Don’t Cut Universal Credit

Cllr Alan Hall has joined trade unionists, campaigners and think tanks in applying pressure for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak to overturn the decision to cut £20 per week from Universal Credit claimants many are working on low pay. This comes as the Resolution Foundation has revealed that four in ten households on Universal Credit face 13 per cent rise in energy bills in same month as their income is cut by £20 a week.

Lewisham CAB warn of ‘perfect storm’

In July 2021, there were 39,552 people claiming Universal Credit in the London Borough of Lewisham, of these 15,769 are working.

Jonny Marshall, Senior Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Low income families are facing a cost of living crunch on several fronts this autumn with energy bills rising alongside wider price increases, while Universal Credit is also due to be cut by £20 a week.”

“Around 15 million households are set to face higher prices next week when the energy price cap is raised. This will be particularly acute for low income families on Universal Credit, who are four times as likely as the rest of the population to be on pre-payment meters, and therefore face even bigger increases to their bills.”

The Foundation notes that 4.4 million households on Universal Credit are set to see their energy bills rise significantly in October, the same month that will see them typically lose over 5 per cent of their disposable income as the £20 a week uplift to UC comes to an end, and as the onset of winter boosts energy consumption.

The energy price cap is set to rise by £139 a year (12 per cent) to £1,277 (for a typical gas and electricity customer) a year from 1 October, but a larger increase of £153 (13 per cent) a year will affect pre-payment meter customers. Pre-payment meter customers are also overwhelmingly on variable rather than fixed rate tariffs and so will be more swiftly affected by these price rises.

Universal Credit is available to people who are in work and on a low income, as well as to those who are out of work. The numbers in work make up a significant proportion of the total claimants hovering around the 40% mark.

The number of people on Universal Credit in London and surrounding regions has doubled since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic according to Government statistics up to January 2021.

People on Universal Credit in employment, Great Britain, December 2015 to December 2020 source HM Government

In November 2020, the Government estimates that one in five claimants receive a reduction due to the bedroom tax. The average (mean) monthly reduction amount was £70 and the median reduction amount was £60. This will be additional to the £20 per week cut.

Lewisham Citizens Advice Bureau have released details of some of the cases seen by frontline advisers, these include:

Aliyah, who is struggling to find a job because of the pandemic, and paying back deductions for an advanced payment and also outstanding council tax debt. Their flat is in poor condition and many of their household appliances are broken. Aliyah already struggles with poor mental health and is worried that removing the £20 increase will make this worse and lead to her having to rely on foodbanks to eat.

They are also seeing an increase in clients who have had to take time off work after catching coronavirus, which exacerbated their existing health conditions. They fear they will fall into housing debt without the £20 a week increase. Along with single parents who are only just able to pay for after school childcare costs while they work thanks to the £20 increase. This has helped them stay in their job and pay essential bills.

Gary Jones, Chief Officer of Citizens Advice Lewisham, said:

“Every day, our staff and volunteers see the difference the increase to Universal Credit has made to families. As an organisation we have supported over 24,000 clients in the last year and for many of them, Universal Credits has been a key factor in helping them keep their heads above water. Without that extra money, we fear we’d see more people coming to us in debt, unable to pay their bills or turning to food banks because they can’t afford the essentials. As we look to rebuild our borough through the ongoing impact of COVID , the government must invest in the benefits system and keep this vital lifeline.”

The full text of the letter by Cllr Alan Hall is here:

Rishi Sunak MP

Chancellor of the Exchequer

HM Treasury

Dear Chancellor,

Please don’t turn your back on six million people. There is an economic argument, a humanitarian argument and fairness argument that asks for an urgent rethink of your decision to cut Universal Credit from the 5th October.

Your callous cut will push countless families and working people into even deeper debt and poverty in what is the biggest overnight benefit since World War II.

Never has a Chancellor’s duty to protect the most vulnerable been more pertinent. Charities are warning that one million households will lose 10 per cent of their income overnight when you snatch back the £20 a week – £1,040 a year – with one in four children made poorer as a result.

With 40% of Universal Credit claimants already in jobs, perhaps as chancellor you should be focused on halting the march of poverty pay, not taking £20 from those most in need.

Levelling up does not start with ripping up our already threadbare safety net. Even the Universal Credit-General accepts that the benefit has for years been slipping further and further below what people earn in jobs, because of freezes.

