Rats in the lunchbox, mould in the mattress: living in squalor in London

Stories of private and social tenants in London

This piece was funded jointly by OurKingdom’s Shine a Light project and The Fox Report (the Friend’s investigative arm, funded by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust). It was published by Open Democracy, Quaker magazine – the Friend, Lacuna magazine, the Socialist Lawyer magazine, the Justice Gap and Counterfire Magazine.
 
This is my third collaboration with talented illustrator Patrick Koudah. Our first, The Lone Parent Trap, was published in August 2013, and most recent Black and Dangerous? was published in September 2013.
 
 

 

Mahder Redie has not slept since finishing an 8-hour cleaning shift at 7am. It is noon on Thursday 3rd April. Since 8am he has been waiting for the repairman, sent by his landlord.

Mahder, 35, prepares lunch for his pregnant wife and daughter in the closet-sized kitchen. His wife Hiriti tries to relax on the sofa. One-year-old Merken wants to play, squealing happily.

Hiriti is subdued. ‘I want a fresh start,’ she says. Speaking a mixture of Bilen, her native Eritrean tongue, and English, Hiriti says the thought of raising another child in the mouldy flat is depressing. Above the dining table is a framed photograph of 30-year-old Hiriti wearing traditional Eritrean clothes; her dark hair pulled into thick braids that fan out into luxuriant mahogany cloud; her face is decorated and her expression carefree.

The Redie’s one-bedroom flat is infected with mould; they can’t afford to move. Spooning sweet white rice and salad into a bowl for Merken, Mahder says that since the start of the year his housing association landlord has sent seven inspectors to the flat and, each time, ‘They do nothing.’

Illustration by Patrick Koudah
Illustration by Patrick Koudah

 

Mahder Redie earns £8.61 an hour as a cleaner at the Westfield shopping centre in East London, across the road from the multimillion-pound Olympic Park. Like many low paid workers, his job is temporary and barely covers living costs in a city where the average monthly rent is £1,233.

The family is desperate to move, but for those on low incomes there is little choice. The provision of council homes and social housing continues to fall. Nine London councils recently lost a legal challenge to Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan to increase the upper limit of rents deemed ‘affordable’ in the capital.

These circumstances have deepened an inequality of arms between London’s poorest renters and their landlords. Pamela Fitzpatrick sees the consequences every day.

After nearly 30 years spent working in social welfare, for organisations such as Child Poverty Action Group and the Citizens Advice Bureau, Pamela set up the Harrow Law Centre four years ago. ‘I have never seen the level of poverty that we are seeing today,’ she says. The centre takes calls from all over London. The biggest problem is housing.

‘Evictions are a real problem, even with housing associations,’ says Pamela. ‘We have had a case where somebody got into arrears with their rent [and was] unlawfully evicted. Her 10-year-old son came home and found they had changed the locks with no notice.’

The ease with which landlords can evict tenants makes it difficult to challenge the poor state of some housing. Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated tenancies back in 1989. In parliament at the time, deregulation’s champions claimed this would encourage private sector landlords to invest and better maintain homes.

‘That has not happened,’ Pamela says. ‘All we really have are people who are in very poor accommodation paying really high levels of rent and living in squalor. One five-year-old child brought in her lunchbox to show me that rats had eaten it. We are talking about pretty grim situations.’

 


 

Mahder Redie’s problems began in 2008, a few months after he moved into the one-bedroom flat in Brixton, South London. He scrubbed the dark smudges on the bedroom walls, but they always came back: furry, blackish green blotches, spreading upwards and outwards from the wall’s corners.

Each year the mould got worse, seeping into the bedframe, the wardrobe, onto the frame of his daughter’s cot. Merken has been rushed to hospital three times after struggling to breathe while asleep.

‘Every year since 2008 I took a picture of the room,’ Mahder says. The landlord ‘just sent people to come and check it, but they did nothing.’

Mahder’s landlord is Metropolitan, a national housing association providing homes to social tenants across England.

