Thursday, 12 April 2012

Resilience In Action: Council To Offer 'Motivational Support'

Local advice agencies in Newham are launching a campaign, starting with a FaceBook page and online petition, to try and stop the destruction of advice work in the borough and the introduction of a bizarre new system that plans to 'motivate' people not to bother the council with their difficult problems.

For the last eight years, Newham council has funded independent advice services for Newham residents and since 2008, it has commissioned a consortium of eight voluntary groups to deliver these services to the hard-to-reach communities they work with. However, at the end of July 2011, the council cut all funding for advice work and November 2011 – at a meeting lasting just 18 minutes – Mayor Sir Robin Wales’ Cabinet agreed a plan to radically change the way advice is offered in the borough. In future, all advice services will be provided by its own officers, but these new arrangements do not commence until April 2013. This leaves a 21-month period when local people will have no access to independent advice on housing, debt and welfare benefits.

What this is really about is the council’s ‘Building Resilience’ project - the gradual withdrawal of the local state beyond a core of support for the most vulnerable, leaving more of us dependent on making our own arrangements. This is a classic slice of New Labour authoritarianism that is essentially blames people for their poverty and provides a dubious ideological justification for local cuts. The council’s vision for how Newham’s residents will access advice shows what ‘resilience’ really means in practice and is frankly astonishing, really out there on the fringes: It proposes a three tier system:

Tier 1: A website (as yet, not created) with general information about housing, debt and benefits

Tier 2: Council officers telling people to resolve their problems for themselves using the website.

Tier 3: From April 2013, the council offering people with housing, debt and benefit problems one-to-one “motivational support” by a member of council staff – but only if they have lived in Newham for at least two years, have not used the Tier 3 service before and only if they have been referred by another council officer.

Incredibly, 'motivational support' will focus on reducing any individual's reliance on public services rather than advice based solely on their best interests. New arrivals to the borough, such as women fleeing domestic violence, will be shut out completely.

This is Newham so inevitably there has been no consultation with users of advice services or the expert organisations who support them. Indeed, the plan ignores advocacy on the behalf of clients completely, as well as the principle that advice should always be independent and impartial. Worse still, it discriminates against the needs and interests of the borough’s most vulnerable by prioritising instead the needs and interests of Newham’s ‘Building Resilience’ policy.

The council acknowledges that this plan carries significant risk: that vulnerable people might not receive advice because they do not meet the residency criteria, that it may be difficult to manage the demand for housing and homelessness advice and that changes to legal aid will make it more difficult for those in debt to challenge court actions. Its solution is to identify other already hard-pressed, underfunded services that it can 'signpost' people to rather than fund. The council also plans to 'lobby' for the Money Advice Service - which was set up by government and funded by a levy on the financial services industry - to offer debt advice in the borough.

But ultimately this plan is really about cuts, rather than people's needs - not only the £284,820 funding to the Newham Advice Consortium in 2010/11 but a "savings target of £1m" across the local authority by the end of the current financial year.

Cuts dressed up as 'innovation' - as it is rolled out, the council's "Building Resilience" project looks more and more like Cameron's Big Society every day.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you picked this up Kevin. I've been meaning to blog on it but time constraints etc.

And still the people of Newham and, more importantly, the local Labour Party fail to acknowledge that there is a Tory mayor holding court in fortress 1000.

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