After ten years, this week is my last at Z2K. In many ways, the past decade of austerity and cuts to Social Security benefits might be considered the worst of times to work at a welfare rights and anti-poverty charity like Z2K. But it has been inspiring to watch our team of advisors and volunteers rise to the challenge by defending people’s rights to Social Security benefits and access to the homelessness safety net. And it has been amazing working with great colleagues in Z2K’s Policy & Campaigns Team trying to challenge the political decision-makers implementing this ill-conceived “welfare reform” agenda.
No Poll Tax 2
When Z2K’s founder Reverend Paul Nicolson interviewed me for the role leading our policy influencing work and public campaigning, I said what attracted me to the role was the organisation’s history in opposing the Community Charge or “Poll Tax” and its outspoken criticism of the Coalition Government’s decision to scrap the national system of Council Tax Benefit (CTB). I said I thought there was still time to influence local councillors’ decisions about whether they maintained a scheme based on the old CTB principles or started charging those who weren’t working.
When I got the job, I was told to put those words into action. We got off to a good start when Southwark Council served a court summons on 9,000 of its poorest residents, aggressively dragging them to court for Council Tax they were newly liable for and had little or no idea they had to pay – and often simply couldn’t afford to. Z2K turned up outside the court with two dozen advisors and volunteers on the day and helped ensure everyone who came was advised of their rights. While we couldn’t persuade Southwark not to charge unemployed people, we did at least help get them to see how wrong it was to use these kind of enforcement tactics on their poorest residents.
The experience in Southwark showed that against a backdrop of funding cuts, we were going to have a tough job persuading councillors not to charge residents whose only income was Social Security. Fortunately, I had a brilliant running mate in Z2K’s Policy & Campaigns Officer, Sam Ashton. And over the next five years we took the #NoPollTax2 campaign to half a dozen Boroughs around London, often spending hours outside the local Job Centres speaking to some of those who were affected by these charges. Most were already struggling to get by on the £65 a week Job Seekers Allowance and could ill-afford to pay the £200 or so Council Tax bill that had landed on them.
We lost in Barnet and Ealing. But we succeeded in persuading Harrow councillors not to hike the charge on disabled residents to 30 per cent. Hackney’s Mayor scaled back a planned increase and we helped stop a 20 per cent charge in Tower Hamlets. Perhaps our biggest impact though was via research Sam and colleagues at the Child Poverty Action Group carried out into the numbers of people being charged for the first time and the numbers in arrears, served with a court summons and even having bailiffs instructed against them to recover the debt. We think that has helped persuade Camden, Richmond, Hounslow, Greenwich and Lambeth to reinstate 100 per cent support and others like Newham, Brent and Haringey to reduce their charges.
Before 2010, Z2K had usually only helped with a handful of appeals over Incapacity Benefit or Disability Living Allowance. By 2015, Z2K’s advisors were seeing more and more disabled and seriously unwell people who the Department for Work & Pensions had denied its new Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Personal Independence Payment (PIP) after one of its notorious assessments. That year, the team lodged over 100 appeals and by 2017 that number had doubled again. Like other advice agencies our team and the volunteers were winning over 80 per cent of those appeals.
Sam gave evidence brilliantly to the Work & Pensions Select Committee early in 2017 about how bad these assessments were, and why the internal Mandatory Reconsideration stage was a barrier to justice at the Tribunal. And after he left, our new Policy & Campaigns Officer, Jen Durrant, interviewed some of those clients about their experiences. Those interviews became Access Denied – qualitative research which shone a light on how participants were treated by the assessor, and how different this was when their appeal was heard by the Tribunal panel.
That report and its recommendations still form the basis of our work on disability benefits today. The Government’s Health & Disability Green Paper in 2021 finally acknowledged that things need to change, but its proposals don’t go anywhere near far enough. Z2K is continuing to keep up the pressure on DWP for fundamental reform of these discredited and demeaning assessments. We were pleased to have been called to give evidence to the select committee on it again last year and worked with Marsha de Cordova on her Parliamentary debate and Early Day Motion on it last year. If you haven’t had a chance to do so already, please email your own MP asking them to sign up!
