for everyone at the moment, but it’s been especially hard for women who were already struggling with their mental health, poverty or discrimination.

We’ve been monitoring the issues impacting women that come into contact with us and our partner organisations, and regularly sending briefings to local decision makers about what support is needed at a policy level. This blog is based on those briefings and should give you an understanding of the main issues that women in Nottingham have been particularly struggling with this month and throughout lockdown.

You can click here to view our previous ‘issues’ blog post for May.

Digital exclusion

A large number of women in our community cannot access the internet or don’t have a laptop or smartphone. In 2018, ONS found that 84.4% of Nottingham city residents aged 16+ had used the internet in the last three months. This was the sixth lowest rate in England and the lowest of the Core Cities. Also, ONS found that women in Nottingham are less likely to have access to the internet than men.

Impact on women

  • Issues with Universal Credit. We have clients who are required to access an online UC journal but don’t have internet. They now can’t access free internet at the library or other internet providers due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
  • Unable to access mental health support. Most mental health support is now online – for example our peer support group happens on Zoom – which is typical of mental health services across the city. Example: one woman who has recently fled domestic violence is unable to access mental health support as she doesn’t have access to wifi or the funds to pay for mobile data to access the internet.
  • Unable to access training or educational courses. We are supporting women back into employment, education and training through our Towards Work programme. Women without internet and/or laptops are unable to continue participating in our programme as courses are now online. Example: one woman wants to join an online course which would help her get a place in college, but she hasn’t got a laptop or the funds to buy one.
  • Difficulties with home learning. Families without appropriate technology and/or access to the internet are not able to access online resources and educational tools.

What change needs to happen

Nottingham Women’s Centre is currently attempting to apply for grants from small-scale initiatives that provide women with phones or tablets, but they have been oversubscribed and aren’t reliable. We believe there needs to be a city-wide strategy to tackle digital exclusion, with a particular focus on vulnerable women – e.g. women who have fled domestic violence or recently left prison. We also believe all women in Nottingham should be given free laptops and/or a pre-loaded dongle if they aren’t able to access the internet. Public buildings where women can access free wifi – e.g. libraries – need to be prioritised for re-opening.

Not having access to food

We have seen a large increase in the number of women asking for foodbank vouchers since lockdown began in late March. Food banks run by The Trussell Trust have seen an 89% increase in demand for emergency food parcels, in comparison to this time last year. Even though the number of food parcel requests has recently reduced, we’re expecting to see another rise in demand as the furlough scheme ends and women are made redundant.

Issues with foodbanks

  • Some of the foodbanks have recently stopped offering deliveries. We are guessing this may be due to food bank volunteers returning to work.
  • Foodbanks assign a limited number of vouchers to each woman, which has led some women to be short on food.

Example: Recently we had a client who was desperate for food and is a single parent with a 1 year old child. The food bank she thought she was closest to told her she wasn’t in their catchment area and referred her to us. We worked with her and located the relevant foodbank but they were unable to deliver. The woman has severe anxiety and couldn’t leave the house (also having the 1 year old made it difficult too). We could not spare staff to go there and deliver, so we had to ask a local foodbank for one of their volunteers to help. Luckily they were able to help on this occasion.

What change needs to happen

NWC has been able to help some women in crisis by delivering food that has been donated to us by Aldi, but this is not scalable. We believe there needs to be increased funding for foodbanks in Nottingham. Also the recovery plan for Nottingham needs to include a section about ‘feeding Nottingham’, with a particular focus on how to sustainably feed vulnerable women and single parent families. We would also like to see more support for the creation of food hubs, food enterprises and food growing projects in Nottingham run by women.

Laid off or reduced salary due to Covid-19

A large number of our clients have been laid off or had their salaries reduced due to Covid-19. This is set to increase once the furlough scheme ends in September. Recent research by Young Women’s Trust found that 78% of those who have lost their jobs in the Covid-19 crisis are women and two thirds are aged between 18 – 34 years old.

The Women’s Centre has been providing food bank vouchers and clothes bank vouchers, but this is not enough. Women need emergency hardship grants and a job creation scheme with a particular focus on supporting young women and creating work that’s flexible enough to fit around caring responsibilities.

Child contact centres are closed

The Nottingham Child Contact Centre is currently closed due to Covid-19. Therefore some of our clients who are currently going through family court proceedings are only able to see their children over video or phone, which is causing distress.

Example: one of our client’s children is living with foster parents, but the foster parents won’t allow video calls so she can only speak to the children on the phone. This is causing a huge amount of distress and mental health issues for the mother.

We are supporting mothers through welfare checks and signposting mental health support, but we believe Child Contact Centres should be prioritised for re-opening and PPE provision. Otherwise an alternative space should be urgently created so that children and parents can meet safely.

Lack of support to claim benefits, delayed UC payments and Statutory Sick Pay

Many women are facing serious financial uncertainty as a result of Covid-19. Some examples of this include:

  • Our disabled clients have not had access to face-to-face support due to Covid-19 restrictions. We have clients who require form filling to claim PIP, UC50, ESA50 and DLA, and they have been unable to complete claims themselves leaving them in financial hardship.
  • The monthly assessment period for Universal Credit means that women are forced to manage on a small amount of money for a long period of time. They have a whole month of uncertainty about what they will get next time.
  • Some clients have been very uncertain about whether they are going to get Statutory Sick Pay, or how much is the correct amount and how to check it.
  • Different forms of benefits are claimed in different ways and are inconsistent. For example, women can’t claim Child Benefit on the telephone but only do a paper application or online application. Universal Credit is only available on the online/telephone application but no paper application etc.

The Women’s Centre is currently providing welfare benefits advice, signposting to employment advice, and providing food bank and clothes bank vouchers. But this is not enough. We believe services and spaces where disabled clients can receive face-to-face support with form filling should be prioritised for re-opening, and free laptops and internet provided for disabled clients so they can access support via video conferencing.

What change needs to happen

There are a number of well-documented problems with our current welfare system, which have impacted women in Nottingham. We believe the following changes need to be made:

  • The assessment period for UC needs to be shortened and grants are needed to cover the five weeks before the initial payment is released.
  • There needs to be improved communication about SSP and increased amount of SSP offered during the Covid-19 epidemic.
  • All benefits should be available online, over the phone and in paper form so the process is more accessible.

If you’re interested in this work, please keep an eye on our website and social media and feel free to email our policy and influencing officer on [email protected] to join the policy mailing list.

We have recently set up a new crisis fund for the women we are supporting. If you’re able to, please help us expand our crisis fund by donating through our Local Giving page. Any donation small or large is really appreciated and will go directly to women in crisis.