Please listen to your own Tory MPs, including Universal Credit’s architect Iain Duncan-Smith, footballer, anti-poverty campaigner Marcus Rashford, and the many charities, landlords and debt organisations who have all condemned the cut.

But most importantly listen to Universal Credit claimants when they say this money isn’t paying for luxuries like swimming pools and tennis courts. For them it’s literally meant the difference between heating and eating.

Without this vital income boost vulnerable children will suffer. This will be on your watch and your legacy.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Alan Hall – Bellingham

Give Schools the Cash For Covid 19 Recovery

Education, education, education was the refrain of the Labour Party at the turn of the century. Now the National Education Union say that education recovery has got to be the top priority again.

Despite claims to the contrary, schools have been underfunded for years. The NEU say that Schools have experienced whole school budget reductions, rising costs and pupil numbers, meaning that in 2019 schools were £2 billion poorer than they were in 2015.

Because of Covid 19, significant investment is needed so that schools and colleges can feel equipped to fully support young people and their families, ensuring everyone in education in the UK is able to reach their full potential. There are no quick or cheap fixes. That is why Sir Kevan Collins, the Government’s own appointed Education Recovery Commissioner, recommended £15bn for a proper recovery strategy.

The Education Policy Institute recommended a similar figure saying: “Our analysis and international benchmarking implies that these plans need to be much larger to have a real chance of catching up on lost learning”

The Government’s education advisor resigns

It is fast becoming a consensus view across the teaching profession. However, the Treasury have put forward £1.4bn. Boris Johnson believes this will “give parents confidence”, but no one is fooled. This is short change. The Government is cutting corners on Covid 19. And that is why Sir Kevan Collins resigned.

In England, the Government’s pledge amounts to just £50 per pupil per year for education recovery.

The average primary school will receive the equivalent of just £22 a year per pupil. By contrast, the USA have pledged £1,600 per pupil and the Netherlands £2,500 per pupil. Not only are the Government offering 1/50th of what the Netherlands are delivering, but 1/10th of what was recommended by their own Commissioner.

If we are to protect an education system that supports high standards and places pupil wellbeing and mental health at its heart, then the Government must properly resource education recovery. No ifs or buts. Without a comprehensive and urgent response, we risk failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.  We are calling on the Government to provide the funds schools need to best help children recover from this pandemic. As Sir Kevan Collins said: “Without a comprehensive and urgent response, we risk failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This is a hugely disappointing announcement which lets down the nation’s children and schools at a time when the government needed to step up and demonstrate its commitment to education.”

“The amount of money that the government plans to put into education recovery is insufficient and shows a failure to recognise the scale of learning loss experienced by many pupils during the pandemic – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He also says that the Government has: “shown a depressing but predictable lack of ambition.”

Schools and colleges will also be given the option to offer year 13 the option to repeat their last year, which the Department for Education said it would fund for additional places.

Please join me and take action, please sign the petition here

Cllr Alan Hall joins the education community to fight school cuts

Reverse The End Of Remote Meetings

The Minister for Local Government, Luke Hall MP has written to Local Authorities confirming that the Government intends to end the remote meetings by not renewing the emergency legislation that allowed them.

The letter explains that extending the regulations to allow virtual meetings beyond May 7th would require primary legislation.

Interestingly, in the letter the Minister mentions the Covid-19 vaccination programme. He states: “The reduction in cases of Covid-19 should result in a significant reduction in risk for local authority members meeting in person from May 7, as reflected in the Government’s plan to ease Covid-19 restrictions over the coming months.
I recognise there may be concerns about holding face-to-face meetings. Ultimately it is for local authorities to apply the Covid-19 guidance to ensure meetings take place safely, but we have updated our guidance on the safe use of council buildings to highlight ways in which you can, if necessary, minimise the risk of face-to-face meetings, and we will work with sector representative bodies to ensure that local authorities understand the guidance and are aware of the full range of options available to them.”

This is interesting because it optimistically assumes that the threat of Covid-19 and a potential third wave has been discounted by the Government.

Channel Four News reports that as the third wave hits Europe, more than thirty million people in the UK have now received their first dose of a vaccine. In Europe around twenty thousand people a week are dying with Covid-19 – and rates in central Europe are now among the highest in the world.

