Council leader Denise Hyland: Getting to grips with deprivation in Greenwich

In this part of London, food banks have steadily become part of the social landscape. This will be surprising to some of the millions of  visitors from all over the world who flock  to Greenwich each year to enjoy the historic town centre.

But the reality is that many local residents in this borough are so short of food that they have to return to Jobcentre Plus or to a frontline public sector professional for a food bank voucher on more than just the odd occasion. These are not people who are managing to recover quickly from a short-term crisis. Last autumn I talked to a young couple at the food bank who were there with their baby. Yesterday, more than a year on, they were back with that child. She’s now a toddler, and her baby brother is six months old.

What role does the local authority play in tackling deprivation and poverty here? Local politician Denise Hyland is the leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and she took control of the Labour-run council this year. This week she visited the volunteers at Greenwich Food Bank, which runs a warehouse and eight donation points throughout the borough. Ahead of this visit, she talked to me about food banks, poverty, and the impact of the austerity agenda and welfare reforms on residents here. She outlined how her local authority works to support those most vulnerable to the impact of cuts to welfare.

‘We find it tragic that there’s a need for food banks, but we are deeply appreciative of all those who make the food bank possible,’ she said. As a measure of its commitment to the work done by the food banks in the borough – all of which are part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks – the borough provides some premises including the warehouse at a peppercorn rent, including the necessary work to make it fit for purpose. ‘We also have large (collection) bins in the Woolwich Centre and in other centres as well.’

The borough, which won the council of the year award last year for its work on regeneration, growth and investment, also has an emergency support scheme aimed at supporting some of the people who might, if not helped, be forced to use food banks. According to the council’s website, the scheme would meet ‘essential short term needs in an emergency or flood’ and it might ‘in very limited circumstances’ support those whose benefits have been stopped, reduced or those whose benefits have been sanctioned. When the council took over the scheme from Jobcentre Plus in April 2013, it ensured it developed ‘a very close relationship between the scheme and its Welfare Rights service’, said Cllr Hyland. She added: ‘It’s been a really useful scheme, and we’ve used it to triage people. We can for example refer them to the Families 1st service.’

The council is recognised nationally for its Families 1st programme and has one of the best figures in the country for offering targeted help to families with complex needs. Dedicated keyworkers give intensive support to families who have a range of issues, which may include an adult out of work, youth crime or anti-social behaviour. Launched in March 2013, the council says almost 450 families have engaged with the scheme. The council tries to target the people who are the most likely to be in a worse position if benefits are cut or capped.

Cllr Hyland added: ‘We try to be proactive and identify the people who might be most affected. When the welfare reforms started we contacted those who were likely to be impacted by the benefit cap. In Greenwich, 35 per cent of those affected were losing £50 or more a week. Most of the families affected by the benefit cap are in private accommodation. We also have people hit by the bedroom tax and we have families affected by the reduction in help with council tax benefits.’ She emphasized the importance of thorough assessments that take into account all the circumstances faced by an individual or family. ‘We offer a holistic assessment, as people can fall through the cracks – for example when they are helped with housing but not necessarily with employment.’ She pointed to the drive underway in other councils to rehouse people outside London. Her council’s aim is to build on the considerable regeneration and investment in education and skills going on in the borough. These programmes include improved transport links (including two Crossrail development sites in Woolwich and Abbey Wood) offering more access to the employment market, house-building and redevelopment on a major scale, and four new skills centres.

The council’s job agency is Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). It’s described by the council as a brokerage scheme between local employers and local people looking for work  – and the council says it has helped more than 16,000 people find jobs or access training since its inception. Cllr Hyland said one scheme  – the Highways Improvement Scheme  – has involved putting £5million of reserves into highway repairs while training young people in road repairing skills. One skills centre – the Royal Borough of Greenwich Construction Skills Centre – opened in the summer when 20 trainees began learning a wide range of skills from laying paving to street repairs. Cllr Hyland said this mobile unit stays on the construction site for the length of a build.

