The AGM was declared open by Jonathan Ellicott, General Secretary. Everyone then stood while Dame Penelope Keith, President, read the names of Members who had died since the last AGM. Before the minute’s silence Dame Penelope asked the Meeting to think not only of these Members but also the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. This catastrophic disaster in West London had happened the night before and from the train window on her way to the AGM she had seen Grenfell Tower still smoking.
2017 is the ABF’s 135th Birthday. In her President’s Address Dame Penelope said that to mark this milestone each beneficiary had been sent a present of £135 together with the Summer Grant.
Peter Bourke, Honorary Treasurer, gave his first report. Peter paid tribute to his predecessor, Milton Johns, and followed Milton’s tradition of enlivening the guide through the Annual Report with some entertaining anecdotes – to the delight of everyone.
Once the business of the AGM was over, instead of a “turn” Carolyn Barker, ABF Welfare Advisor, spoke about her work for the ABF. Carolyn’s talk was fascinating and particularly illuminating for the Members. It showed her compassion and expertise. Thank you, Carolyn, very much.
Carolyn Barker, ABF Welfare Advisor
“The main focus of my job is to look at the welfare benefits eligibility of our beneficiaries and to visit when possible to let them know who I am and what I might be able to do for them. I quickly realised, of course, that the job is also partly to be a social worker, but with the added bonus that, unlike a social worker, when I see a need for something essential to improve the quality of life of a beneficiary I am in the very happy position of being able to ask Trustees to consider providing the funding for it. I also go with beneficiaries to the DWP Medical Assessments especially with those beneficiaries who might otherwise not attend, perhaps because of mental illness, for example. I attend Local Authority appointments with them, on topics such as Housing Benefit questions. When benefits are refused I first ask for a Mandatory Reconsideration which means: “have another look at your decision” and I collect medical evidence from doctors and consultants to support our case. If the refusal is upheld, I might go with the beneficiary to represent them at the Social Security and Disability First Tier Appeals Tribunal - though, happily, a large number of decisions are changed without any need to take the case further.
I was trained in Tribunal Representation very many years ago by a barrister, very eminent in his field, who these days is titled Judge Jan Luba QC. The first and most important thing, he said was: “on arrival at the Tribunal, search out where the loos are. Your client won’t be able to concentrate if in need.”
Very occasionally I visit with a Social Worker if it seems that a joint visit would be helpful. I have also visited when a Social Worker is doing a needs assessment – especially when the beneficiary has had a previous unhappy outcome and would like me to help put their case.
Many of the questions I deal with are exactly the same as those I was presented with for many years as a Citizens Advice Bureau manager. The difference is that actors find themselves in more surreal situations: whereas in Hounslow my client was injured by falling off steps while stacking shelves in Tesco, my actor fell off a toadstool whilst appearing as an elf at the National Theatre. One beneficiary tripped over a broken paving stone, and we were successful in claiming against a local authority for his loss of earnings as Father Christmas for the whole season.
Actors who are unable to work because of illness are like other people: they get into debt. Of course most debt comes about because times are hard and sickness benefits are low, but I must tell you that some of the explanations I give when asking for reduced payments or write offs of arrears may seem a little far-fetched to Barclays, HSBC etc. when I say things such as, “arrears have arisen because unfortunately whilst touring in South America she was kidnapped and held hostage…” I sometimes think the bank credit clerks probably say, “Oh no, not another story.” But every story I tell is true.
As some of our beneficiaries are seriously ill - and some are terminally ill - both older and younger actors and the help we can give is often far more varied than just Welfare Benefits advice. After one visit to an elderly actor who suffers from dementia, I ordered two sets of pyjamas and a dressing gown, a regular delivery of meals for his freezer which his carer from a Social Services agency could prepare, and persuaded Social Services to organise a chiropodist. Sadly I wasn’t able to persuade him to get dressed as his Social Worker hoped I would. As he said, “why should I, dear? I’m not going anywhere.” One other elderly actor, who I visit quite often when there is a crisis of some kind, has a soothing voice and a tendency to tell me long stories to explain her current difficulties.
When younger actors have children I liaise with the Actors’ Children’s Trust, who are generous in their assistance. Equity Charitable Trust are splendid in helping with a one-off amount when some essential payment is needed. Evelyn Norris Trust provide funding for much needed holidays, often for both the actor and a carer. The Royal Theatrical Fund now also have a benefits worker who is a former colleague. We know each other well and are familiar with each other’s working practices and can discuss ways of solving the problems of mutual beneficiaries.
I introduce myself to each new beneficiary to make sure that they are getting all the state benefits they are entitled to and I hope I make it clear that they can ask me any question about any problem. When it’s inappropriate for me to give an answer, I can via the network surely find someone or some agency that can.
My job gives me great pleasure and I enjoy traveling all over the country to visit lovely actors who tell me the most entertaining stories. As far as benefits are concerned, I’m not a competitive person but I do like to be proven right, in the same way that others get pleasure from completing the crossword. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than winning some battle on behalf of a beneficiary, anything from preventing an eviction to getting them some dosh. It feels like winning the Lottery!
Increasingly young actors apply to us, especially since the introduction of Universal Credit where the waiting period for benefit payment is extended and rent and bids still have to be paid. In most cases we help over the difficult periods until they are able to get back to work. It’s easier to get well when financial problems are taken away. When a young actor has an extended or terminal illness we can provide some respite and support above and beyond what the state provides.
Actors, unlike ordinary mortals, don’t retire. Recently an actor told me that he’d just finished writing a musical review and that all that now stands in the way of fame and fortune at last at the age of 86 are two things: no venues have a piano nowadays, and none of his contemporaries can any longer sing!
When I first started to work for the ABF I was amazed when I visited a lady in Chelsea to hear her say that she was beginning to feel very tired now and wondered at the age of 93 if she might stop looking for work. By the way, she also told me in passing that she had had a fling with a famous actor named Kenneth and that he had proposed to her after they’d met in his local in the Kings Road. I was so excited that I relayed this to a Trustee when I got back to the office. “Oh darling,” she said languidly, “Kenny proposed to all of us. He thought it only polite".”