Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Austerity has pushed the UK's poorest households further into debt – here's how

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Hulya Dagdeviren, University of Hertfordshire and Sheilla Luz, University of Hertfordshire
Debt is a growing problem for people on low incomes and it has been made worse by the austerity policies that followed the 2007-08 financial crisis. The UK’s poorest households have the highest debt-to-income ratio in comparison to other income groups. This often means they struggle to repay their debt because it is so high in relation to their earnings. Many are forced to cut back their spending on basic necessities just to keep up with repayments – or they may borrow more, increasing their debt burden further.

Our calculations, based on the latest Office for National Statistics data, show that the financial liabilities of the UK’s poorest households (excluding mortgages and student loans) were more than two and a half times their monthly income after tax and other deductions.
What is more remarkable is that a significant proportion of this is accounted for by unarranged debt – when people go into their current account overdrafts and do not pay their bills. As shown in the diagram below, the unarranged debt of the poorest households (with an average annual income of £4,587) relative to their incomes was more than 60% higher than all other households in 2014-16.

Our interviews with people from debt advice charities and heavily indebted low income households shed some light on the causes of high debt in general and why the poorest households rely on unarranged debt in the form of overdrafts and unpaid bills in particular. It was apparent that austerity measures hit the welfare system to such an extent that they severely limited the means of survival for the poor and forced them into debt for some of their most basic needs.

For example, our estimates show that the number of people with rent, water and council tax arrears grew around fourfold. Meanwhile, those behind on their energy payments almost doubled between 2009 and 2016.

Cuts across the board

The government’s austerity programme of spending cuts directly contributed to the debt problem of poor households through a number of channels. There have been top-down cuts in the welfare and social policy budgets of central and local government departments.

This limited the means of survival for those who partly or wholly depended on benefits. According to estimates of the Office of Budget Responsibility, a total of £45.4 billion will have been cut from the welfare budget from 2010 to 2021.

Austerity has also contributed to rising household debt through the increasingly widespread use of benefit sanctions. These are penalties that are imposed on welfare claimants for “purportedly” failing to meet the various criteria required to receive benefits. Once sanctioned, benefits are stopped, which effectively cuts a lifeline for families, at least for a period, forcing them to rely on borrowing or to default on household bill payments.

Yet sanctions were frequently applied to people for reasons out of their control. Administrative errors often led to sanctions and these became more common as a result of the changes related to the welfare reform, as well as transition to the Universal Credit. The benefit cap, introduced through the Welfare Reform Act 2012, led to an increase in recipients’ required contributions (towards rent and council tax accounts). In cases where they could not afford to make higher contributions, they were sanctioned.

Read more: What it's like to transition on to Universal Credit
Sanctions also increased as a result of extensive monitoring of benefit recipients through work programmes and digital tracking of their job search efforts, reviews and assessments. An independent review of job-seekers’ allowance sanctions, for example, found that the sanctions affected some of the most vulnerable people unjustifiably due to ineffective communication with them.
In 2013 the proportion of sanctioned recipients of job-seekers’ allowance more than doubled in comparison to years before the crisis. This trend continued with close to half a million sanctions being applied in 2015.

Aggressive debt collection

Austerity has also brought about harsher practices by local governments for debt collection. There has been a rise in their use of debt management companies, court actions, bailiffs and evictions, sending the poorest households into further debt.

The debt charity StepChange found that sometimes bailiffs visited homes outside “reasonable hours” or continued action, despite clients agreeing a repayment plan.

Some even entered homes when only children were in or contacted friends and family about people’s debts. Around 40% of respondents of another StepChange survey said they were treated badly by a local authority creditor, and the government’s debt collection practices were rated “no better than payday lenders”.

Read more: Poor people are penalised for borrowing to make ends meet – a new alliance gives them another way
The aggressive debt collection practices of local authorities have arisen from the brutal reduction (over 50% in real terms) in their budgets as a result of central government cuts. But, paradoxically, the benefit cap and the sanctions not only led to more debt for poor households, it has also resulted in a major shortfall for local government due to the resulting non-payment of rents and council tax. So, in their attempt to fill the gaps in their budgets, local authorities have shot themselves in the foot and become inadvertent creditors for low income households under austerity.