Graph shows Covid-19 cases in Europe – 28.03.21

The question that remains to be answered is, will the UK stave off a third wave? As the graph shows the now familiar pattern of rising rates in Europe with the UK some weeks behind.

It should be remembered that rates of vaccination in the UK are not uniform. London has a significant variation within the city and Lewisham has a variable vaccination rate within the borough.

The Minister’s letter rightly points out that Councils will have to assess the risks themselves and apply measures to mitigate this.

One measure suggested is moving the largest meeting of the municipal year, the Annual Meeting – or Mayor making. For Lewisham Council this would mean to consider conducting the annual meeting prior to 7th May, and hold the meeting remotely while the express provision in current regulations apply. This would mitigate the risks.

Cllr Alan Hall has written to Kim Wright, Lewisham Council’s Chief Executive to ask her to clarify the Council’s intentions regarding the Ministerial Letter.

remote_meetings-Letters-to-Council-Leaders-250321-covid

In response, the Local Government Association said:

“This decision is extremely disappointing. The Government’s own roadmap out of lockdown states that indoor gatherings or events – organised by a business, charity, public body or similar organisation – cannot be organised until May 17 at the earliest. Yet councils will be unable to hold remote meetings from May 7. MPs will retain the right to participate remotely until at least June 21 but the powers-that-be in the House of Commons will not make time available to legislate for councillors to do the same.

“The case is clear for the ability for councils to continue to be able to hold meetings flexibly. We urge the Government to reverse this decision and not force councils to have to hold COVID-19 secure face-to-face council meetings until all restrictions are lifted.

“Holding face to face council meetings, with supporting staff, could easily involve up to 200 people in one room even before adding in members of the public and reporters. This is likely to be a significant challenge with councils, for example, having to source larger venues in order to be able to host meetings with social distancing measures in place, such as full council meetings which will need to be held following the May local elections.

“This also risks damaging the gains seen in public participation in remote council meetings during the pandemic and our vital local democratic process.”

Lawyers in Local Government have issued a legal challenge and they have commented: “Councils are already actively considering the options the minister has suggested, including looking at alternative larger meeting venues at significant extra cost. The proposal to delegate significant decisions to officers is likely to be viewed as undermining democratic accountability due to the fact that such decisions are not subject to direct member involvement. Given the circumstances authorities find themselves in due to the imminent loss of virtual meeting provision, they now face unpalatable decisions, which include restricting member attendance and a reduction in members roles in decision making, whilst attempting to keep the machinery of local government moving. We remain fully committed to presenting our case at the High Court Hearing timetabled to be heard before the end of April 2021.”

Serious Cock Up By Health Secretary

Lewisham residents will know that the Secretary of State for Health can act unlawfully. We remember the Lewisham Hospital closure attempt when Jeremy Hunt’s hospital cuts were ruled illegal. Now we have a serious, costly cock up by the current incumbent.

The Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock acted unlawfully said Mr Justice Chamberlain in the High Court in a case concerning competition and contract procurement rules. The contracts included personal protective equipment, PPE, needed for the Covid 19 pandemic response. Reports estimate that the value of these contracts run into “hundreds of millions of pounds.” The court judgement mentions contracts in the billions.

The legal challenge was brought by the Good Law Project described as a not for profit organisation specialising in governance. The ruling says that the Government acted unlawfully by failing to comply with their Transparency Policy and that “there is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the Secretary of State breached his legal obligation to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.” In response to the Judgement, Jolyon Maugham QC, Director, Good Law Project said:

“We shouldn’t be forced to rely on litigation to keep those in power honest, but in this case it’s clear that our challenge pushed Government to comply with its legal obligations. Judge Chamberlain stated that the admission of breach by Government was “secured as a result of this litigation and at a late stage of it” and “I have no doubt that this claim has speeded up compliance”. It begs the question, if we hadn’t brought this legal challenge, what other contract details would have remained hidden from view?”

The Government had argued that this was about “technical” breaches of the legal regulations on public contracts that allow agreements to be entered into without tender for reasons of extreme urgency brought about by unforeseen events. But regulation 50 of the public contracts regulations specifies that a contract award notice (CAN) must be published not later than 30 days after the contract award.

Ignorance by officials of the Transparency Policy, was no defence when the Judge ruled that “The Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the Transparency Policy” and that “there is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the Secretary of State breached his legal obligation to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.”

