Thursday, 25 April 2013

Food Banks

The number of people using foodbanks is going through the roof, not surprisingly given the government's policy of hitting the poor at every possible opportunity. The Guardian has a good article here about the Trussell Trust foodbanks. Chris Mould, who they interviewed, sounds like the right sort, but Tory influences lurk not very far behind the scenes, as you can see from this article. With jobcentres issuing foodbank vouchers, it all feels very much like an updated version of the workhouse; workfare and gruel (you won't manage much more on £71 a week) for the indigent poor.
Oxfam have now got involved with foodbanks, perhaps a little reluctantly. According to the article here, they at least seem to be  willing to express a political view of the situation.

I'm quite involved with a local foodbank, which uses my church one day a week. Numbers vary from week to seek; the average is probably in the low twenties, including both single people and families, but last week it reached a record 37. It's too early to say whether that's a one-off or the result of the latest round of cuts. Benefit problems are the commonest reason for people to come, but we also get refugees,  people with debts, or have low-paid jobs and a big bill, all sorts. We have a benefit adviser who never lacks for clients.

 Everything has to be carried in through a rather awkward entrance with several doors, and dumped in the kitchen. We have a storage cupboard which makes life easier. 

Tea and coffee are available while people wait. the clothes come from the church charity shop. It's been going for many years, run by volunteers from the church. Clothes are sold very cheaply, or often given away. the ones on the rack are 20p a garment. The flags were put up by a refugee group which uses the premises.

We've just started a new drop-in advice centre two days a week at the Community Centre a couple of hundred yards up the road. It's run by local churches and a community project, working together. It only opened this week and it's too early to say how it's going to develop, but I had an interesting morning helping people with benefit claims. I've had plenty of experience of that, and very little of debt advice, but there are other people who know what they're doing with that side of it. Most of it's either benefits or debt, but we can help with housing advice as well. It's a case of playing it by ear for a few months, running it on a volunteer basis, and then applying for funding which should (hopefully) be available from August.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Mr Tory Lite Speaks

So Milliband won't commit himself to abolishing the Bedroom Tax. Which means, of course, that he has no intention whatsoever of doing so, but lacks the guts to say so outright.  That's what happens when all three parties are so thoroughly in thrall to neoliberal ideology that they can't see an inch past it.

It's an imposition on the poorest which can't save money, however they play it. There simply aren't the single person flats available in social housing for the number of single people in such housing. So if they should happen to move willingly, they'd have to go to private lets, and Housing Benefit would have to pick up the bill for those on benefits. The bill would go up, not down. If they won't move, and can't pay, evictions would cost thousands on top of the extra rent. Where Councils pledge not to evict non-payers, it effectively becomes yet another cut aimed at Local Authorities.

I am, however, more concerned about the ethical implications. I originally applied for a Council flat in December 1988. I was being unlawfully evicted by a landlord who decided he wanted to sell the house I was living in, went to the Neighbourhood Office, and they gave me a flat the next day. There were no single-bedroom flats, so they gave me two bedrooms. Someone like me might be living in such a flat for decades, and then suddenly the goverment turns round and punishes them for having an 'extra bedroom'. I currently live in a three bedroom maisonette with my family. My daughter is studying in London; again, an 'extra bedroom'. If I was on Housing Benefit, I'd either have to pay extra out of inadequate benefits or wages, or move, and she'd lose her home. I'm out campaigning every week, and we meet people who don't know which way to turn.

Of course, the real fault for the current housing crisis lies with successive governments, both Tory and 'New Labour', and not with impoverished tenants who happen to have more rooms than people to sleep in them. When Thatcher gave Council tenants the right to buy their own homes - and I'm not criticising that - she also stopped Councils from building more. This is what did the damage. A rolling programme of Local Authority building across the country simply stopped, and never started again. This is the sole cause of the shortage, of inflated house prices, and of sky-high rents. To be fair, Labour has been making some noises about building, but they're not pushing it as they might. Could they possibly be afraid of the revitalised Local Authorities which might result, I wonder? Housing Associations aren't geared up to provide the volume of housing which is needed; private enterprise would merely cash in. What's needed is the sort of massive Council building programme we saw in the 1950's and 60's.