It is significant that, while the governments bailed out the country’s banks, they imposed severely punitive and precarious welfare provision for low income households. This cut or restricted their lifeline to meet essential needs. Hence, it effectively led to greater indebtedness. Many of the country’s poorest households were, as a result, forced to choose between growing debt to pay for their essential needs and going hungry or cold.The Conversation

Hulya Dagdeviren, Professor of Economic Development, University of Hertfordshire and Sheilla Luz, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Hertfordshire
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Best activities to do towards your Go Herts application

A key part of the Go Herts Award is the activities you do. Since you have to do 100 hours of activity for a bronze award, 200 hours for a silver award and 300 hours for a gold award, you should definitely make sure you’re doing activities you enjoy or are useful to you. So if you enjoy sports and are in a society or a club, you can include that, and there are so many other activities that can count towards your evidence.

Let’s start off by looking at the activities two of our previous winners did towards their Go Herts application:

Annabelle Appleby:
“Most of my activities were based around fundraising. I was part of the Teaching Training Society and we raised money for various charities through different events and activities. I also worked at ZSL Whipsnade zoo during my years at University, where I gained so many skills.”

Zainab Karim:
“As a student I worked as a Student Ambassador and an Activator for Active Students. Both roles developed my communications skills as I was interacting with people from all over the world with different cultures, religions and age groups.”

“I was also a student rep on my course, and even a member of the Tennis team, so I developed skills like confidence, quick decision making, time management and creativity.”

Activities are listed under the five Go Herts Award Strands, these are:

  • Professional Development
  • Community engagement and enterprise
  • Co-curricular activity
  • Democracy and social responsibility
  • Research and innovation

Examples of activities from each of these strands are as follows:

Professional Development

  • Membership of professional bodies
  • Careers workshops
  • Paid part-time work, work experience or internships
  • Student lead roles
  • Peer mentoring
  • Work shadowing

Community engagement and enterprise

  • Community Garden
  • Big Draw
  • Enterprise initiatives
  • Duke of Edinburgh Award
  • Volunteering and charity involvement
  • Active Students

Co-curricular activity

  • CONNECT Common Reading Experience Programme
  • Mentoring schemes
  • Mooting/mock trails
  • School co-curricular programmes
  • School societies engagement and leadership
  • Sporting events or clubs

Democracy and social responsibility

  • Student representation
  • Voting and/or standing in the Hertfordshire Students' Union elections
  • Herts Debates/events
  • Political engagement

Research and innovation

  • Food
  • Global Economy
  • Health and Wellbeing
  • Heritage, Cultures and Communities
  • Information and Security
  • Space
  • Other projects underpinned by research and enquiry

These activities are just examples, if you have completed other activities that you feel can contribute towards your Go Herts Award, feel free to include them, as long as they were done during your time at University and were not assessed as part of your degree.

Providing evidence of your activities is just as important as completing your activities. In this step you basically prove that you have done the activities, making it a very key step in the Go Herts application process. You can evidence activities across all five Strands or from only one or two. You can include things you have already done during your time with us by providing evidence such as certificates, photographs, tickets, screenshots, and records of attendance.

You then reflect on how these activities have enabled you to develop your Graduate Attributes.

Find out more information about the Go Herts Award at: https://www.herts.ac.uk/life/go-herts/go-herts-award.

New developments with UH Community Garden and how it aids student wellbeing

Are you a gardening expert or know nothing about it? Whichever you are, the Allotment Plots on College Lane Campus offer a brilliant opportunity to develop new skills and knowledge, and to meet new people, all whilst being out in the fresh air.

The plots are situated opposite the Telford Court Common Room (a short distance up the path from The Key) and offer plenty of fresh water and gardening equipment on hand to borrow. 

So far, various vegetables have been planted within the plots, including; lettuce, chard, potatoes, onions, garlic, broccoli and sprouts. The possibilities are endless!