She sees this general approach to developing skills and job creation as part of a ‘double-sided strategy’ to bring together physical regeneration with social and economic regeneration.’If you go to Woolwich Common, Abbey Wood, Middle Park or Greenwich Town Centre, there are micro pockets of deprivation. But we have to share the prosperity around everyone.’ But some families are harder to help than others, she said – and there is a particular problem when people are housed  in Greenwich by other London councils. ‘Someone came into my surgery complaining of damp. The family lives in a private house and their home borough (in Central London) sent in an environmental health officer. This council then gave the family a notice to quit and offered them a place in Essex. This is too far from their cultural centre (they are from Eritrea) and too far from the father’s job in West London. This council has now washed its hands of that family. When that notice to quit is followed through, the family will probably turn up on our doorstep as homeless. Their child is due to start nursery in January. The family’s being shoved from pillar to post.’

She added: ‘With the policies that are being pursued, these people are at more of a disadvantage, and communities are being fractured because of the whole debate about immigrant’s rights and benefits. These are people with no recourse to public funds, and we’re spending about £4million on them. This new burden is not being recognised (by central Government). If they turn up and it’s a couple without children, we would declare there is no duty to help them and refer them to a homeless charity. If they have children who are dependents we have a duty of care to those children and we’ll give them temporary accommodation in a property that’s due for demolition. But those people need a school and those people need food. They let people through the border and keep them waiting to hear of their status. In the meantime they can’t work and are left in destitution. We are having to deal with the human tragedy.’

 

‘John’, schizophrenia and his debts: The DWP can’t abdicate responsibility

It’s emerging that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has carried out what the Disability News Service (DNS) says were ’60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths in less than three years’. The excellent DNS obtained the figures from the DWP in response to a series of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests. The DWP has always rejected any connection between the coalition’s welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of claimants.

Additionally, the DWP has now released guidance to staff saying that peer reviews might also be considered in cases involving ‘customers with additional needs/vulnerable customers’.

The vulnerability of many benefits claimants is illustrated by the case of ‘John’, who came into the London food bank with a voucher on Friday. He’s 33 and explained to me that he’s in debt. He still owes well over £2,000 to ‘payday’ or short term loan companies. These include Cash Generators, TextLoanUK (offering up to £100 for seven days at APR of 894%) and Miniloanshop. The repayments are coming directly out of his bank account and are causing him to incur bank charges.

‘John’ is on employment and support allowance (ESA) – a UK benefit paid to people whose illness or disability affects their ability to work. He has also only just started receiving personal independence payment (PIP) – a non means tested benefit that offers help with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health and disability.

He  has serious long-standing mental health issues – he lives with schizophrenia and depression. The very strong anti-depression and anti-psychotic medication he’s on ‘makes you drowsy and you forget a lot of things’, he says. He adds that he ‘ends up paying money back, but getting new loans’.

I wasn’t able to establish how much he’s currently having to repay per week to meet the horrendously high APRs on his loans. Neither was he able to tell me the rate of PIP that he receives: The level of PIP varies hugely from £21.55 to £138.05 a week, depending on the outcome of the assessment process. I was however able to advise him to immediately contact Christians Against Poverty – a debt counselling charity. He promised that he would indeed get in touch with them urgently.

'John' has been referred to CAP for advice
‘John’ has been referred to CAP for advice

He lives in a hostel, but it does not seem to offer much if anything in the way of personal support or advocacy. His health is deteriorating and he is losing large amounts of weight. ‘I’ve lost two stones in two months and my nutrition is up and down’, he says. When he goes to the GP, he sees a ‘different doctor each time’. He’s started having blackouts, at which point a GP referred him to the hospital. He still doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He sees a psychiatrist once every three months, and has no community psychiatric nurse.

He’s been told by the DWP that he is due to have a work capability assessment (WCA) for his ESA, and has been waiting for this since January this year. No doubt this process will do nothing but add to the stress he is under.

Given his deteriorating health, fast weight loss, lack of day-to-day support with his mental health issues and debt problems, in my lay view any future decision by the DWP to endorse a withdrawal of his ESA following WCA would pose a real risk to him.

Has the DWP got any risk assessment procedures in place for individuals awaiting WCA? The effect on people who are already vulnerable of long waits for assessments that may result in removal or refusal of benefit is a matter of huge concern.

