Signing on as loan sharks circle struggling families

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The Independent Online

Just a few days before Christmas Julie Parker's life was turned upside down when Xerox, her employers, told everyone in her section that their jobs were to go at the end of January.

Yesterday, having worked for the company for 21 years since she was just 17, she "signed on" for the first time in her life. Her visit to the job centre in Stevenage was almost a family outing, because her two daughters, aged eight and five, came along. "They told me that you should do three things a week towards finding a job," she said. "That's easier than it sounds, because I've already looked on the web, and I'm working on five job applications at the moment."

Adam Hutchinson, 21, was working in a pub until business fell off four months ago. He decided not to sign on because he preferred to look for a job. He got himself qualified as a fork-lift truck driver, only to find that the warehouses were shedding staff, not hiring them.

Yesterday he emerged from the job centre having been there for more than two hours without having managed to sign on, because of complications with his paperwork. He said: "They're all bloody miserable in there. The staff aren't enjoying it, nor are the people who haven't got jobs. After I'd been waiting all that time, someone came to see me and was talking for about 20 minutes before telling me that my claim had been disallowed."

There were reports that in December, when the job centre was hit by a rush of new applicants, as Woolworths and other high street shops closed, it was taking up to eight weeks for claims for the dole to be processed. Applicants cannot claim other benefits, such as housing benefits, until they have been registered unemployed.

This is one of the reasons why the council's customer centre, nearby, has been dealing with a very sharp increase in people coming off the street looking for help.

One of the council's main concerns is to persuade people at the bottom end of the income scale not to turn in desperation to the numerous loan sharks, with their tempting offers of money up front.

Last week, for the first time, volunteers from the local credit union were on duty in the customer centre to tell people that if they stay away from the loan sharks and join the credit union instead, there is the possibility of getting loans at an interest rate as low as one per cent.

A volunteer with the union also approaches people queuing in the post office for their giros to warn them away from loan sharks. Recently one volunteer came upon a young mother with two small children who had borrowed £100 and had to pay back £230. But it isn't just the sharks who are causing trouble. One of the worst cases to come into the customer centre this week was an entire family, including a newborn baby, who had been evicted from their home because the bank had called in a loan they couldn't repay. The family is now housed in a hotel while council staff look for a way to help them.

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