75% cuts for agencies after change of heart at Tower Hamlets

Winter is coming, both literally and metaphorically, writes Michael Ashe.

In Tower Hamlets it looks likely to be long and cold.

Statistics show that the borough is already the most deprived in England, and has the highest levels of child poverty. Over 50% of the borough’s pensioners have to top up their pensions with means-tested benefits to reach a subsistence income. Like other inner London boroughs, the cap on Housing Benefit will mean thousands of people losing their homes, the lucky ones facing re-housing miles away from their families and friends, others adding to the growing numbers of homeless people in the capital, and across the country.

Then there’s the impact of the Employment Support Allowance, Disability Living Allowance changes, and the spectre of the Universal Credit. It’s not unusual to live in poverty in Tower Hamlets, despite being sandwiched between the City of London and Canary Wharf, though it feels that it should be easier to avoid, living in the heart of the capital of one of the world’s richest countries.

Not that all is gloom and doom.

Despite cuts in central government funding, and a £100m hole in their budget, the local authority has continued to recognise the value of quality assured advice in the fight against poverty in the borough, and that accurate, timely advice saves many times what it costs to deliver. In March, the council undertook a detailed analysis of advice provision in partnership with a network of committed local providers. They used the results to develop a robust specification against which to commission advice services over the next couple of years: all services would have to be externally assured, and the criteria favoured joined-up services working in partnership to meet the geographic and linguistic challenges of a diverse patchwork of communities. It looked like the kind of good practice example you might see in a text book. Even with a 6% cut to the budget being trailed by the Council, things were looking up.

That is, until last week.

On September 25th a small group of councillors who made up the programme board appointed to oversee the commissioning process rejected the careful assessments of their officers, recommending instead that over half the £2m budget for advice remain “unallocated”, and that a number of special interest groups be parachuted in. Emails announcing this radical change of direction were sent out to local providers a few hours after the deadline passed for them to make use of the right to make a presentation to the Council’s cabinet. The cabinet met last Wednesday in a chamber full of community organisations, all wanting to know why they and the council had spent time and money on months of analysis and planning, seemingly so that it could be set aside at the eleventh hour.

A mauling
The cabinet, led by the executive mayor, Mr Lutfur Rahman, responded to this unusually high level of community scrutiny by agreeing the recommendations of their programme board without access to an Equality Impact Assessment, which was missing from the cabinet papers. If they had access to the document it would presumably have made them aware that the decision they were about to take would have profound results, with some key providers receiving a 75% cut to their funding, and the east of the borough getting what one witness described as ‘a mauling’.

Some sense of the despair felt by community groups and advice agencies must have percolated through, however, because the day after the cabinet meeting the council wrote to say that despite the mayor being ‘minded to accept’ the recommendations of his colleagues, he was prepared to entertain a thousand word plea from any organisation that applied for funding, so that he can ‘be clear on the impact of the recommendations to the services offered’.

Only pleas received within seven days will be considered. Happily, the council says that anything received will be properly reviewed, first by the officers whose previous recommendations were ignored by councillors, and then by the councillors who ignored them.

The £930,000 remains mysteriously ‘unallocated’ at a time when advice needs in the borough and in the country as a whole are nearing an all time high (and just think what a further £10 billion of cuts to the incomes of people already in poverty will mean). Some of those present, who a week before had been preparing themselves to cope with a 6% cut, contrasted the decision on advice funding with the announcement at the meeting of a special £2m fund for religious buildings. Perhaps this reflects the needs of the many thousands of people in Tower Hamlets who will feel that prayer is their only hope as they find their homes under threat, bailiffs at their doors, and stark choices to be made between eating properly and staying warm this winter.

There is still a chance that the Mayor and his cabinet will shine a light into the process and act to prevent the very worst of times falling upon the boroughs most vulnerable residents. It would certainly be a shame to substitute a textbook example of good commissioning practice with an approach that would see those who most need help lose access to free, impartial and in many cases, life-saving advice.

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