I’ll be contacting the DWP to let them know of ‘John’s’ situation. Many thanks to him for talking about his circumstances.

Not laughing on the way to the #foodbank: ‘Marie’ the carer and her sons

Marie (not her real name) is 53 and is separated from her husband,  although they are still legally married.  Despite her many health issues, she has been his full-time carer for four years.  He has dementia, while she lives with chronic arthritis, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and anger management issues. They have four sons in their 20s – three of whom still live with Marie. All four of her sons have mild to moderate learning difficulties.

Left with no benefits, she came into the London food bank last week with three of her sons for some help. Her employment and support allowance (ESA) – a benefit paid to the sick and disabled if they are unable to work – had been withdrawn.  It was stopped following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos (whose controversial contract with the government to undertake the tests is ending early). She was declared fit for work and her ESA payments officially stopped on October 16th – a day before her 53rd birthday.

In reality, she says her household hasn’t received any money  – other than one  son’s jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)  – since October 7th. When she began signing last week for JSA, she was not informed by staff at Jobcentre Plus when she would receive a payment. ‘I was due a payment on my birthday week, and that’s when I was told I wouldn’t get anything. I was beside myself  – I was crying a lot. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.’ Another son who lives with her has been told he has to go back on ESA, and her third son who lives at home is in the process of applying for ESA.

She’s very concerned about the impact of her dire financial situation on her housing. ‘Before the ESA was stopped they (the housing association) said that if I did not pay a certain amount of money I would be kicked out. They know my situation and I’ve got a month to let them know what payment I’m going to get.’

Marie broke down in tears as she explained her situation. One of the food bank volunteers brought her a cup of tea. She said that she’s the only person in her house who can read and write, and that she’s been trying to explain to Jobcentre Plus about her sons’ learning disabilities. She described a disconnect between what staff there are asking the young men to do and what their mother believes they can realistically manage. She’s also worried about the impact of the staffs’ approach on one son’s state of mind. ‘They had been telling my sons to do certain things – to meet certain criteria. They are trying – but they don’t meet the criteria required by work plans. They’ve got to look on the computer for jobs (on Universal Jobmatch).’

‘What upset me the most was that my youngest son, who’s 23, saw a disability officer at Jobcentre Plus – and she told him that he didn’t know anything. She was implying that my son was thick and that upset him and he was crying.’

Marie has applied for a mandatory reconsideration of the decision to turn down her ESA application. She is most concerned about having to stop caring for her husband, if she has to now actively search for work. ‘I can’t leave my husband, as my sons wouldn’t know what to do then things get tricky. I’m very loyal to him. I get upset because he’s got dementia and his memory is getting quite bad now. The life expectancy for what he’s got is about eight years. Because he’s been my rock, it’s been hard for me. In the past I could go and ask his advice.’

She adds: ‘My husband is on a low budget  – yet he’s been giving us a little money and food. It makes me feel awkward, because he’s on a tight budget himself.’ Her house is cold, she has to use key cards for her gas and electricity and put a little money at a time on them.  To wash, they have to fill up the kettle and use the sink. Her sons and herself suffer from chest problems. Places like the food bank (this is the fourth time she’s had to use it) have ‘ taken the pressure off, but it’s hit my self-esteem and dignity.’ But she says that if it hadn’t been for the food bank she doesn’t know what she would have done – as she has no support network.

A month ago she says she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, ‘because stuff was getting too much and I felt like ending my life – but I’ve got responsibilities to my husband and kids’. She says the stress she’s under is causing her to lose weight and ‘my hair is falling out’. She talks to mental health charity Mind and to her GP. She says her GP, who has known her for 30 years,  is ‘disgusted’ about the way the welfare system has handled her case.

She says she expects a decision on the mandatory reconsideration this week, and that if the answer is another refusal, she will immediately make an appointment with Citizens Advice to discuss next steps.

Marie left the food bank, with her sons helping her carry the bags of food.

This is how what some policy gurus  might call ‘radical changes to  the welfare system in the UK’  are converging to impact one family in London – the capital city of the world’s sixth richest economy by GDP.