Journalists who have fallen on hard times can call on the union’s charity for help. Ruth Addicott looks at the work of NUJ Extra

‘The payment that changed my life’ W

hen retired journalist Ian Cameron was the victim of a hit and run by a teenager on a stolen motorbike, he suffered a life- threatening brain injury. Struggling to walk and unable to drive, he applied to the union’s

charity, NUJ Extra, for help with a loan so he could buy a mobility scooter. Weeks later, he was speechless to find a shiny new mobility scooter parked on his drive. “I wasn’t expecting it,” he says. “It’s wonderful. The nearest

Co-op is half a mile away and zip, away I go! I’m no longer shuffling like an old man. I’m so grateful.” Cameron, a lifetime NUJ member, is just one of hundreds of

journalists who have received help from the union’s charities over the years. NUJ Extra provides short-term financial assistance for

current and former members who have fallen on hard times – whether this is paying a rent deposit for someone who has become homeless or removal expenses for someone fleeing domestic violence. The charity is funded through NUJ contributions and

personal donations. It has proved a lifeline in all kinds of situations from assisting families with children who are seriously ill to helping 83-year-old retired journalist Charles Fitzgerald, who got a foldaway tricycle after finding he was unable to ride his bike safely. Most cases are triggered by an incident of some sort – an illness, injury, accident, personal tragedy or sudden change of circumstance. Freelance Emma Wood came home one day to find her

front door smashed and passport and laptop stolen. She lost seven years of writing, images and contacts. She could not afford a new computer, so the charity stepped in and paid for a newone.

Each case is considered on its own merits in accordance with guidelines that are reviewed every year by the trustees. Chair Chris Wheal became involved after he and his wife (also an NUJ member) had a car accident nearly 25 years ago. According to Wheal, the most common problems are losing a job, divorce, illness and death. A lot of cases involve financial and mental health issues. Although many journalists have struggled in recent times after widespread cuts and redundancies, this has not necessarily led to an increase in applications. The charity received 25 applications last year, 19 of which

were helped. In 2009, it received 31 applications, 17 of which received grants and 14 were refused.

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How it began

THE NUJ was founded in 1907 and established its first charity in 1910 to help widows, orphans and other dependants. The first grants

were made in 1911 and amounted to £10. In 1920, the Widows and Orphans Fund was set up and, in 1982, it became the Provident Fund. When the charity

started offering support to members, in 1992, the Members in Need Fund was established. In 2005, the

charities merged to form NUJ Extra.

“We don’t top up the incomes of those unable to make a

living from journalism – otherwise we might be inundated,” says Wheal. “That means the economic circumstances have less of an impact on the numbers of people claiming.” A recent report said that a third of London freelances are turning to payday lenders and, although debt is a massive problem, the charity has a policy not to pay credit card debts, or solicitors’ fees or other legal bills. Nor will it pay for private medicine or private education. “If we get an application from someone wanting us to do

any of these, we would usually decline,” says Wheal. “Priority debts are those that can result in you going to

prison – not paying your council tax or fines, for example. Then come those that can result in you being made homeless – mortgage and rent. Last come other debts. But it is the credit card companies that shout the loudest, hire the debt collectors and bailiffs and make the most threatening noises. So, sometimes people try to pay off their credit card instead of the priority debt. That is why we always ask people to go through debt counselling and get the credit card companies and banks off their back.” Law firm Thompsons provides debt counselling as a free service to NUJ members. In unusual circumstances, the charity might pay a

mortgage or rent for six months. In other cases, it helps by getting involved, writing letters to ombudsmen and taking up individual cases with recalcitrant banks or mortgage providers and securing a better deal. “It’s often not just about handing over cash but offering

support,” says Wheal. “In one case, a photographer made redundant came to us with evidence that the local job centre had agreed to pay for his retraining as a drone pilot to film events. We bought him the drone he needed.” In another case, an NUJ member was diagnosed with

Crohn’s disease and, when she informed her employer, she was immediately sacked – before she had acquired employment rights. “She needed to cook proper food when she was well and freeze it in individual portions to reheat when she was unwell and would not have had the energy to prepare fresh food,” says Wheal. “She had a small kitchen and needed an unusually large freezer, which made it expensive. I think we spent about £500. She asked for nothing else, despite our offering more, and wrote the loveliest card thanking us for changing the quality of her life.” He recalls another case where the charity bought a member a new outfit for a job interview and funded the train fare.

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