According to the BMJ, this is important because publication is designed to “serve a vital public function and that function was no less important during a pandemic,” Mr Justice Chamberlain said. “The secretary of state spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic related procurement during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on, and how the relevant contracts were awarded.”

Compliance with the regulations would have allowed the Good Law Project “to scrutinise CANs and contract provisions, ask questions about them and raise any issues with oversight bodies such as the National Audit Office or via MPs in Parliament.”

The National Audit Office had said: “While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”

Jolyon Maugham QC, Director, Good Law Projected concluded by saying: “This is a victory for all of us concerned with proper governance and proof of the power of litigation to hold Government to account. But there is still a long way to go before the Government’s house is in order. We have now written to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care detailing what needs to be done to improve procurement processes and ensure value for British taxpayers.

In the House of Commons on 24th February, the Shadow Health Minister, Justin Madders, MP said:

“Why has the Secretary of State not come to Parliament to explain himself? Is breaking the law such a common occurrence in Government nowadays that it does not warrant an explanation from those responsible? The Government’s approach to procurement during the pandemic has been marred by a toxic mix of misspending and cronyism. We all understand that the Department was and is dealing with many pressing issues, but transparency is important, and accountability matters. Of course, we need to remember why there was such a rush to get PPE in the first place—it was because the Government had ignored the warnings and allowed stockpiles to run down. The pandemic has been used too often as an excuse for standards to slip, but it really should not need saying that transparency goes hand in hand with good government.”

The Good Law Project needs public support to continue this work. You can donate here

Urgent Action Needed To Tackle Homelessness Now

Cllr Alan Hall has joined housing campaigners, Shelter by writing to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on the tory Government to take “urgent action to protect people at risk of being on the streets as a result of the pandemic.”

This follows the tragic news that a homeless person sleeping rough at Bell Green, died. In a response to a formal Council Question at Lewisham Council’s meeting held on 25th November 2020, Cllr Alan Hall asked for a review of the case to learn any lessons and for the Coroner to be contacted, if necessary. He received an undertaking that this would be done.

Cllr Alan Hall’s Question is at 57 minutes

Shelter have said that a new lockdown means we need new protections. The Government needs to provided enough support to those who are homeless or threatened by homelessness as a result of the latest lockdown as a matter of urgency.

The full text of the letter is here:

Dear Prime Minister,

Since the announcement of a new national lockdown your government are yet to lay out all the protections needed that will help those threatened by homelessness.

Over the last year, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, with a rapidly growing number of people also under threat of losing their homes.

Shelter advice services are hearing from more and more people in need of accommodation.

With more bitterly cold weather forecasted, we need you to take urgent action to protect people at risk of being on the streets as a result of the pandemic. We want you to:

• Publish clear guidance to dire councils to provide sage emergency accommodation to everyone at risk of the streets

• Provide financial support to renters to help pay off arrears built up due to COVID-19

• Scrap the benefit cap and review housing benefit rates to ensure people can pay the rent, and to prevent growing rent arrears and eviction

We need urgent action now to help those facing housing issues at this difficult time. Please do everything in your power to ensure everyone have a warm, dry and safe place to live during the pandemic.

Cllr Alan Hall

Join the campaign here

Lewisham’s Amenity Societies’ Collective Concerns Over Planning Changes

On 16th September 2020, Lewisham Council’s Mayor & Cabinet agreed to a six month extension of temporary changes to the planning procedures for public participation in town planning. In the report it says: “By June 2020 a backlog of around 40 planning applications requiring determination by committee had built up. The Government has brought in legislation to enable decision making to take place through virtual committee meetings and the Council has put in place measures to hold virtual planning committee meetings and has been holding these since June.” Planning committee decisions are described as “resource intensive”.

The virtual planning committees instigated due to Covid-19 were found to be “particularly resource intensive” as they meant additional officers to be present and fully briefed on every scheme as back up in case technical difficulties occurred.

The extension of the temporary changes had been examined at a meeting of the Council’s Strategic Planning Committee and approved on 3rd September. A number of amenity societies and individuals had commented critically. These were reported to the Mayor and Cabinet meeting in an addendum.