The poor quality of DWP’s decision-making and endless delays prompted another new project – Right First Time – which was led by Daniel Wrapson. Over the course of the project, Daniel submitted hundreds of complaints for clients who had been badly treated by DWP or their local authority in an effort to secure practice change as well as individual redress. Outrageously, those complaints about maladministration often got stuck in an 18 month long delay at DWP’s Independent Case Examiner (ICE). But Daniel’s persistence usually ensured there was some compensation for our client at the end of the day.
After Jen left Z2K in 2019, Ella Abraham joined us. She would be the first to admit she didn’t know too much about Social Security when she started, but she knows injustice when she sees it and she brought Z2K’s campaigning into the 21st Century. Within months she had launched an online petition with 38 Degrees against DWP’s practice of sending letters to disabled people’s doctors telling them they should stop signing “sick notes” as DWP had found them fit for work. DWP was forced to change the wording.
Ella followed that up with a campaign around Z2K’s complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about DWP’s misleading Universal Credit Uncovered adverts. The ASA concluded those adverts were “exaggerated” and “misleading” and should not be published again. When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Ella latched on to the Chancellor’s outrageous refusal to extend the £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit to “legacy benefit” recipients. Over the next 12 months she was the driving force behind the campaign against this discrimination, including getting over 20,000 people to write to their MP about it – a first for Z2K.
Coronavirus hit many of our clients very hard, especially those isolating at home in small and poor quality private rented accommodation. A few months before, Z2K had established a Tenants Voice project, led by Rose Bernstein. Throughout the pandemic, Rose maintained contact with dozens of tenants, offering practical and emotional support when it was needed most. She also moved the group’s meetings online. And with the support of Soundelivery, our Tenants Voice participants produced #LifeAfterLockdown – an audio campaign detailing their experiences during lockdown and the changes to the private rented sector they want to see.
Our colleague Becca Stacey also kept contact with a group of clients who had been struggling with Universal Credit (UC) before and during the pandemic. At the end of 2020, she brought their experiences together in Blunt, Bureaucratic & Broken, a brilliant qualitative research report which sets out why UC’s “digital by default” system is so problematic for many people and how it should be reformed. The Chancellor’s recent decision to “pause” the Managed Migration of disabled people on ESA gives an opportunity for some fresh thinking in Government how much stronger safeguards can be put in place to ensure vulnerable people don’t lose out if and when it does happen.
Bringing it up to date
In the last year, I’ve been working with Z2K’s Participation Officer, Hannah Davis, who has taken the work that Jen, Ella, Rose and Becca begun to support our clients to speak out themselves to another level. It has been brilliant watching some of those experts by experience take their views about Social Security and housing directly to ministers and other MPs. I am really pleased this work will continue over the next few years with a special focus on homelessness families and private rented sector tenants in Westminster, where there appears to be an good opportunity for some long-overdue change to policy and practice.
Most recently, Z2K’s Policy & Public Affairs Officer Jamie Thunder has taken up the baton of trying to persuade MPs and their advisors to meet these participants in our work, and take action to hold the Government to account for its decisions on Social Security and housing. Jamie’s own experience as a frontline advisor gives him a real insight into the detail of how many of those who rely on the Social Security system are tripped up by DWP’s policies and practices and thereby denied the financial support they deserve and often which Parliament even says they are entitled to.
It goes without saying that, after ten years and with some possibility of better opportunities to secure change to come in the next couple of years, it is a wrench to leave Z2K. However, it’s the right time for me personally. It has been an enormous privilege to work with such dedicated and talented colleagues in my time here. Day-in and day-out, they are doing what Paul and his fellow founders wanted in speaking truth those power about the causes and solutions to the unnecessary scourge of poverty in the UK.
It has been an honour to have played a part in Z2K’s mission and even though I’m leaving, there will always be a place in my heart for this wonderful organisation, as well as the friends I have worked with and the people we serve.