Due to the success of this community garden, allotments will also be coming to de Havilland campus soon! James Kelly, who oversees the creation and development of the community gardens, gives us the latest updates and when to expect our new garden;

“We are planning to run a 9-week volunteering programme in collaboration with local charity Groundwork East to allow students to build the majority of the space themselves. The below table outlines the aim for the sessions each week:”

Week 1
Building Raised beds
Week 2
Filling raised beds/maybe planting
Week 3
Creating Arches
Week 4
Building Gates
Week 5
Building Gates
Week 6
Building a Shed
Week 7
Building a Shed 
Week 8
Pathway creation
Week 9
Pathway creation

“Included in the garden will be 3 raised bed allotment plots, similar to those on College Lane, allowing for students to grow their own produce and hopefully then go on to support the community fridge with fresh vegetables.”

One of our UH students, Lisa Evans, who was involved in helping the community garden said that the project has really helped her mental wellbeing:

“The night before I started the course I was on the phone to my mum, really upset about how stressed I was... I’d been having quite a bad time the past week and since I’ve started [the gardening project] my mood in general throughout the week has improved vastly and I can’t really think of anything that has changed apart from on Wednesday afternoon I spend a couple of hours gardening with some really lovely people.”

The new allotment is still looking for a home on de Havilland campus, but there are plans to get the 9-week programme up and running as soon as possible. Updates will be available on StudyNet.

For now, you can still get involved with the College Lane Project by contacting the team at: uhsuallotmentproject@gmail.com, and you can find out more by visiting: https://ask.herts.ac.uk/uh-community-gardens.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Top 10 Tips for Meeting an Employer at the Graduate and Employment Fair

Employers at this year’s Graduate and Employment Fair (Wednesday 3 April) will be looking for students who stand out from the crowd and go the extra mile to impress them. First impressions count so it’s essential to be prepared. Follow our top tips and be prepared for the fair;

1. Know who is going to be there: do basic research into the employers before attending the fair; think about the questions you would like to ask. Keep an eye out on the Careers and Employment social media channels (@UniofHertsCE ) for announcements of all the employers attending the fair. 

2. Effective introductions: think in advance about how to briefly introduce yourself if you get a chance to speak to an employer on a one to one: name, course, career interest.

3. Check out deadlines – there are a lot of deadlines approaching for graduate and placement schemes. Make sure you are aware of the dates and don’t miss them. Use this opportunity to ask questions about relevant schemes.

4. Prepare your questions – avoid asking the obvious like ‘what do you offer graduates’? Questions should give you information not already available and show you have done your research ie ‘what type of projects would a first-year engineering trainee undertake?’

5. Make an impact – employers do not expect students to be in suits, they do however expect you to be presentable and smart. Consider the impression you will give – how are those shoes looking?!

6. Tell me a bit about yourself? – know how you will respond to questions from the employers – plan something short, focused and factual that shows them you are motivated.

7. Share the employer’s time: don’t monopolise them; remember they are there to meet all students.

8. Be business-like: friendly but polite: smile, introduce yourself and shake their hand; keep a reasonable distance and respect personal space.

9. Keep notes – of what you have found out. Pick up business cards and contact details so...

10. Thank them for their time: whether this be on a one to one, a round of applause at the end of a talk or a quick email later if they spent considerable time talking to you.

Michael Chapman is a Careers and Employment Officer at the University of Hertfordshire.

Hear from previous winners of the Go Herts Award

The Go Herts Award is the University’s official recognition of all the fantastic things you do outside of the classroom. Quite simply, the award aims to help you identify the skills you’ve developed over your time at Herts and will recognise the extra-curricular and voluntary activities that you complete. 

Khan Asghar Iqbal, Annabelle Appleby and Zainab Karim are all previous Go Herts Award winners and they wanted to share a few pieces of advice about why they applied for the award, the activities they used as evidence, and their thoughts on why the Award is important. Hopefully this can inspire you to start your own Go Herts Award application. 

Khan Asghar Iqbal

Annabelle Appleby

Zainab Karim

 Drishti Tewani

 Simone Bothwell

 Abbey Sanderson

 Lenty Esther

What made you want to do the Go Herts Award?

