Marc Francis, Policy & Campaigns Director
At Z2K, our clients have been hit as badly by Covid as any other Londoners if not worse. Our casework team is still seeing a constant stream of low-income Londoners who DWP has denied access to the Social Security benefits Parliament says they are entitled to, and others whose local authority has refused them Council Tax Support or the duties required under homelessness legislation. And so we were delighted one of the Board’s “Missions” is a robust safety net that lifts people out of poverty and relives financial hardship.
Last month, we submitted evidence to the Recovery Board including some ideas for what needs to change. Until Covid, Z2K would have argued that a significant and sustained increase in new social homes being built would be the most important contribution the Mayor could make to take to tackling poverty and inequality. Right now, however, hundreds of thousands of low-income Londoners are peering over a financial cliff-edge as furlough winds down, redundancies increase, savings diminish and living costs grow. This crisis demands an immediate response as well as long-term solutions.
Responsibility for fixing the flaws in the Social Security system clearly lies in Downing Street. The Prime Minister and Chancellor could very easily uplift “legacy” benefits (JSA, ESA and Income Support) by the same £20 a week as has been given to Universal Credit claimants and restore the fully-funded national systems of Council Tax Benefit and the Social Fund. However, in the apparent absence of any desire in Number Ten or Eleven to do so, City Hall must play a greater part. Here are some of our ideas:
- Firstly, the Mayor should commit to match-fund all those Boroughs still maintaining a Local Welfare Assistance scheme to help ensure legacy benefit claimants facing destitution or serious financial hardship as a result of the additional costs of Covid have the means to feed and clothe themselves and keep warm this winter.
- Secondly, the Mayor should match-fund all those Boroughs voluntarily topping up their Discretionary Housing Payment pots, so that more renters can be helped with LHA/HB shortfalls and avoid eviction when the suspension on evictions lifts.
- Thirdly, the Mayor should waive his 20 per cent Council Tax precept in 2020/21 for all those who are CTS claimants and encourage Boroughs not to charge additional fees or instruct bailiffs against others who are not entitled to CTS, but are still struggling to pay.
More parochially, we believe the provision of good-quality housing and welfare benefits advice in London falls a long way short of the need after a decade of austerity. There are many good Law Centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux and independent advice charities, but many of those who need advice and advocacy most of all simply aren’t able to access it or don’t know they can. For example, recent figures from HM Courts & Tribunals Service showed that only one in five of disabled people appealing an ESA or PIP decision at the Tribunal were represented. This is a fundamental denial of justice for London’s poorest citizens. City Hall should help Boroughs support the advice sector.
None of these ideas comes without a price-tag. But the total costs run into tens of millions of pounds at most, not the billions the GLA expends elsewhere. And collectively they amount to a dramatic underpinning of the Capital’s threadbare postcode lottery of a local welfare safety net. Over the past four years, the Mayor has indicated his continuing concern about the levels of poverty and inequality in London and argued against the Government’s cuts to Social Security. In normal times that might be enough. But these aren’t normal times. Radical action is needed. That means City Hall putting in some proper funding to help Londoners facing financial hardship and even destitution in the months ahead.