Hiriti became ill while pregnant with Merken back in 2012. A desperate Mahder went to Metropolitan to complain, saying he was sure the damp was affecting her health. Hiriti developed asthma, coughed up blood. After Merken’s birth in January last year, Metropolitan sent a handyman to repaint the bedroom walls, and install a small ventilator in the bedroom. The mould soon came back.

Mahder began to fall behind on rent; he had to spend money replacing things ruined by damp — mattress, bedframe, clothes. ‘I took my family to the housing office to discuss in person the problems,’ he said. ‘When the receptionist informed the housing officer that we had come to see her, she refused to see us and told the receptionist to tell us that nothing can be done until I pay the arrears.’

Up till the summer of 2011 when he lost regular work on a construction site, Mahder paid the rent on time. He put in a claim for housing benefit. The money arrived in November, too little, too late.

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

When Mahder found work again the following March, housing benefit payments stopped. But the job paid £72 a week, not enough to cover the rent or clear the arrears.

It’s a common situation, says Pete Elliott, a caseworker at Brixton Advice Centre. Pete also volunteers at a local food bank at St Paul’s church in Brixton. He sometimes bumps into former clients he’s advised on welfare benefits or housing.

‘A lot of rent arrears are through welfare benefits not being paid properly,’ he said. ‘For the majority of our clients, it is because they start working 10 hours a week and immediately their Jobseeker’s Allowance gets stopped and recalculated.’

By 2013 Mahder’s arrears exceeded £2,000. But when Merken got sick, Mahder spent what little he earned trying to clear the mould. The family moved Merken’s cot into the living room, the adults took turns sleeping on the two-seat sofa.

Then in April last year, Metropolitan served Mahder an eviction notice: ‘You have failed to make satisfactory payments to clear your arrears, so we are in the process of applying to the County Court for possession of your home.’

Did this mean that Mahder and his family would be evicted and rehoused?

No. People evicted due to rent arrears are considered ‘deliberately homeless’; the council is under no obligation to rehouse them.

Mahder and Hiriti were miserable in their squalid flat, but now they faced something worse.

 


 

 

Across the River Thames in Stamford Hill, one private landlord has decided to evict tenants two months earlier than planned. One Thursday in March, the residents of a three-storey terrace house are given 15 minutes to pack and leave.

Two police vans, blue lights flashing, pull up in the large drive. Around half a dozen police officers and high court sheriffs pile out. They break into the house, run up and down the stairs, shouting over and over: “You have to leave, you have got 10 minutes!”

The house is sectioned into 22 rooms, each one home for families, couples, and individuals. Some of the residents try to show the sheriffs an order with the original eviction date: 22nd May. They are ignored. Other residents gather what they can, piling clothes into plastic bags.

Libia Montaya, a 57-year-old cleaner from Colombia, lives alone in a small room on the top floor. She’s had a difficult few years. She separated from her husband and is estranged from her daughter. She’s on medication for depression. Her hours at work have been cut. When the sheriffs bang at her door, she crumbles.

“Why is this happening? Someone help me please.”

Libia struggles to breathe, her head is spinning. Terrified, she rushes into the toilet and in her distress grabs a bottle of bleach and tries to drink it. The officers tackle her, handcuff her, and then she blacks out.


Some of the residents spend the night in a nearby park. Others stay with friends or find hostels. One group takes a bus to the local town hall. They find the grand Art Deco building closed, and try to bed down on the stone steps. Security guards order them to move on.

In the morning they are first in line for the council’s housing officer. The families with children and an elderly woman who recently suffered a stroke are given temporary accommodation, but 16 adults are ineligible for help. Around 5pm they are sent to the local law centre.

Nathaniel Mathews, a senior solicitor for Hackney Community Law Centre, immediately gets to work on their case. He applies to the high court for an interim injunction against the eviction. The warrant possession was obtained unlawfully and the residents have the right to challenge it in court.

Nathaniel, a tall Englishman with a shoulder-length ponytail and bemused expression, converses with the residents in fluent Spanish (most are originally from South America). He’ll need immaculate financial information from each tenant otherwise the legal aid agency could refuse to fund the work.

