South of the River – A town called malice

Compass-SouthComment logo 2Well, we’ve only been and gone and done it, haven’t we. The country has voted to leave the EU, now we’ll find out if this step into the unknown leads to Shangri La or financial disaster.

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.


9 Replies to “South of the River – A town called malice”

  1. won’t there be an extra £350 million a week that can be spent on these causes??

  2. ….And IDS has just told us that Leave “never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities “.
    I genuinely don’t like to say “We told you so” to Leave voters, but we did tell you so.

      1. …..that the Brexit campaign was full of lies aimed at the disgruntled working class, borderline racists looking at immigrants to justify their lack of employment aspirations and old people who still have delusions of grandeur which stem from the days of the British Empire?

        1. Peter: that’s not answering exactly what Remainders ‘told us so’ about – less than a week after the referendum. It simply tells us your view of the majority that voted the leave the EU. One obviously shared by the commentariat, who haven’t held back on their disdain, loathing and prejudice towards those who came to a different conclusion over EU membership. An attitude not lost on many of those who voted to leave.

        2. So… why do you think the “working class” was so disgruntled that they accepted these lies???

          1. Both sides bandied about made-up figures, which they used to put the frighteners on us. However, according to the most recent poll, 53% of leave voters voted on principle rather than dodgy ‘facts’ to have more control over the laws under which they’re governed. What was the principle most Remain voters voted for?

  3. Or perhaps working class people of both left and right were sick of being ignored and patronised and decided to give the establishment a kick in the ballot box.

    Time will tell whether this was the right decision but I’m optimistic.

    The metropolitan elite and their rent-a-mob aka ‘anti fascists’ are already sneering at us and saying they’re ashamed of us.

    Boo hoo. If you don’t like democracy move to North Korea. Or Tower Hamlets if you don’t like flying.

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