However, the day before the Mayor and Cabinet meeting a letter to the Mayor of Lewisham by Lewisham’s amenity societies collectively was sent. This says: “We feel the need to take the unprecedented step of writing to you with a collective voice” and details their concerns. The full letter is below:

Date: Tue, 15 Sep 2020

To: damien.egan@lewisham.gov.uk – Mayor
Cc: cllr_paul.bell@lewisham.gov.uk – Cabinet Member for Housing & Planning

Dear Mr Egan

At the start of this year you asked many of us, as representatives of Lewisham’s amenity and civic societies, to support your letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government asking for additional protection for heritage buildings. At the same time, in the article you wrote for Local Gov News, you stated that “it is vital that we preserve these heritage assets so that they can be enjoyed by current and future generations”.

Against such a backdrop, we are disappointed that we feel the need to take the unprecedented step of writing to you with a collective voice.

Lewisham’s voluntary amenity societies represent the views of many hundreds, possibly thousands of people who share a concern about our heritage and environment. The planning consultation process encourages good design as well as preservation.

But our role in the planning process has become increasingly marginalised and the latest move to further extend the scheme of delegation for planning decisions, and other changes relating to the statement of community involvement, represents a new low.

Untold damage to our environment and heritage can occur in six months and in these unprecedented times, scrutiny is needed more than ever. Council officers often lack the intimate local knowledge that amenity societies can offer; this is a time when the council should rely on and value our input more than ever before, not freeze us out.

Monthly meetings of the amenity society panel, chaired by a councillor and attended by a planning officer were suspended by the council several years ago, supposedly on a temporary basis, and have never been replaced as promised.

In the past three months with ‘temporary’ changes to the powers of delegation the situation has become untenable. Our members now each have to write individual objection letters to reach the threshold needed to stop contentious cases from being approved under delegated powers; cases which previously stood a chance of being considered by elected members, with objectors given the opportunity to speak against them in committee.

Unfortunately a common experience since the changes were introduced is that timely validation of applications has become erratic, while responses from planning officers are often cursory, communications unreliable and decisions random and illogical.

We accept that budget cuts have played a part, as have additional constraints on time and resources caused by Covid. But democratic accountability has been further weakened by this latest action, coupled with the lack of any online replacement for councillor surgeries where objections could be discussed.

As the council’s respect for our input has diminished, our volunteers feel that they are forced to fight against Lewisham planners, rather than working collaboratively for the good of the borough and its residents.

These changes place enormous power and responsibility in the hands of planning committee chairs. Great power requires accountability, yet the chairs’ decisions on which applications go before a planning committee take place behind closed doors and the minutes of the chairs’ case reviews with case officers go unpublished.

The proposal to extend the procedures for a further six months exacerbates and prolongs this unacceptable and undemocratic situation, and suggests that it is seen as a potentially longer term administrative change rather than a temporary emergency measure.

Many of us made detailed representations ahead of the recent strategic planning committee meeting, raising legitimate questions about how the council intends to ensure accountability, transparency and impartiality in cases that receive amenity society objections but are delegated to officers. These matters remain unanswered and unaddressed.

Apart from the challenge of supporting Lewisham’s role as Borough of Culture 2021, we believe the council and amenity societies should have common cause in addressing the major changes to the planning system proposed by the government, which could impact our borough significantly.

We request an urgent meeting with you to discuss the situation and we urge you to think again before supporting this extension.

Yours sincerely

Helena Russell & Mark Shackleton

Co-chairs, Deptford Society

Clare Cowen

Chair, The Brockley Society

Paul Watts

Chair, The Blackheath Society

Malcolm Bacchus

Chair, The Telegraph Hill Society

Julia Rowntree

Chair, Brookmill Road Conservation Area

Sarah McMichael

Chair, Lee Forum

Dr Ralph White

Chair, Lee Manor Society

Kate Richardson

Chair, Culverley Green Residents’ Association

Emily Finch

Chair, Hatcham Conservation Society

Robert Smith

Chair, Ladywell Society

Annabel McLaren

Chair, Sydenham Society

Lewisham Public Health Publish Covid-19 Plan

Lewisham Council has published a COVID-19 Outbreak Prevention and Control Plan setting out how the Council will work with partners, including Public Health England, to prevent, identify and manage any COVID-19 outbreaks in Lewisham and ensure that residents and communities are protected.