Hackney Law Centre, like legal aid providers across the country, has struggled to stay afloat after more than a decade of cuts. Legal aid ‘reform’ means only the very poorest are eligible for legal aid, and even those on income-related benefits do not automatically qualify. Drastic cuts have been made to advice and representation for housing disrepair and welfare benefits. There is nothing for employment and debt.

The injunction has been granted. One Mr Justice Collins rules that the landlord, named as Destbray Limited, must allow the 16 tenants to re-enter the property. They can return home, for now.

 

 


 

Back in South London, in January, with the help of Brixton Advice Centre, Mahder kept his home, negotiating a repayment plan of £3.60 a week on top of his rent. Hiriti was pregnant and their case against the housing association was due in court within weeks. In court Mahder’s lawyers would argue that Metropolitan should waive the arrears and cover the cost of extensive work to improve the ventilation in the flat.

Then Hiriti miscarried. Mahder blames stress caused by their housing situation. As well as the damp and debt, the couple had to contend with a broken kitchen sink. They placed a large bucket under the sink, emptying it three or four times a day. Mahder says this went on for ‘several months’ before the sink was replaced. In February, Hiriti’s doctor wrote a letter which said: ‘I would be grateful if these repairs [to the sink] could be carried out as soon as possible as in her present condition she cannot manage to carry these heavy loads. She is also complaining of back pain and abdominal pain relating to this.’

Mahder went to court in February 2014. He had managed to reduce the arrears from £2,292.80 to £953.70, partly by borrowing money from friends. He told the court: ‘Since I’ve moved to the flat I have been miserable as the housing office neglects our needs. We are physically, emotionally, mentally drained from this situation and still saddened by the loss of our unborn child and nobody seems to understand.’

Metropolitan agreed to waive the arrears and carry out improvements to the flat. The court order decreed that work must begin within 28 days.

 

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

 

 


 

After leaving the law centre, the 16 tenants broke into their home. In the time they had been away the landlord had changed the locks and the house had been vandalised.

Mattresses slashed, toilets ripped from the floor surrounded by broken tiles, cisterns discarded in the yard, windows nailed shut. Chunks of plaster gauged from walls. Clothes left behind strewn across rooms. No heating or gas.

Diego was embarrassed. ‘We usually keep the house very clean, we don’t live like this,’ he says. The trim, pepper-haired Colombian is 45. Before moving to London, he lived in Spain for 10 years — he was a social worker for a charity, providing support for new migrants and refugees.

Now Diego earns slightly more than the minimum wage as cleaning supervisor for an agency contracted to clean offices at Canary Wharf, the financial district across the city in East London. He paid £550 a month for his room with a double bed, a sink, a wardrobe, and a portable shower. But, he says, it will be difficult to find somewhere similar. ‘They want £1,200 or £1,300 and you see the flat and you want to cry.’

Libia paid £433 a month for her room, slightly smaller than Diego’s and without a shower. She earns about £200 a month from her cleaning job and receives £83 a week in housing benefit. ‘I am too exhausted and too tense,’ she says. ‘I can’t think about where to go or what to do. Committing suicide was the only way to leave behind all of these problems.’

Who owns the house? The tenants don’t know. They paid their money to managers who say the house was sold several months ago. Whoever owns it wants rid of them before the agreed notice period. ‘I imagined London to be a city that welcomed you, but it’s the opposite,’ says Diego, ‘I think London is becoming a city only for rich people.’

Nathaniel says the exploitation of poorer tenants is routine. ‘We have got tenants in low paying jobs from abroad, all cleaners, in relatively cheap but completely unregulated accommodation. It is not uncommon for landlords one way or another to evict these people whether through the courts, or not through the courts, and often giving them no notice at all. You have got people who just don’t know their rights.’

 

Illustration by Patrick Koudah

 

In a statement about Mahder Redie’s flat, the Metropolitan Housing Association said: ‘We settled compensation in February and agreed to carry out improvement works. A maintenance survey report was undertaken before then which identified a condensation issue and suggested an action plan to remedy the situation. The condensation was found to be as a result of a number of factors, including ventilation and heating, rather than attributable solely to the structure of the building.

