Alisha Chander, general adviser and trainee solicitor at Citizens Advice Barking and Dagenham and a member of ELAN, provides a stark reflection of the borough’s most pressing challenges – which mirror those of the rest of London – in light of the Autumn Statement.
By many measures, Barking and Dagenham is one of London’s most deprived boroughs. Around 29% of its residents are living in poverty – and almost half of children (42%) are growing up in poverty. It has among the highest levels of low-pay in the capital, as well as among the highest numbers of people on out-of-work benefits.
All of this compounds to mean that for many people in the borough, life is precarious. The last year has made this situation worse.
The Housing Crisis
London is in the middle of a housing crisis, and we see this play out in the borough. Many people live in substandard conditions – and many of our clients come to us because their property is in severe disrepair.
Earlier this year, we were approached by a family of four living in a tiny box room. Their flat was so damp that the floor moved underneath them and there was mold everywhere. The Landlord refused to take any action, despite the involvement of the Local Authority.
In this case, we were able to make a homelessness application and representations on behalf of the family and the Local Authority were able to find the family a new suitable property – but this was an extreme example, and the problem is much wider.
Since the case of Awaab Ishak, who was killed by mold in a social housing flat, we’ve seen an uptick of people coming to us due to living in damp conditions or with mold.
This is a problem across both the social and private rental sector. In the private rental sector especially, we see serious issues of disrepair that can include people living without secure front doors in some cases. With the current crisis and immense demand for housing, landlords know that too often, they can get away with it.
This year especially, the borough’s housing crisis has been worsened by the cost-of-living crisis. With mortgage rates increasing, we’ve seen landlords significantly increasing rents – leading to our clients having to choose between paying rent or for food.
In the last 12 months, we’ve also seen a huge increase in section 21 – or no-fault – evictions. This has continued to increase throughout the year. In 2019, the government pledged that it would scrap “no fault” evictions. Whilst rent reforms are currently, very slowly, making their way through parliament with the Renter’s Reform Bill, many believe that it does not go far enough to address the issues facing private renters.
On a slightly positive note, the Autumn Statement announced an increase in the Local Housing Allowance by the 30thpercentile, which is a welcomed move, as it will assist many private renters who are facing significant increases in rent. Although, further action by the government is definitely needed to tackle the issue of significantly rising rents.
Out of Work Benefits
Barking and Dagenham has a high proportion of people out-of-work and on benefits – and so some of the announcements in the government’s autumn statement were particularly concerning.
One of the most common issues our clients face is Personal Independence Payments (PIP) - a benefit you can claim if you are Disabled or long-term sick - being turned down, despite the client clearly being vulnerable.
No matter what information we provide to the DWP, most of these cases are rejected when we challenge them (called a mandatory reconsideration). But when we challenge them again, through a formal appeal, the vast majority of cases are overturned. In each of these cases, until the successful appeal, people are unable to receive the benefits they are entitled to.
Picture caption: In Barking and Dagenham there is a clear link between deprivation and disability. The four neighbourhoods with the highest proportion of Disabled residents in the borough are all among London’s 10% most deprived.
There’s a lot of stigma attached to benefits, and political rhetoric is only making this worse. Many of my clients are unable to work. Clamping down on access to benefits, as outlined in the autumn statement, might not work in getting more people into work – but it will definitely make life harder for people who are already struggling, during a cost-of-living crisis.
On top of this, many of the people who come to us for support with benefits are actually in work. However, due to low pay and rising costs, they need to claim benefits to get by.
In the Autumn Statement, it was announced that there will be tougher sanctions on benefit claimants. Those who fail to find work after 18 months will be pushed into mandatory work placements. Those who do not comply will have their benefits, including access to free prescriptions and legal aid, cut off. This is likely to disproportionately affect those who have a disability or are long-term sick and push them further into poverty.
Awareness of rights
We always try to take forward our client’s cases where we can, to ensure that a solution is reached to whatever problem they are facing. Often though, our role is more of an educational one. People are frequently unaware of their rights.
This is particularly the case around employment. For example, we see issues of employers not making reasonable adjustments for people, or around statutory sick pay. Often, people will take their employers word for it. When they come to us and ask if something is right, our role is to make sure people know the rights they have so that they can take them forward.
The current climate makes it hard to end on a positive note. Until we see more progress on the housing crisis, such as pushing through the Renters Reform Bill, and cuts to Legal Aid reversed, it’s hard to see how the situation in Barking and Dagenham will improve.
But while we push for those changes, it’s vital that when people face do a problem that they are unsure of – whether it’s at work, related to benefits, or from a landlord – that they find out what rights are available to them, and how to take them forward.