Tag Archives: ECAP

Welfare action in Edinburgh

29 Jun
ACE! Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh

ACE! Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh

Here are some notes from our recent trip to Edinburgh to meet Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty. The first is a short version, the article below has a bit more detail.

We headed up to Edinburgh this week to meet with the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty folk. A group who we had read and heard lots about but hadn’t seen in action IRL.

The group has been running for decades, giving solidarity for low income people in their city. After being evicted from their first home in the 90s, the group re-occupied the space numerous times before the council gave up and let them have it for two years. Once the lease had run out, they found themselves threatened with eviction again and were under siege for 6 months (in what has been dubbed an Italian style social centre – in both countries squatting is completely illegal), until being violently evicted by police. Their home since 1997 has been the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, a small, beautiful, and homey space.

From here they run a weekly drop in session for benefit claimants, low-paid workers, and those with debt or housing issues. Run largely as a one-to-one advice session, there is still a sense of collectivity and solidarity as people talk with one another while they wait, exchanging nightmare stories and survival tactics, and most importantly, empathy. With no help to be found elsewhere, sitting down with someone to fill out yet another dreaded DWP form is inherently radical, breaking the feeling of isolation and hopelessness.

ECAP also have a buddy system to accompany people to ATOS and Job Centre appointments, providing safety in numbers, strengthening claimants positions, and sharing ways to get through the brutal processes laid before them.

Larger direct actions the group have used to fight for claimants rights include occupying A4e to demand their right for claimants to have someone accompany them to interviews and a mass visit to a local councillor with a woman who had been hounded from her home by Edinburgh city council over the bedroom tax. The group have also held numerous pickets and occupations of workfare stores.

Walking around ACE, the area is covered in their brilliant posters, creating a strong feeling of solidarity in the streets, reassuring people that they do not have to struggle alone, but that welfare is a collective issue and will be exposed and acted upon in this way. The group also hold regular leafletting sessions outside Job Centres.

Meeting and talking with these folk about their actions was really valuable and enjoyable. With more claimants action groups getting going, it’s great to make these links and share ideas and information.

Breaking: We just heard this morning that Bristol are setting up a claimants group as well! Woo!

Favourite poster

Favourite poster

ATOS poster

ATOS poster

****************************************************************************************************************************************************************

We’d heard tales of A4e occupations to overturn sanctions and read inspiring anti-workfare action reports from Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty and so asked if we could visit them to share stories, ideas, and sanction smashing tips. As we try and get our own south London welfare action groups going and with the welfare system getting more and more brutal and unbearable we thought chatting with these folk would be helpful.

There is plenty to be inspired by in London and elsewhere, simply take a read of this LCAP booklet and a one off JSA and ESA skillshare at the Eileen house squat months back, but the ECAP group have decades of experience in direct action, solidarity, and support for low income people and we were keen to hear and learn about how they do things.

There were plenty of great stories to be heard. Back in the 90s the council stopped funding for an unemployed workers centre and tried to close it down. The person who had been employed to work there locked out the unemployed people from their own centre and so they found a way back in and refused to leave. The paid worker came back and removed the computers and photocopiers and locked it up again. The determined group found a way back in again and were able to remain there as the lease was for 2 years. After the lease was up, the council tried to kick them out, resulting in a 6 month siege (inspired by the prolific Italian social centres – in both countries squatting is completely illegal) and violent eviction by the police, arresting 20 people. Since 1997 ECAP has been running from the Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, a beautiful and homey space with tonnes of interesting literature and other stuff (an old photo in the toilet with a massive banner drop ‘No way JSA’ – old skool resistance!). Every Tuesday since 1997 they have held their advice and support session for people with benefit, housing, or debt issues. In the last two years these sessions have seen more people visit partly as word about them gets out and partly due to the impacts of welfare cuts.

