This has turned into quite a rant – it’s quite long and incoherent, but I wanted to talk about the welfare cuts in Lambeth, mental health, the police, and what scum Lambeth council are. I just got really sick of all of the propaganda they’ve been putting around. I hope some of it makes sense and is interesting.
Woman: “Hello, I was calling to get advice on the latest benefit cuts”
Benefits helpline: “It’s not us you want to speak to, I’ll put you through to Lambeth Living”
Gets redirected to Lambeth Living
Woman: “I saw some posters up with scissors cutting across a pound sign. I was calling for advice. My benefits have been cut because of the bedroom tax and council tax benefit cut. I work in the public sector so my pay has been frozen for the last couple of years. My pay check doesn’t get me to the end of the month any more and this was before the most recent cuts. I wondered if you had advice on income maximisation?”
Lambeth Living: “We haven’t heard about that [the benefits advice campaign that Lambeth are running, which advertised the first phone number as a place to get advice]. We don’t know about that…the cuts have come in, they’re happening”
Boy does my friend know that they’re happening. Before the crisis my friend had figured out a way to just about survive on low wages and low status at work both of which compound her already severe mental health issues. With the cascade of cuts things have got significantly worse for her.
Now all she has money for is food. She walks everywhere as public transport is too expensive – this means that she is then even more exhausted during the time free from work, making survival even more difficult and deepening her depression. Important time and energy is taken up fighting for the benefits she needs. I attended the housing office to support her with her claim and witnessed the suspicion you are treated with as you go through an exercise of humiliation proving how little you have.
Life at work has only got worse with the cuts. Whilst struggling to deliver a decent library service in the face of long-term underinvestment and the more recent cuts, library staff have been under increased pressure as well as surveillance and bullying from management. Council staff are not allowed to speak out against the council, but anyone who visits a library can see the diminishing welfare of the staff as well a witness a service that is only just functioning. Now the staff have been told that they will be providing welfare advice as well as the library service (which always doubled up as social services anyway as vulnerable people sought assistance here).
Supporting welfare cuts
“The cuts are happening” so goes the Lambeth benefit cuts campaign. Lambeth argue that this is the doing of central government, which indeed it is. But Lambeth council are implicated in it too. They are supporting these brutal cuts. Their posters, depicting scissors cutting through the pound sign, state what everyone on low incomes knew already. The posters encourage acceptance and acquiescence. The council could have written anything on these posters, how about “Lambeth let’s organise/loot – luxury for all” but instead they informed us that benefit cuts were happening and that is that. We can get some patronising advice about how to cope with deepening poverty apparently – although the phone call above suggests that the council has failed to tell its staff of this service/campaign. I resented seeing these posters in my neighbourhood which were effectively adverts for welfare cuts. Them enforcing their reality onto us as if their could be no struggle. The absence of any kind of opposition and outrage on what is being inflicted on our communities is complicity with the cuts. Lambeth have not spoken out against these brutal and violent welfare cuts and this is why they are scum – there’s (lots) more to come to support this.
Councillor Edward Davie shows his support for so-called ‘welfare reform’ in his article for the Guardian in which he expresses contempt and suspicion of those on benefits, repeating the myth that benefit fraud is actually a thing. The council’s Emergency Support Scheme (which replaces central government’s social fund which was cut this April) facilitates the role out of another disastrous aspect of ‘welfare reform’ – Universal Credit: “ The council wishes to encourage people to take up Credit Union membership so that they have access to mainstream support and a proper bank account in the run up to the implementation of Universal Credit. Making Crisis Loands conditional on membership achieves this, reducing the likelihood of people getting into difficulty in the future. Charging a small amount of interest allows money to be ploughed back into the pot to help more people.” http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/moderngov/documents/s51837/05%20Cabinet%20report%20171212%20-%20Emergency%20Support%20Scheme%20-%20FINAL.pdf
Of course, in this document about the Emergency Support Scheme, those vindictive words ‘personal responsibility’ appear as a stated aim of the scheme.
Lies and misinformation
Another round of Lambeth propaganda posters informed residents that their council tax had been frozen for another year. Lambeth here are again smug and self-congratulatory. However, this is simply not true for 20,758 residents who have seen their council tax benefit scrapped and an increase in the amount they must now pay. On average, they will have to pay £2.12 extra a week, with the greatest amount being £7.68. This may not sound like a lot, but when your pay or JSA already struggles to get you to the end of the month, suddenly losing £2 a week is a big deal. Whilst other local authorities decided to maintain council tax benefit for those who need it, deciding it would be more costly to administer and collect from those who simply do not have it, Lambeth council decided to pass it on to some of its poorest residents (pensioners, disabled people, carers, those affected by the benefit cap will still receive council tax benefit). They are most definitely not on our side.
Lambeth council had apparently consulted on what scheme should replace the centrally administered Council Tax Benefit, however a friend who had responded to this ‘consultation’ told me how the consultation form had been guiding to what Lambeth wanted to hear. She had wanted to propose collecting council tax from second homes in the borough in order to keep council tax benefit but this was not presented as an option by Lambeth and there was nowhere for her to write this suggestion.
