- Created: Tuesday, 01 April 2014 13:26
- Written by London FRFI
Southwark Labour Council has just announced a further swingeing £19m of cuts in its 2014/2015 budgets. South London RCG is on the streets every week, campaigning, organising and speaking out against cuts in services and benefits. Southwark is already one of the ten most deprived of London boroughs, with a slew of shameful statistics to its name. For example:
- nearly a quarter of Southwark’s children (24%) live in severe poverty – to the extent that Save the Children Fund has recently opened a project in the borough to support the most vulnerable families.
- One of the highest rates of infant mortality figures in London
- the highest number of people registered with food banks in London
- alongside London’s Lambeth and Westminster boroughs, the highest rate of homelessness in England (between them the three boroughs account for a quarter of the country’s homeless people)
It continues to ruthlessly implement the bedroom tax and pursue people for council tax benefit arrears, with hundreds of the borough’s poorest people summonsed to Camberwell Magistrates’ court on the third Friday of every month. Meanwhile in 2013 the council spent only £52,000 of its £700,000 supposed 'welfare hardship fund', with the rest sitting unspent in its bank account.
New figures show that it is also the London borough with the most vicious police force – Southwark police have tasered more children than anywhere else in London (with the south London boroughs of Lewisham, Lambeth and Croydon in joint second place): the four boroughs account for 40% of the 131 times police tasered children in London between 2008-2012. Southwark also tops the table for harassing children on the street, with an average of 91 stopped and searched each week. South London RCG held an event in Peckham near the police station, asking the community ‘Who are the real criminals?’ People were clear in pointing the finger at the police, as well as the banks, the government and the council.
Fighting the bedroom tax
Over the last few months, South London RCG has been taking to the streets to expose the council’s crimes and to challenge it over the bedroom tax – and, in particular, its abject failure to reimburse the 317 pre-1996 tenants who, until 3 March 2014, should have been exempt under a DWP loophole. On 14 February, we held a Valentine’s Day protest outside the MySouthwark Service Centre on Walworth Road, with red roses to trample on, accusing the council of ripping the heart out of the community with the unfair and illegal bedroom tax. We handed in a letter requesting information on how the council defined a bedroom and asking whether, in the light of a number of legal rulings, it would review its implementation of the tax in the coming financial year. We also demanded whether the council would honour, in writing, Councillor Richard Livingstone’s pledge that no Southwark tenant would be evicted for bedroom tax arrears. When, after two weeks we had had no response, we occupied the foyer of the council buildings in Tooley Street, demanding to speak to the Housing Benefit Department. No one was forthcoming, and it took an hour for staff to even provide us with a name for the person responsible and yet another week for Martin Green, acting head of the department, to finally send a mealy-mouthed reply, indulging in sophistry over ‘spare rooms’ and ‘bedrooms’ and stating: ‘The council has no blanket policy not to evict those affected by the bedroom tax’. At least 220 people in Southwark are in rent arrears because of the tax. In a similar vein, the council has fobbed off a Freedom of Information request about how many – if any – pre-1996 tenants have been reimbursed. Southwark Council told a local newspaper (Southwark News 13 March 2014) that it had contacted and reimbursed all tenants affected’. This is a lie. We are constantly working with people on the streets who have been given no information about how to reclaim their money; one man was handed a piece of paper that was simply council advice to staff about how to fob off tenants’ question. He has written to the council, the DWP and local MP Harriet Harman and received no adequate reply. So, as we told the council during our occupation, we will be back.
Fighting JSA/ESA sanctions
More than 800,000 people in the country have had their benefits sanctioned, for the most trivial – or often fabricated – reasons, often for months at a time. The DWP does not break down the figures by borough, but we know that the Jobcentre in Peckham has been particularly vicious – and fails to tell those it sanctions either that they can claim from the council’s Discretionary Hardship fund or that they need to resubmit a claim for housing benefit because otherwise it will be cut off at the same time. One young mother we met in Peckham who was sanctioned for three weeks; unable to buy milk and nappies she had to take out a loan with an online loan shark charging exorbitant levels of interest which she is now trying to pay back out of her benefits. South London RCG held a protest near the jobcentre, inviting people to write their comments about it on a huge paper banner; we then marched to the jobcentre and stuck the banner up across the front windows. We are also encouraging everyone affected by JSA/ESA sanctions to appeal immediately (see box) – 58% of cases win on appeal.
We know from our work on the streets that people are desperate. Many feel frightened and isolated in the face of an overwhelming attack on benefits and services and a deliberately unhelpful and often downright hostile council that refuses to defend their rights. The only response is to organise, collectively, with those bearing the brunt of these vicious austerity measures.
Challenge JSA sanctions!
You can appeal – and you can win – but you need to do it quickly.
1. When you get a sanction notification letter from the Jobcentre, write back immediately to the address on the letter saying you want it reconsidered or use form DR7 (available from the Jobcentre). You must do this within a month of their date of their letter – and give reasons for disagreeing with their decision. Keep a copy. Get a certificate of posting (this is free) from the post office.2. The Jobcentre must send you a written decision in reply, called a mandatory reconsideration notice. If you don’t agree with their decision, you can appeal. Get form SSCS1 from a Citizens Advice Bureau or download it from the internet (www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/181311/SSCS1.pdf. Give the same reasons (‘grounds for appeal’) as in your original letter – you can add more. Your appeal must reach the Appeals Centre within a month of receiving the mandatory reconsideration notice and you must attach the notice to your appeal. Make it clear on the form that you want to attend the appeal hearing (you’re more likely to win if you’re there in person).
- Reasons to challenge the sanctions decision can be that you weren’t given proper information about when or where to attend an appointment; the job you were asked to apply for was impossible for you; that you were only a few minutes late.
- List everything you’ve done to look for a job (check it against your Jobseeker’s Agreement) and if you’ve done the same activities for weeks and they’ve accepted it before and not told you to do anything different, mention that as well.
When you are sanctioned, the computer will stop your Housing Benefit and Council Tax support. You should reclaim these immediately at the Council Neighbourhood Office. You must keep signing on even if your benefit has been stopped. You may be able to claim hardship payments as having ‘nil income’ – ask at the Jobcentre.
(information from Southwark Benefit Justice)