Local authorities have been responsible for improving the health of their local population and for public health services including most sexual health services and services aimed at reducing drug and alcohol misuse since the Government transferred responsibility from the NHS in April 2013

As the public health service was transferred, Chancellor George Osbourne, with a sleight of hand cut £200 million in year from the public health budgets of local councils in June 2015. The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges said: “This cut will have a direct impact on people and communities who rely on this funding, and it will have a direct impact on the NHS which will have to pick up the pieces by treating preventable ill health. The Faculty of Public Health’s own analysis suggests the eventual ‘knock-on’ cost to the NHS could well be in excess of £1bn. By any measure then, the planned move is a false economy.”

At the time in Lewisham, Councillor Alan Hall wrote in response to the Government: “Plans to reduce public health allocations in year directly contradicts the statement in the NHS plan: ‘the future health of millions of children, the sustainability of the NHS, and the economic prosperity of Britain all now depend on a radical upgrade in prevention and public health.’

He added: “Imposing public health savings of this order within year will undermine our effectiveness and reduce our capacity to work with our NHS partners in prevention and public health and so will damage the long-term partnership needed to achieve public health goals.”

On top of this, many of the services delivered through the public health spend via Local Authorities fund clinical NHS care. Cutting this funding reduces NHS revenues so it is misleading to suggest that the NHS budget is being protected.

The tories continued to cut public health budgets but this March, in the midsts of the Covid-19 pandemic they belatedly announced an increase of £145 million on the public health grant 2019/20.

The Faculty of Public Health said: “Though an increase, further funding will be needed to reverse years of cuts to public health services and FPH has long called for a £1 billion increase for the public health budget. This will allow our members to restore public health services and protect and improve the health of the public, both during and beyond the current COVID-19 crisis.”

Lewisham Council’s public health service continues to provide a vital service. Their plans have defined “an outbreak” as is two or more suspected and/or confirmed cases associated with the same setting and with onset during a 14-day period.

A London-wide definition of a community cluster of COVID-19 is in the process of being
agreed. The following working definition has been adopted locally in Lewisham, in the interim:
“A community cluster is identified when 3 or more household member(s), living in the same
Middle Layer Super Output Area receive a positive test result for COVID-19 within a 7 day period and those people are not already known to be linked to a complex setting that is already the subject of an outbreak management plan (e.g. a care home, school, workplace etc).”

An outbreak in a complex setting can be regarded as taking place in a setting that has a number of complicating factors including:

  • vulnerable staff/residents/communities affected
  • the potential to result in a large number of cases/contacts
  • likelihood of requiring prolonged support for ongoing outbreak management.
    A number of action cards including standard operating procedures have been developed for
    outbreak management in complex settings for London.

Lewisham Public Health team will be part of the NHS Test and Trace service. This will provide a vital infrastructure to support this existing outbreak prevention work by scaling up the capacity to test, trace and isolate cases and contacts of COVID-19. The service was launched on 28th May 2020, to provide a comprehensive national contact tracing service for COVID-19 in England involving national, regional and local partners.

The team have launched a 7 day COVID-19 case rate for Lewisham in comparison to London and England.

7 day COVID-19 case rate (per 100,000) 
Reported from 8-14 August

LewishamLondonEngland
5.39.112.2
The numbers showing today – 21st August 2020

Full details are here

End Benefit Sanctions Now Say Disability Campaigners

Cllr Alan Hall has joined campaigners, disabled activists, charities and trade unionists calling for an end to benefit sanctions now.

Inclusion London who support over 70 Deaf and Disabled Organisations working across every London borough lead the campaign. They say:

“We are calling for sanctions to be abolished for Deaf and Disabled people as a matter of urgency.  We also recommend that sanctions end for all people.”

“We believe there is ample evidence to show that conditionality and sanctions are counterproductive in moving people towards employment and instead cause debt, hunger and distress and in some cases destitution. These outcomes are particularly acute for Deaf and Disabled people.”

Unite the Union say: “The continued use of benefit sanctions just as the country is entering a period of heavy and sustained job losses is ‘unnecessary and particularly cruel’ and must be stopped.” The trade union held a Universal Discredit campaign day recently.

The Public Law Project has produced advice on benefit sanctions and Covid-19, this is here.

The full text of the letter to Justin Tomlinson, MP – Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions is here:

Dear Justin,

I am writing to you to take action and help us to scrap benefit sanctions once and for all. In Lewisham we do not have a borough wide disability organisation or advocacy service so I am writing to you directly on behalf of people with disabilities in our borough.

