However long Cameron and Osborne have left at the controls, the Tories are still in Number 10 and we still face the ravages of austerity. I spent a very interesting, if rather depressing, morning this week at a meeting of third sector organisations (charities, community groups) who were discussing the effects of austerity on their work.
The government’s austerity measures taken each on their own, might seem small, almost trivial unless they affect you directly. The bedroom tax, it has been argued, just brings social housing into line with private sector renting. But when you add the cuts to Council Tax benefit and the sanctions regime at Job Centre Plus, plus all the usual things that go on in life like relationship break ups, it adds up to cruel and vicious regime.
Charities are supposed to be there to help the exceptions in our society. The few people who need some extra help for whatever reason. Well more and more people are becoming ‘exceptions’. Leeds CAB reported that they saw 20,000 people last year, up from 12,000 two years ago. CAB will offer advice on any issue, but more and more benefits (especially sanctions) are coming to dominate their work.
Groundwork’s Green Doctor service was launched ten years ago as a carbon reduction programme. The ‘doctors’ visit residents and can help with things like draught proofing and changing energy tariffs. They have seen their work become more focused on fuel poverty. It’s less about saving the planet and more about stopping families having to choose between heating and food.
Debt counsellors reported that their work used to be dominated by credit – loans credit card debts etc. Now it’s trying to help people budget when their income is just too small. Christians Against Poverty report that 33% of their clients have less than £10 per week for food. Increasingly they can’t come up with repayment regimes and have to fall back on insolvency and bankruptcy to resolve debt issues.
Leeds City Council deserves some credit (no pun intended) for the way they’ve managed the cuts to benefits. There have been some ingenious backdoor cuts, that I admit had passed me by.
Council Tax Benefit used to be paid up to 100% rebate via a national scheme administered by the local authority. Under cover of devolution and ‘localism’ the government freed councils to run their own schemes, but cut the grant they give to fund the rebates. Meaning that it was the Council, not central government who cut the amount of money people are given to live on.
The Council’s Discretionary Housing Payments are so limited that the Council will only pay them to people facing the threat of eviction. Anyone else who can’t afford to pay the full rent has to live with (growing) arrears … and the growing worry.
Charities running short of resources and with increasing demands now face a dilemma: do they continue with preventative work or do they focus on crisis work? They are facing the same dilemma as many of their clients – choosing between heat and food.
Of course you prioritise the crises, just as families prioritise food. But both courses of action store up problems for the future. More people becoming crisis cases, perhaps because they became ill in their cold house.
The session ended with two very interesting observations. The first was a comment that throughout their working life in the sector, employment was the answer to most questions. So you designed programmes to help people get (back) into a job. But now we have in-work poverty. Zero hours contracts, Working Tax Credits. If work isn’t the solution we have to tackle poverty head on.
Before I come to the second observation, I need to explain that charities tend to fight shy of politics. It’s a dangerous game, you might lose your funding if you say the wrong thing.
There’s actually an interesting story arc to the politics of a charity. When an organisation is young (and small) it is often full of righteous anger and doesn’t care who it offends to ‘speak truth to power’. Then it builds up a group of people it is supporting; then it’s gets funding to carry on supporting those people; then it can’t risk offending its funders because its clients might suffer.
Back to the observation, for third sector organisations, whatever their original focus, poverty is becoming the number one issue. And poverty is political. So the third sector, charities, are going to have to re-enter the political arena if they are going to support their beneficiaries.
We live in interesting times …
I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.