“Graduating with more than a degree really appealed to me. Filling in the application helped me to realise the achievements I made whilst studying at Hertfordshire and highlighted how many things the University has to offer.” – Khan Asghar Iqbal, Paramedic Science, School of Health and Social Work

“My mentor recommended I should apply as I have done loads of activities!” – Annabelle Appleby, Primary Education, School of Education

“The University has so many wonderful activities on offer. You have to make the most of this experience and if you’re unsure about trying new things, University is definitely the place to try them. That’s why I applied for this Award.” – Zainab Karim, Business with Psychology, School of Humanities and Hertfordshire Business School

What activities did you do for your Go Herts Award?

“My extra-curricular activities included working with St John’s ambulance, where I was exposed to events I would have never attended; Six Nations Rugby, Ed Sheeran concert to name a few. I also helped during the overseas student’s orientation programme, where I met people from all over the world and helped them to settle in to University.” - Khan

“Most of my activities were based around fundraising. I was part of the Teaching Training Society and we raised money for various charities through different events and activities. I also worked at ZSL Whipsnade zoo during my years at University, where I gained so many skills - working with the public, dealing with parents, visitors and staff. There were even wallabies and peacocks to deal with walking into the zoo shop!” - Annabelle

“As a student I worked as a Student Ambassador and an Activator for Active Students. Both roles developed my communications skills as I was interacting with people from all over the world with different cultures, religions and age groups.” - Zainab

“I was also a student rep on my course, and even a member of the Tennis team, so I developed skills like confidence, quick decision making, time management and creativity.” - Zainab

What are your overall thoughts on the Go Herts Award?

“The Go Herts Award is a prestigious award and it looks great on your CV. It is also a great remembrance of your time at University as it helps you to reflect on everything you have done and the achievements you have made.” - Zainab

“The skills I gained through applying for the Award will definitely help me in the future.” - Zainab

How happy were you to receive your Go Herts Award?

“I was ecstatic when I found out I had achieved this award. It is nice to see I’m being recognised for helping other students and doing extra work.” - Annabelle

“I was so happy when I achieved the award. It was a hard few years at University, but it was nice to know that anything else I had done beyond studying was getting acknowledge – nice to know I was getting more than a degree.” - Annabelle

Do you have any advice?

“My biggest piece of advice is to get organised. For the award, you need to know the dates of things you’ve done and have things written down.” - Annabelle

Please remember, applications close on Thursday 23 May 2019. You can attend a Go Herts Award workshop to help you put your application together, and you can easily apply online at the Go Herts Award website. Good luck! 

If you have any questions about the Awards, please contact the team at gohertsaward@herts.ac.uk

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Opium, rat hair, beaver anal secretions – and other surprising things you might find in food

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Ranta Images/Shutterstock
Robert Chilcott, University of Hertfordshire
Diners in France recently got more than they bargained for when poppy seed baguettes were found to contain a dose of opium that could take postprandial napping to a new extreme. Other than narcotics, there are a host of surprises lurking in everyday foodstuffs that you might not be aware of. Here are some of the less palatable ones. Bon app├ętit. When it comes to food, “natural” is usually a byword for “good”. But some natural products are a bit disgusting. For example, a natural flavouring called castoreum is a thick, odorous secretion obtained from the anal glands of beavers. It is used to give a vanilla flavour to some dairy products and desserts.

Towards the end of the 19th century, beavers were nearly hunted to extinction to acquire this highly desirable food additive and fragrance. Fortunately, German chemists discovered that vanillin (one of the chemicals responsible for the taste of vanilla) could be extracted from the humble conifer.

Today, synthetic vanillin accounts for about 94% of all vanilla flavouring used in the food industry (37,286 tons), with natural vanilla extract accounting for most of the remaining 6%. Beavers can heave a sigh of relief. Their contribution to the food industry now accounts for a tiny fraction of natural vanilla flavouring and tends to be limited to luxury foods and beverages.
Luxury ice cream maker. milmed/Shutterstock

Another natural ingredient that might make you retch is rennet. It traditionally came from the mucous membrane of the fourth stomach (abomasum) of young ruminants, such as calves, lambs and goats. The enzymes separate milk into curds and whey – a key stage in the manufacturing process.
Traditional rennet is still used today, although alternatives (derived from mould, bacterial fermentation and plants such as nettles and ivy) are increasingly common, if not slightly more palatable.

