Newham council attacks Focus E15 Campaign with lies and deception

On 7 October, Focus E15 campaigners will leave the Open House they had established on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford, East London. Since 21 September the campaign has occupied a block of four flats, which had been boarded up for six years, to broadcast its demands for an end to social cleansing in Newham.

The protest drew widespread national attention, sparking a public debate about the housing crisis. It was covered by the BBC, Channel 4, The Guardian, The Independent and the Financial Times and others. Following an unsuccessful attempt on 26 September, Newham Council were able to secure a possession order on 2 October. However, with the campaign deciding to leave the property anyway on 7 October, the Council decided not to serve it.

Following the second court case, Labour-run Newham Council issued a statement which was a mixture of lies and deception. Earlier, on 29 September, Labour’s Newham Mayor Robin Wales made a statement to a Council meeting which was equally dishonest.

Here are two lies from the Council statement:

  • Lie 1: The Council has had a ‘long-stated intention’ of temporarily moving in families in need of housing into the Carpenters Estate.

This is news to those on Newham’s housing waiting list of more than 25,000 people. The Council has left properties on the Carpenters Estate vacant for up to ten years because it wanted to sell the site. This new Council decision has in fact been sparked by the high profile of the occupation – whose main demand has been to ‘repopulate the Carpenters Estate’.

  • Lie 2: The Council says that none of the young families received eviction notices from their landlord last year.

This is not true. In August 2013, they were served with notices terminating their tenancies on 20 October (with a later date for those who have been there under six months).

The Council statement quotes Mayor Wales as condemning the government’s ‘barbaric approach to welfare cuts for the most vulnerable.’ Yet neither has done anything to fight back against the government and both have complied with the government’s every diktat on welfare cuts. This self-same Wales led an attack on those forced to live rough saying in the local Newham Recorder: he ‘was not prepared to tolerate some of the behaviour and problems’ that homelessness ‘causes for our wider community.’

Wales’s own statement to Newham Council was equally sly. First, he issues an apology to the Focus E15 families, conceding their case was ‘initially handled badly’. This is a year after the Focus E15 mothers started to fight back – no apology has ever been offered before. Why now? Only because Newham Council was in the spotlight. It was a meaningless apology: the Council is not sorry for what it has done, but because it has been found out. Wales is quoted in the Financial Times as blaming an ‘inexperienced junior officer’ for what had happened. Yet shipping people like the Focus E15 mothers out of London is Newham Council policy. Focus E15 mothers were offered housing in Hastings, Manchester and Birmingham in 2013. This was not the whim of a ‘junior’ officer: he or she was acting on Council policy, and many Newham residents have been shipped out of London because of it. Blaming someone else for this, particularly a junior member of staff who cannot answer back, demonstrates a complete lack of integrity. In Wales’s view, everyone else is to blame apart from himself.

Wales says – as if there was any dispute – that the Focus E15 families needed to move on from Foyer accommodation. He then says ‘every family…who wanted to stay in London was assisted to find independent accommodation in London.’ But this was only after the Focus E15 campaign had started. It was only after local councillor Terry Paul had refused to support them, local MP Lyn Brown had ignored them, and Wales himself had dealt dismissively with the women when they approached him at his surgery in November 2013. Even in February this year, Wales’s housing priorities were for ex-service men and women and ‘working families’, not for those on benefits. Local accommodation was only found because of the political pressure of the mothers organising and fighting back, not through the generosity of the Council or Mayor Wales. And even then the local accommodation the women had to accept is short-term and insecure in private rented housing, not in social housing. This is no long-term solution as Wales would have us believe: that is what the mothers are now fighting for.