If Labour was what it pretends to be, this would be its opportunity. We have a policy which is palpable nonsense, and by pledging to overturn it, it could be seen to stand up for ordinary people against a feral Tory regime. But, of course, it isn't. It has no more respect for our right to live in our homes in peace than they have.  The Coalition is weak, and could be eaten alive between now and the election, only the Opposition is so weak it doesn't seem to understand how to oppose. Westminster token democracy is offering us nothing. The only alternative is street politics.

We've made a start in Birmingham; last Saturday, for instance, we mounted a protest in the city centre, spoke to a great many people, and made thousands aware of our presence as they went past. It's going to be a long haul, but there are enough people who still believe in the sort of values which lie behind the Welfare State and the NHS that we must have a chance of changing the political climate enough to prevent their final destruction by the forces of rampant neoliberalism.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Protest in Birmingham part 2

We went for a march round town at the end of our protest yesterday. I didn't manage to get the video edited and up on Youtube till just now, but here it is. Note the place where the guy deliberately shoves me in the back part way up New Street!

Bedroom Tax Protest in Birmingham 20th April 2013

I exhausted myself with all the running around yesterday, so I wasn't fit to post last night. That's my problem; I suffer from an insidious thing known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and while I can push myself for a while, I suffer for it afterwards.

We (That's Birmingham Benefit Justice Campaign) called a protest for mid-day by Waterstones in New Street, where there's a bit of open space and lots of people passing. We had originally thought of Victoria Square, where we had a very successful protest past month, but that was in use for the St George's Day celebrations. It worked well, with a lot of people passing, and an excellent atmosphere. We met a lot of people who are seriously concerned about the Bedroom Tax; some didn't know where to turn.

The Bedroom Tax is the latest Tory twist of the screw; if you have a 'spare bedroom', and you're on benefit, then you lose 14% of your Housing Benefit, and have to make it up out of benefits. The problem is that benefit levels are too low for people to live on for starters, and they get cut off for any reason or no reason at all. Wage levels are atrocious, with many people having their pay topped up by benefit. We already have increasing numbers of people relying on food banks, and the number using the one I help with hit a record last week. That's the effect of the latest cuts.

The theory is that people should downsize. Birmingham have five and a half thousand single people in Council flats, and 368 (if I remember right; it's about that) single bedroom flats, so where are they going to move to? Housing Associations don't have single-bedroom flats either. the only 'solution' would be private lets, but that means sky-high rents, and the Housing Benefit bill would go through the roof.

Then there are the arguments around natural justice. When I originally got a Council flat, I was single.They didn't have a one-bedroom flat, so they gave me two bedrooms. Had I still been single, and been on benefits, that would suddenly have become a 'spare bedroom, and a 'problem', after living there for 25 years. My daughter is currently at college in London. That would have been a 'spare bedroom', and we would have been under pressure to downsize, and leave her without a permanent home. Thousands of people are being caught in this sort of trap. I met someone yesterday who has a 'spare bedroom' of fifty-odd square feet, which a baby sleeps in. You can't put a bed plus furniture in there, the Housing Act 1985 specifies that a bedroom has to be at least 70 square feet, but the Council doesn't care. I've already dealt with one case where a seventeen-year-old was expected to share, when the law gave him the right to a single bedroom. It's getting to the point where I just don't know what absurdity is coming next.

If people don't move, many of them will be unable to pay. Evictions cost thousands, and then people have to be rehoused, costing money again. The tax is completely uneconomic, and some Councils round the country are already pledging not to evict anyone who falls into arrears due to the tax. That then leaves the Council with a shortfall. In the short term, one of our aims is to persuade Birmingham City Council to agree to no evictions. If the longer term, we want the tax abolished. This won't happen overnight; it took three years to get rid of the Poll Tax, and we should expect a similar timescale this time. The tax is unworkable, so I've no doubt that it will go.

Birmingham Clarion Singers entertaining us. I've also got film of a walk we took round the city centre, but I haven't had a chance to edit that yet, so I'll have to post it later.


And morris dancers at the Wellington pub afterwards.