We sat in on a Tuesday session which was busy from start to finish. People sign up to be advisors for each session, usually there are 5-6 people there to run it, and people can drop in between the hours of 12pm-3pm to speak with the advisors. Advisors will consult and talk with other advisors when helping someone, and claimants get chatting with one another whilst they wait, so there is a sense of collectivity and a sharing of knowledge and ideas. But at times, it did also feel a little like a one-to-one advice service. We asked if there was a way to make it more collective to break down an ‘advisor’ ‘client’ separation and hierarchy which can happen (indeed, one advisor noted the power differentials that may exist from the start between someone who has the free time to volunteer there and those who may be in a vulnerable situation). Turning it into a larger meeting for people to make collective decisions would mean they wouldn’t leave until 10pm because of the number of people they see, but they did suggest that perhaps there were ways of working in small groups. This would also mean that several advisors would get to know one claimants case and this would help create better continuity – so if one advisor isn’t there one week, others will be up to speed. Working in smaller groups would also emphasise the knowledge and experience that claimants too have of the system so that advice sharing is not just one way.

Sitting down filling out a dreaded form with someone is radical. It combats the immense fear and alienation of doing it alone. As someone at the space said, “there is no help anywhere, this is the only place there is”.

One man told us how he’d been helped by ECAP and was now helping others by attending ATOS and job centre interviews with people. This is another really important thing that ECAP do – providing buddies for appointments in order to provide support and make challenges. He took a bundle of ECAP posters to stick around his neighbourhood. Around ACE we’d seen them fly postered everywhere (they have an active fanbase who flypost their brilliant posters over the city, despite the warnings carried on them that they are not for fly postering). Including one of our favourite ever posters. As the man pointed out “we need this solidarity in the streets” and that’s exactly how it feels when you walk down the street spotting them. The group also show solidarity with claimants with regular leafletting sessions outside Job Centres.

As well as advice sessions and buddies, ECAP also take collective direct action. When A4e refused to let claimants have somebody accompany them to their appointments, ECAP used a combination of legal and direct action. They continued to accompany one person to his A4e interviews and so A4e sanctioned the person for not attending their appointment. ECAP escalated and occupied the offices as a group, handing out leaflets, until the police removed them. A4e backed down.

In the Monday evening ECAP organising meeting, we also heard about how the group had visited on mass a local councillors surgery to support a woman who had been hounded from her home by the council demanding the bedroom tax she should have been exempt from. “He’s afraid of large groups” someone remarked. Hearing of this sort of community mobilisation and solidarity is really heartening. We also got to speak about the Boycott Workfare campaign and discuss ideas about workfare campaigning and what we can do about the post-Work Programme ‘hit squads’ in which claimants are subjected to even more vicious weekly interviews. It was really enjoyable and valuable to discuss and share our workfare ideas (for example calls for more Job Centre occupations) and activities and make stronger links with other folk outside of London. We also got to share our respective propaganda. We took up a bundle of Occupied Times anti-work issues which went down really well and we collected some of their leaflets on Universal Jobs Match and their brilliant posters.

We also learnt of a dog in Italy that would always chase after the police trying to bite them. Did they train it to do that we asked. “The owners said the dog did it autonomously!”

Breaking: We just heard this morning that Bristol are setting up a claimants group as well! Woo!

Our anarcho-adventures in Scotland also included catching the film All Cats Are Brilliant as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. The drama follows a young woman’s life in Athens as she tries to deal with her partner’s imprisonment, pressurising parents, her work as an artist and babysitter, walking her dog Durruti. We weren’t quite sure what to make of the film (and we were curious about what the packed cinema thought of it too – cos they didn’t look like an ACAB sort of crowd…) – was it appropriating anarchist politics because this is ‘cool’ and ‘edgy’ or was it a faithful attempt to portray anarchist ideas and struggles, the brutal clampdown by the state on anarchists and the very personal toll this takes. Was it critiquing problematic aspects of the anarchist community – there were certainly some bad gender dynamics, the isolation Electra felt within the radical ‘community’ – or was it simply repeating them…There were some really nice scenes in the film as well as a couple of cringe points to it, so we left with mixed feelings.

Advertisements

Lambeth council’s ‘welfare’ – cutting benefits, fighting for police

24 May

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.

Lambeth council benefit cuts campaign

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.

More Lambeth council propaganda

Letter from Lambeth Welfare Reform Team

The Work Programme can help you LOL

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.

100 more ACAB

Social day cut

Rage

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

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.