Wales’s statement says that he would be happy to sit down and talk to members of the campaign. We are not interested in talk, but in meaningful action, and the only things we have ever got from the council arose from our actions, not from discussion or talks. Both Wales’s and the Council’s statements complain about alleged aggression from the campaign itself. Neither, however, mentions that Wales is currently being investigated by the Newham Standards Committee over allegations about an aggressive and uncontrolled outburst towards the Focus E15 mothers and their children when they approached him at the Mayor's family day in July. This is the stock-in-trade of those in power: acts of resistance by the oppressed are always dismissed as ‘aggression’, while their own acts of oppression are at best excused with belated apologies, or blamed on others. A policy that seeks to push Newham residents out of London is the real aggression – only Wales is not on the receiving end of that policy, so he does not think of it as such.

Wales tells Newham Council ‘we have to make difficult decision’. When politicians like Wales talk of ‘difficult decisions’, they are not decisions about themselves, but decisions that involve attacks against the poor and the working class. Somehow, describing them as ‘difficult decisions’ is supposed to make them legitimate. So Wales’s ‘difficult decisions’ never mean sacrifice of any part of his £80,000 a year: they always mean that others are going to have to pay, those who cannot afford it. The last thing he can conceive of is joining the working class in building real resistance to the onslaught from the ruling class.

The Council has attempted to draw a distinction between the Focus E15 mothers and what they have described in one statement as ‘agitators and hangers-on’. Such a distinction is used by the desperate: it is no different from Margaret Thatcher’s talk of the ‘enemy within.’ It tries to present a fictitious division between organised activists - in particular the Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG), which has been central to the campaign from the beginning - and the Focus E15 mothers. The RCG has been proud to stand with the Focus E15 women and will continue to fight with them and with all those fighting to build an independent working class movement against cuts and austerity.

Homeless people under attack

The screw is tightening on homeless people; the Salvation Army is reporting beggar claimants to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and councils are using police and the courts to remove them from city centres. The Salvation Army is one of the few charities that participates in the government’s workfare scheme, and has been subject to praise by the DWP for ‘holding the line’ as other charities have distanced themselves from it.

The latest figures published by The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) show that homelessness has risen since last year. 58,440 households were in temporary accommodation on 31 March 2014, 6% more than at the same date in 2013. The most recent DCLG statistics for rough sleeping showed a5% riseon last year, with 2,414 people reported by local councils across the country as sleeping rough on any one night in 2013, up from 2,309 in 2012 and from 1,768 in 2010. However, the number of people sleeping rough is impossible to collate accurately, and these figures will be a conservative estimate at best. The Shaw Trust reports that ‘In the most extreme cases, the Work Capability Assessment had led to homelessness and the use of food banks, with one customer reporting that after their assessment ‘they ended up homeless as it took three months to get income again”.

In London, where homelessness is the highest nationally, authorities launched ‘Operation Encompass’ in which police officers and border officials targeted places popular with rough sleepers. On one night in Westminster, they ‘processed’ 37 people and forced many more to leave. A police spokesperson, Alison Newcomb, said ‘begging will not be tolerated in the City of Westminster or any other London borough. Wherever possible people begging will be arrested and ASBOs sought where appropriate.’

Earlier this year the mayor of the London borough of Newham, Councillor Robin Wales, wrote an article in the Newham Recorder, attacking rough sleepers. Wales is notorious for his attempt to socially cleanse the area through the closure of the mother and baby unit of the Focus E15 hostel, the planned demolition of the Carpenter estate and the use of the police against homeless people. In his article he concluded ‘It is simply not acceptable, either for the people who find themselves in this situation, or for our wider community, to have people living on the streets of Newham, in our doorways or in unsafe, disused buildings.’ Yet Newham has an option of re-housing them – either on the Carpenter estate, or in the Olympic village. But Wales is more concerned at ensuring the sale of the Carpenter site, while houses in the Olympics village are now being resold or rented at unaffordable prices.