Letters from Lambeth Welfare Reform Team partnered with the homelessness charity Broadway have been sent to the 658 families who will be affected by the benefit cap, these letters have also appeared in my local library. A colourful scene of a residential street mocks the reader who is informed that they will be unlikely to remain in their home. “Work is an option that will have to be considered” we’re informed patronisingly by people who clearly have no understanding of the current crisis, one of the consequences being 1,700 people applying for 8 jobs at a local Costa cafe, meaning that waged work is simply not an option. Nor do they seem to know that many housing benefit claimants are already in paid work (over 90% of new claims made between 2010-2011 were made by those in paid work); or that those not in paid work do spend their days working but do not receive a wage. In order to ‘help’ people into waged work, Broadway claim to be working in partnership with the local Work Programme providers. These Work Programme providers sanction claimants with relish, taking away their only means of subsistence. You stand a better chance of getting paid work if you’re not on the Work Programme than if you are. Yet, as the letter acknowledges itself, people are mandated onto the Work Programme – if they do not participate they will lose their benefits. Lambeth Council and Broadway charity are working in partnership with providers who can further impoverish claimants.
Whilst Lambeth council claim to be powerless to act against central government cuts – which we know is false, seeing as they are happily enough driving them through – in areas where it does have significantly more power, Lambeth has consistently acted against its residents and on behalf of large developers and gentrifiers. The council have allowed developers to ditch their commitments to social housing on the Brixton Square development. The developers of Vauxhall Sky Gardens have also applied to ditch their commitment of 31% ‘affordable’ housing to 0%. Whilst the social housing that had been promised would have only been a tiny fraction of what is needed (in a borough which has severe overcrowding, an ever increasing housing waiting list, and hundreds of families being forced from their homes with the forthcoming benefit cap) it would have been at least some kind of tokenistic gesture that the council acknowledge the urgent housing needs of its residents. Instead, the ‘needs’ of developers gentrifiers are of greater interest to the council.
The most infuriating, sickening, and insulting part of all of this is that whilst Lambeth council fail to take an active stance against these brutal welfare cuts, they suddenly do speak out and campaign when it comes to police cuts. At my local GPs I was met with a pile of postcards depicting two cheery looking police hats perched upon the figure 100 demanding ’100 more police’. Demanding 100 more police in a borough where communities are terrorised and targeted by the police, where the police bully and beat up and kill those with mental health issues shows Lambeth’s disturbing vision of ‘welfare’. Welfare provision has morphed into the policeman’s boot. Of course, welfare has always been a form of domination and control, but now the boot, which had previously nudged at us, is now kicking us in our stomachs and pushing our faces into the concrete.
100 more police will apparently ‘make Lambeth safer for women’ – says the council which is closing one o’clock clubs (one mother told me how important these places were for women, she identified domestic violence as being linked with women having nowhere outside the house to go to), drastically cutting their incomes, and taking away autonomy through their promotion of the Work Programme.
The disgusting and abusive treatment by the police of those with mental health issues (last year, a video went around on Twitter showing police men attacking a mentally ill man outside Brixton library. A protest was held outside the police station that evening against their violence to our communities) parallels the contempt that the council shows. In a borough which has a proportion of people with mental health issues in Lambeth is 12 times the national average, the council has taken away bus passes from mental health patients, ended a weekly social session (see photo above), and outsourced some mental health services to a charity which sees work as conducive to good mental health (rather than thinking more critically about the role of work and acknowledging its role in compromising mental health). No doubt there have been other cuts to mental health services which have been unreported. In the face of these cuts, it seems the police will be left to ‘deal’ with those affected by the cuts, as more police is what the council deemed important to campaign for over other, less violent, forms of welfare. This is the ‘welfare’ that Lambeth are promoting for our increasingly impoverished communities.
Isolation feeds sadness
The letters dropping through people’s doors, telling them they may have to work, or ‘manage their money better’ or whatever other crap Lambeth have come up with, are part of individualising the welfare cuts. That they are a personal problem, that must be dealt with on this level, whether it means you are forced from your home, end up needing a food bank to feed your family, or walk yourself everywhere to exhaustion. As the 1968 graffiti declared, “isolation feeds sadness”. To combat this feeling of isolation, helplessness, and self-blame, local residents are organising together to deal with their issues collectively, “to challenge the disrespect experienced by people trying to access housing and benefits” as London Coalition Against Poverty eloquently puts it. Residents have been coming together as South London Welfare Action and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth where, based upon and inspired by the models of LCAP and ECAP, they discuss the problems they are facing, provide support for each other, and collectively decide what direct action to take. These groups allow people to see that it is not an individual issue or failing to be struggling with benefits or housing, but one that is common to us all. Through leafletting and holding meeting for these groups, we’ve met our neighbours and talked with each other. It was inspiring to listen to people talk about their situation and be so enthusiastic about the groups and taking action together. As one woman said to me when we were discussing housing problems: “Everything is going up, but my wages are the same, my social rent has gone up again this year. Gas, electric, food are all going up as well. I would definitely like to be involved.” In the face of our communities literally being torn apart by welfare cuts, this coming together seems like the most important thing that we can do.
Lambeth have created an interesting ‘profiler tool’ which allows you to view the benefit cuts ward by ward. Worth taking a look at here to try and get an idea of what is happening to our communities. Does not come near to speaking with people about the cuts and crisis though.