Inclusion London wrote a briefing summarising some of the evidence here: https://www.inclusionlondon.org.uk/campaigns-and-policy/facts-and-information/welfare-reform/stop-benefit-sanctions-now/

Sanctions during the pandemic are dangerous, cruel and unnecessary. There is no evidence to show sanctions work and plenty of evidence about the negative impact they have on health and wellbeing. It is especially unfair and unjust when we are facing a historic rise in unemployment and a covid job crisis to force people into searching for jobs which currently don’t exist at a time when many will still be facing restrictions.

Many of the people being forced to look for work will come from Disabled and or BAME communities who have already experienced a shocking and disproportionately high number of deaths during the pandemic. The likelihood of dying from Covid-19 amongst these groups is significantly higher than the general population. Disabled people will face an increased risk of exposure to covid-19 if they have to attend jobcentre appointments, travel on public transport or go into a workplace where social distancing and other safety measures have not implemented in full. For Disabled people, including those who are shielding, many workplaces where it is not possible to work from home will pose an extremely high risk.

Mountains of research exist to show that sanctions do not work, and do not benefit public spending. From academic researchers to Parliamentary Committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups to the National Audit Office, there is ample evidence to show that sanctions do very little to get people into sustainable, long term work. Instead, claimants are often stuck in short term, precarious work and experience profoundly adverse personal, financial, and health outcomes.

Please act now to help address this great injustice.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Alan Hall

Lewisham Council

NHS Song Of Hope Released in Lewisham

The Lewisham NHS Choir’s ‘I can see clearly now’ is a song of hope.

I can see clearly now – a song of hope

They are known for their emotional rendition of classic songs. The video is a cover of Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’. As this was recorded during lockdown the doctors, hospital workers, nurses and community health staff that make up the choir were working long, challenging shifts.

Choir tenor Johan Lindskog, who also played guitar on the track and works as an anaesthetist says that since he inturbated his first Covid-19 patient he has worked “flat out”.

“It’s been so helpful to have a project like this to spend time on. It has really lifted my spirits, and I know that’s true of the rest of the choir too. We’re really pleased with the result musically as well – everyone’s done so brilliantly in shaping the track and video.”

Caroline Smith, the choir’s coordinator and a Paediatric Physiotherapist, gave an insight into their song choice: “I know that some will argue that it’s too positive a song to have chosen, as the world is of course nowhere close to being ‘back to normal’, but with services reopening around the Trust, and with the morale-boost and sense of wellbeing that working on this project has given us, we wanted to get the message out there – as the song says, “I think I can make it now”.

“We hope people across the NHS and the whole country can get behind that message.”

The vocal arrangement is by the choir’s long-time musical director Phil Mitchell, with his wife Lucy, director of LJ Studios, mixing and mastering the recording and Leah Robinson from video startup Robinson Freelance shaping the video from dozens of clips of choir members singing, dancing and – on one occasion – manhandling a teddy bear. The song bounds along with a specially recorded backing track from Liam Dunachie pianist and choir co-musical director, Dan Humpreys on the bass and drums by Ollie Boorman.

The choir started back in 2012 as part of Gareth Malone’s BBC2 show, ‘Sing While You Work’. Their success on the show took them from television to the Royal Albert Hall, the FA Cup Final, Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage and more. In 2015 their Christmas single ‘A Bridge Over You’ beat the likes of Justin Bieber, Adele, Stormzy and One Direction to the number one spot.

Deirdre Barr, St John Ambulance regional clinical manager said: “Our volunteers are incredibly proud to have played their part in supporting patients and staff at the Trust during COVID-19. Lewisham was the very first site in the country to welcome our volunteers as they started this new and challenging role; but, with the help from hospital staff and clinical teams they soon found their feet and became part of the team, right in the heart of the community.”

There’s a message at the end asking people to show their support for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust’s own charity as well as the heroes at St John Ambulance, who have volunteered throughout Covid-19 in Greenwich and Lewisham.

After the Lewisham NHS Choir achieved a Christmas No1 in 2015 with their smash hit ‘A Bridge Over You’ with Justin Bieber’s support, Cllr Alan Hall put forward a motion to Lewisham Council to recognise this national achievement and called for a performance at the town hall. The choir did perform at the Council’s AGM around Easter, superbly. At that time the choir said: “We do this job because we love it and are committed to looking after our patients. We think this song sums up that sentiment and is a way of celebrating the thousands of dedicated staff across the country.”