It is not just in London that homeless people are under attack. Newcastle City Council has recently announced that it plans to use the new Anti-Social Policing and Crime Act 2014 which comes in to effect in October, to remove ‘the top 10 most aggressive and persistent beggars’ from the city centre. The police will have the power under the new act to force those on the street into hostels. This is the proposed ‘solution’ for the whole country but research carried out by homeless charity Links found that 32% of people in homelessness projects were ready to move on – but couldn’t because of a shortage of available accommodation. In its Homelessness Strategy 2014-2019, the Council boasts that ‘despite the 24% reduction in funding there will only be a net loss of three bed spaces in supported accommodation in 2014-15.’ However, it is ludicrous to suggest that an already-stretched service will be able to run effectively with a 24% cut in its funding. As ever, the Council claims such cuts are unavoidable due to budgetary constraints, but this does not stop it spending money on a new façade for the city centre, a city for business, a city in which homeless people are not welcome.

Cal Shaw

Focus E15 campaign declares ‘Open House’

‘For real politics, don’t look to parliament but to an empty London housing estate’.

Aditya Chakraborrty, The Guardian

On 21 September, RCG members joined other supporters of the Focus E15 campaign as it marked one year of fighting for social housing and against social cleansing with a birthday party on a largely-boarded up council housing estate in Newham, east London. The party culminated with the opening up of four empty properties on the Carpenters Estate as a social centre, open to all those fighting for social justice and against Newham Labour council’s shameful housing policies. Hannah Caller reports.

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Victimising claimants with disabilities

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014

On 28 June 2014, campaigners with disabilities organised by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) occupied Westminster Abbey in protest at the closure of the Independent Living Fund, which provides support for some 18,000 severely disabled people. This is not the only attack on state welfare for disabled people. In FRFI 236 we pointed out that the government’s drive to force 640,000 disabled people off Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and onto Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) would result in benefit sanctions for thousands of claimants. Now the government is considering the possibility of introducing sanctions for claimants who refuse mental health treatment – despite the fact that such services are next to non-existent.

Health-related sanctions are now commonplace and they do not just include those deemed ‘fit to work’ by Work Capability Assessments (WCA). Here in Newcastle, for instance, we have met:

  • A woman who was contemplating suicide, so went to her GP instead of her Jobcentre appointment – result, a sanction.
  • A man sanctioned because the Jobcentre would not accept a doctor’s letter saying that he should no longer work in the catering industry.
  • A man whose physiotherapy appointment clashed with his signing-on appointment, sanctioned.
  • A woman who was sanctioned twice, once for taking her young daughter to the doctor’s and then again for taking her to hospital.

Nationally, six out of ten ESA claimants hit with a sanction are vulnerable people with a mental health condition or learning difficulty, according to Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The proportion has rocketed from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009 to 58% in 2013. The Court of Appeal has ruled that WCAs discriminate against people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism and has ordered the DWP to make changes in accordance with the Equality Act 2010. Despite the ruling, DWP has sent a memo to staff saying it is ‘business as usual’, ignoring the court’s decision. Ravi Low-Beer, from the Public Law Project which took the case, said the DWP position was ‘completely wrong’, adding ‘They [the DWP] have challenged the finding that the process discriminates against people with mental health conditions and they lost. Where a court has made that finding, they cannot just do nothing.’

The court case was initiated by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), a campaign group formed under the last Labour government in 2010 by claimants of Incapacity Benefit (IB) concerned that the introduction of WCA would undermine their eligibility for ESA, the then new out-of-work disability benefit. An MHRN spokesperson said ‘We believe that it is vital that people do know about this victory. After all, outrageous lies about disabled benefit claimants have been shouted from the rooftops in much of the national press. Yet where have the front page headlines about this victory been? Nowhere! We now want to rectify this by making as much noise as possible about the truth: that the WCA does not fairly assess people with mental health problems and there has been terrible suffering as a result.’

The government’s introduction of a mandatory reconsideration stage by the DWP before a claimant can lodge an appeal with a benefit tribunal against an adverse WCA is yet another vindictive step. There is no provision of IB or ESA while the reconsideration is pending, and this can take months due to the disarray of the WCA system which is severely backlogged. Many claimants have to turn to food banks to survive.