Allowable food defects

We live in an era of unprecedented hygiene and expect our food to contain only the ingredients labelled on the packaging. But anyone who has foraged in the wild will know that nature likes to share its rich bounty. There is nothing surprising about taking a bite out of a freshly picked apple to find the remaining half of a (presumably very upset) insect.

Our basic foodstuffs are not grown in sterile conditions and so our diet is peppered with a variety of unintended side dishes, including soil, rodent hairs, faeces, mould, parasites and, of course, insects. The earthy nature of food production is acknowledged in the US through the publication of the Defect Levels Handbook that defines acceptable (non-hazardous) levels of these undisclosed morsels.
For example, two cupfuls of cornmeal may legitimately contain up to five whole insects, ten insect fragments, ten rodent hairs and five rodent poop fragments. It certainly puts that half-eaten apple into perspective.
An acceptable number of dead insects in two cupfuls of cornmeal. oatpost/Shutterstock

Pollution – heavy metal

Lewis Carroll’s fictional Mad Hatter character may have been inspired by an occupational disease of milliners (hat makers) caused by exposure to mercury and its salts during a process called “carroting”.

This was commonly used on the pelts of small animals, such as beavers, to make the fur softer. Beavers clearly didn’t have a good time in the 19th century, but the effects of mercury on milliners was equally devastating, with up to half the working population afflicted by erethism, or “mad hatters disease”, the signs and symptoms of which included irritability and excitability, muscle spasms, loss of teeth, nails and hair, lack of coordination, confusion, memory loss and death.

While phased out from most industrial processes, mercury remains a significant air and water pollutant. Indeed, the release of industrial waste into the sea off the south coast of Japan resulted in the local population eating seafood containing methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury. Because of this, several thousand people became victims of Minamata disease.

How did the seafood become so poisonous? The answer lies in an effect called bioaccumulation, the process whereby the concentration of a substance can substantially increase with each step up the food chain (see illustration). So next time you tuck into a tuna steak, try not to get too irritable or excitable about the hidden mercury.
Illustration of how methylmercury becomes more concentrated as it passes up the food chain. In this example, the concentration of methylmercury is expressed relative to seawater (given an arbitrary value of one). It can be seen that methylmercury is 10,000 times more concentrated in the top predator (tuna fish). Data from Harding, Dalziel and Vass.

Natural contaminants

Although pollutants like mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic often make headlines as food contaminants, nature’s larder can accidentally contain a whole host of toxins. Many members of the rhododendron genus of flowering plants secrete grayanotoxins in their nectar. These neurotoxic substances are dutifully collected by bees who proceed to make honey, consumption of which can cause “mad honey disease” in humans. This rather unusual form of contamination can cause hallucinations, nausea and vomiting.

When we think of food poisoning, flowers rarely spring to mind, but rhododendron has been indirectly responsible for incapacitating entire armies. True flower power!
Rhododendron, destroyer of armies. Ottochka/Shutterstock

Natural born killers

Pickles and preserves have been used for centuries to extend the shelf life of food through the winter months. Unfortunately, badly preserved food can encourage the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which produces the world’s most toxic substances, collectively known as botulinum toxin, some of which can be fatal at a dose of 2ng – that’s two thousand millionths of a gram. To put that in perspective, the average lethal dose of potassium cyanide is about a tenth of a gram.
Eating contaminated food will cause botulism, which stops the nervous system functioning properly. Correspondingly, the condition is characterised by general muscle weakness and, eventually, paralysis and death.Spores of C. botulinum are often found in honey. While relatively harmless to most people, the immune system of young infants is relatively ineffective against these bacteria, which can lead to a related condition known as infantile botulism. Indeed, this is why many government agencies advise against giving honey to children under a year old.The Conversation
Robert Chilcott, Professor, Centre for Research into Topical Drug Delivery and Toxicology, University of Hertfordshire

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.