For the last couple of years we have participated twice weekly in joint drop in advice sessions, at the Beethoven Centre in Queen’s Park on Monday and at Church Street Library on Wednesday. The sessions are partly financed by the NHS and offer holistic advice from a mixture of health professionals, local councillors, housing officers and the local police, together with legal advice from Coral Williams the local legal aid solicitor and debt and welfare advice from Z2K. At the Beethoven Centre sessions there is also a food cooperative at which it is possible to buy cheap fruit and vegetables and other staples like rice and spices.
I can only comment on the advice part of the sessions. I think they are very successful because they enable the locals who have difficulty in understanding official communications or who need some general information about their rights to obtain quick advice or, if they have a more complicated problem, to find someone who will take it on as casework. Continue reading
Brent Council are currently consulting on their proposed Council Tax Support Scheme for 2013/14. The council is proposing that their scheme effectively remains unchanged from this years, save for a minor addition to those exempt from the iniquitous Minimum Payment of 20%.
As we have explained previously Z2K is totally opposed to the abolition of Council Tax Benefit and the government’s 10% funding cut, but we also think that local authorities that have tried to make up this funding shortfall by introducing a minimum payment are simply heaping further misery on their poorest residents.
In Brent the minimum payment has led to over 3,500 residents who formerly paid no council tax at all being taken to court with threat of almost £100 in legal fees being added to their debt. In our experience these people aren’t refusing to pay but simply can’t. We believe this just the beginning and expect that many more will start to fall into arrears as rising energy and food prices make their budgets unmanageable.
We have explained why we think Brent should abolish their minimum payment and reintroduce 100% council tax benefit in our response to their consultation. If you agree with us please let Brent know by responding to the consultation too. You can see our model response here and find the consultation here.
Beyond the consultation we will continue to campaign in Brent and other London local authorities for the restoration of 100% council tax benefit. If you are interested in getting involved contact us here.
Something that crops up often in the welfare sector is the tricky topic of dependency. It is a label that advisors and caseworkers work hard to discourage by trying to expose the complex and varied reasons why some people find themselves in need of state support and why others don’t. Public discourse on welfare is both politicised and divisive and the media tends to talk either in terms of ‘entitlements’ or ‘hand-outs’ .
I have often wondered how helpful this distinction is.
The more clients I see at Z2K, the more I am surprised and humbled by their motivation to improve their lives. Those who lack the motivation tend to be those who have the severest disabilities and are unable to think past their immediate physical needs. Contrary to the notion that people choose a life on benefits, most of those who do need to claim welfare are not in a position to choose an alternative. Choice is a luxury. Those without money often do not have it.
I have started to notice that those dependent on benefits in fact work incredibly hard (and this is not including the thousands of benefit claimants who are in employment and claiming benefits to supplement their low incomes).
Recently, I met with a client who has been over occupying her flat for the last 10 years. She lives with her disabled husband and three children in a 3 room flat where the largest room is 10 square meters. She keeps the fridge in her bedroom because there is not enough room in the kitchen and then has to sleep on the floor because there is not enough room for a bed. She has spent hours, weeks and months over the last decade writing, emailing, phoning, visiting and complaining to her housing association. She has bid for over 100 properties without success. She had to apply several times for her husband’s medical needs to be acknowledged before she was accepted as a priority case. She has sought advice from her local councillor, advice agencies and written to her MP. She has been diligent, persistent and determined. She has, in fact, worked very hard to try and improve the way her family lives. However, her housing association, having handled her case poorly and inconsistently, have failed to re-house her. And she is still waiting.
There is no immediate solution to the issue of dependency or the way we talk about it. But whether or not it is most appropriate way to think about welfare should be food for thought. It is time to stop stereotyping welfare claimants as lazy or expectant, and recognise that many are hardworking people who are trying very hard to improve their circumstances.