In an article on the brutality of the DWP, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee reports (8 July 2014) a secret conversation with a Jobcentre manager: ‘the department denies there are targets, but she showed me a printed sheet of what are called “spinning plates”, red for missed, green for hit. They just missed their 50.5% target for “off flows”, getting people off ESA. They have been told to “disrupt and upset” them – in other words, bullying. That’s officially described, in Orwellian fashion, as “offering further support”. As ESA claimants approach the target deadline of 65 weeks on benefits – advisers are told to report them all to the fraud department for maximum pressure. In this manager’s area 16% are “sanctioned” or cut off benefits.’

On 12 July, the government announced that it was going to launch pilot schemes to determine the feasibility of mandating claimants on ESA with mental health problems to undergo treatment for anxiety and depression. 46% of ESA claimants have a mental health problem, and it is estimated that 260,000 could be hit by this ratcheting up of the attack on disabled people if it were implemented nationally. An anonymous government spokesperson said ‘We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapies (CBT) work and they get people stable again but you can’t mandate people to take that treatment.’ Yet mental health services are almost completely broken: the government has just cut the standard payments for mental health care by more than it cut those for hospital treatments. Although CBT helps up to half of those affected by depression or anxiety, NHS England promises that only 15% of referred patients will get CBT by 2015 and wait times are sometimes over a year. The other half for whom CBT does not work, or those who are not ready for treatment may in the future join thousands of others in being bullied off ESA.

Cal Shaw

Focus E15 campaign social housing, not social cleansing

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014

Focus E15 supporter on the march through Newham on 5 July © 2014 Peter Marshall

On Saturday 5 July 2014, the Focus E15 campaign held its first march through the east London borough of Newham, in protest against social cleansing and in defence of decent affordable housing for all. 200 people, among them members of over 25 organisations, including FRFI, ensured the campaign’s message was heard loud and clear all along the route – social housing, not social cleansing! Local support was overwhelming as passers-by took leaflets and drivers sounded their horns. At East Ham town hall, campaigners stopped to express their anger at the Labour mayor, RobinWales. Individual messages about the borough’s housing crisis were tied to the railings. And, despite harassment from the police ahead of the march about confining it to the pavement, on the day of the event itself there was not a uniformed officer in sight, and we marched proudly in the road – banners and placards held high.

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  1. Cuts bite deep in poverty Britain
  2. Fight all benefit cuts /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014
  3. Bedroom tax - Fight to the finish /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014
  4. Focus E15 campaign - Focus on the future /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014
  5. Budget games: Political spin masks bleak reality / FRFI 238 April/May 2014
  6. Criminalising the destitute
  7. Zero-hours contracts: the face of casualisation
  8. New Poor Laws - Poverty, Insecurity, Hunger
  9. Determined Focus E15 mothers fight to stay in Newham
  10. Marching against the bedroom tax in South London
  11. Fighting the bedroom tax in Newcastle
  12. Fighting the bedroom tax - Loophole gives hope to tenants
  13. War on the working class and another irrelevant election
  14. Home care workers: marginalised and exploited / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014
  15. Focus E15 Mothers - ‘No room at the inn’ says Newham Labour council / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014
  16. No option but resistance / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014
  17. Newcastle Labour Council cuts: 8 million more reasons to break with Labour and build a new movement
  18. Fighting the bedroom tax in south London/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  19. No to Newham’s social cleansing Defend the Focus E15 Mothers!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  20. Organise to fight the cuts!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  21. Axe the bedroom tax Can’t pay – won’t pay!/FRFI 235 Oct/Nov 2013
  22. Atos fails the test /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  23. Benefit cuts - No refuge from violence /FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  24. Newcastle: Building resistance to the bedroom tax/FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013
  25. Overall benefit cap is social cleansing/FRFI 234 Aug/Sep 2013