Thursday, 6 December 2012

Welfare changes and Town Hall Protests

Following last night's scenes at the Town Hall.

Welfare reform changes and the impacts on Camden are a top priority of ours, and Camden Labour  councillors and MPs are determined to do what we can with very limited powers.  We have undertaken a large amount of lobbying and work on this issue – both formal and informal – since July 2010 when we were first aware of this.  The impacts locally are deep: as you can see from the information we publish.
Our Labour MPs made strong interventions when the Welfare Reform Act was being passed in 2012, and so did the council.  Our new Assembly members at the GLA are also following this issue.  Our officers regularly attend meetings with Government officials and have made our views known.    We have communicated with residents via a variety of means.  This has included many public meetings, open to all.

Camden Labour’s position
While other parties are silent, the Camden Labour Group has made a public statement on the changes:

Camden Labour opposes the way the Welfare Reform Act works in Camden and is how it is impacting on low-income families.  We are concerned that it will lead to the hollowing out of Camden of people on low or even modest income households and that the changes take no account of the high cost of living in the borough. As a council we have made it very clear that we are opposed to the blunt way the government has gone about the housing caps.  There is no consideration for people who live in inner London in private rented homes, where rents are extremely high.  It is not tenants' fault that we have the 4th highest rents in the country, and that many landlords have profited from what is essentially 'landlord benefit' way in which the system works - we are very clear that we need to moderate private rents and ensure Camden remains affordable.  We are wholly committed to council housing, and are using the regeneration of publicly-held land to build extra council homes for the first time since the 1980s.  We have opposed the end to tenancies for life and also oppose the drive to 80% market rents. 

What we can’t do is “not implement” the welfare cuts - as demanded by the group of activists who halted the Cabinet meeting on 5th December.  The money we administer for benefits is money which comes from the government.  Cuts in this money by the government cannot possibly be back-filled by the council taxpayer.  Camden can’t "resist" the changes in the way demanded, as this is illegal and the changes are about the amounts of money we are given to administer on behalf of the government locally.  Suggesting to people facing cuts anything otherwise is leading them down a blind alley.

It is also absurd to blame Camden Labour councillors rather than the Tory-led Government, as some did last night and have done in past public meetings on welfare (on outlining the above I was called a "Concentration Camp Guard" by the same people earlier this year at a meeting in Kentish Town).

Camden Labour has never walked away from invites to public meetings on welfare, and has conducted more meetings on this subject in the community than any other I can remember.   A coalition against unfair cuts has to be inclusive and not exclusive or sectarian platforms.

From the start Camden Labour has  been involved with UNISON, the GMB and others in Camden Against the Cuts demos and public meetings at the Town Hall from 2010 onwards – these have included debates on welfare cuts.  Camden Labour have also started the ‘Priced out of Camden’ campaign on high private rents, utility bills and transport costs - with this we hope to lobby government on action needed to keep inner London affordable for local people.

Practical Council action
Camden Labour has shown practical leadership for our local community by:

o             Responding to Welfare Reform Bill and CLG proposals around local council tax support as they were going through Parliament.  From July 2010 to now, we have lobbied to the government around these changes.  We have done this via meetings with DWP officials, campaigning work in the national media, work with our MPs and work with our representatives at the London Assembly and in the House of Lords.   In all cases we have argued that low income families in inner London are disproportionately hit.  Over the summer, and in the run-up to the Local Government Finance Bill we gave information to Labour’s Patricia Hollis on welfare impacts in London.  While a move to kills the CTB changes was defeated, a 3 year review was won due to a Tory/Lib Dem rebels joining with Labour.  Camden Labour has also helped to co-ordinate thinking with other London boroughs.

o             Writting to the Mayor of London – I wrote to the Mayor of London on the latest impacts – see here - Johnson has responded by stating his faith in central government mitigation measures which we know to be inadequate.

o             Working with the DWP and DCLG to influence policies as they are developed and implemented.  Sizeable welfare changes are a part of the government's platform, repeated by the Prime Minister and Housing Ministers.

Nevertheless we have successfully argued for mitigiation which has come in the form of:

o             a cushion for LHA claimants (now 9 months, rather than changes made immediately)
o             More discretionary housing payments for hard-hit families.

Local mitigation
Camden will announce a mitigation package for vulnerable households in the New Year based on the evidence we have gathered and the Equalities Taskforce.  Over the past year, the housing department has undertaken a huge amount of work, with 376 households supported since January 2012:
o             46 fixed term contracts negotiated
o             19 new private rented sector tenancies
o             48 new council tenancies
o             59 deferments until protection ends

There have also been 415 face to face visits, with advice given.

In addition to the above, a local mitigation package is being developed for 2013.  This includes:

o             A ground-breaking 7 year funding deal for Camden Advice agencies to help people navigate changes – the best funded and supported advice services in London
o             Local Social Fund support
o             London Living Wage to be paid by private contractors to the council, and local businesses encouraged to sign up
o             Camden Plan work initiatives (announced in 2012)
o             Promoting apprenticeships / work with NEETs – at least 230 apprenticeships secured this year alone
o             Supporting childcare for low income families (Camden is one of the only councils to offer 25 hours)

At a Camden voluntary sector meeting on 31st October the Leader and Cabinet member for Finance (me) and a rep from Age Concern met with 40+ voluntary groups to discuss how community groups could help develop support and how we could work better together.  This was a very useful meeting in the run up to the changes, and we are developing further work around digital inclusion and other support.      

Communication with residents
Camden has taken a lot of time and effort to communicate directly with Camden residents.  Our bus posters on Benefit changes have helped collect on of the highest responses to the changes in London.

o             Contacted affected LHA claimants in the private rented sector individually by letter and face-to-face, directing people to sources of advice
o             Information on impacts – we have a regularly updated website with the most in depth public information available in London  
o             A Cross-Council Welfare Reform group – A regular group has been convened to oversee our response to the impact and provide analysis and possible projects to help people, this means we can develop policies to help people most affected
o             Communications and engagement strategy about to be implemented to ensure local people have access to information they need in the run up to the onset of the changes on 1 April

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