‘We aim to carry out repairs quickly and efficiently… and we have regularly attended the property to carry out improvements to assist the resident with managing the condensation. Unfortunately, it reoccurred. Prior to the legal process, we have no record of the resident making a complaint through our complaints procedure.’

 


 

On 3rd April the Redie family wait for a repairman to arrive between 8am and 1pm. They finish lunch and Mahder looks at his phone.

Around 1.15pm he calls the housing association to find out why the repairman hasn’t shown up. The visit is rearranged. Mahder tries to sleep before his next shift at 11pm.

In search of the European dream

North African migrant arrives in Greece at night

Below is an excerpt from my fifth post on undocumented migrants in Italy published over at current affairs magazine New Statesman. It is part of a series of articles I have written on the plight of undocumented migrants in Europe. Read parts I, II, III and IV on Italy here. You can also read articles based on my reporting in Spain, France and Greece.

                                                                                 

***

Abdarrazaq’s family is bewildered. They do not understand why he lives in a hostel or why he does not have a job.  After all, he is in Europe.

Back home in Somalia, 26-year-old Abdarrazaq earned $500 a month as a teacher, a salary that supported his wife, three sisters and mother. For two years he squirreled away a small part of this to pay for his migration to Europe. “They are waiting for me to send them money,” he says, sitting quietly in the hostel he shares with other destitute migrants in Sicily.  “Anytime they call me they say, what do you do there? They don’t understand. They think you go to the streets of Europe, you can get immediately money.”

Continue reading…

A humanitarian crisis in the forests of northern France

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part III

Many asylum seekers and migrants intent on getting to Britain set up camps close to the ferry ports and lorry depots along the northern coast of France. The camp I visit is just off a busy motorway in Teteghem, a town outside Dunkirk.

Motorists speed by the vast stretch of forest, unaware of the chaos and desperation festering nearby. The forest provides the barest shelter for a group of Afghan men, who share four flimsy tents made with bits of wood and thick plastic sheets.

A makeshift living area, thick with mud, has formed at the centre of the tents. There is rubbish everywhere; bottles, old clothes, odd shoes and stale bread. A stack of dirty plastic plates sits abandoned in a shopping trolley. It is around 11am and the Af­ghan campers are sound asleep, having spent all night trying to stow away on trucks heading to England.

The charity field workers I am with, there to provide food and medicine, are concerned about the mess. If the place isn’t kept clean, the authorities will destroy it, they say.

But the campers are unlikely to start spring-cleaning anytime soon; a clean, homely camp would create a permanence they refuse to accept. The Afghans at the camp do not expect to remain in this desolate place for long. They set off every day, with no plan to return, in search of a lorry to stow away in. And every day they believe is the day they will get to Britain.

However, their chances of success are slim and most return to the mud of their temporary home. There are around 6,000 trucks crossing to Dover eve­ry day, and 99% are searched for stowaways.

This does not bother Zia-ur-ahman. He emerges from his tent, shivering and wincing slightly. It is February and bitterly cold. Zia-ur-ahm is sockless, his bare feet in poorly fitted loafers. His left eye is closed and sunken into his swollen cheek. The 14-year-old fell off a truck the night before. But Zia-ur-ah­man, who hails from Kabul, is not deterred. He plans to try the trucks again tonight. Young Afghan boy in Dunkirk, France

Many of the men and boys at the camp need medi­cal attention. The men wear thin torn clothes, no match for the winter chill. Most wear shoes worn from walking miles to and from ferry ports or lorry depots in search of a passage. Many are covered in bruises and scrapes, acquired either running from the police or falling from trucks.

But the young Afghans I chatted to, perhaps being well accustomed to the grimmer things in life, were cheerful, and pleased at a diversion from their dangerous, unhappy task. Yes, one admitted, you could die falling from a truck, and it is cold and dirty living in camps, but life is worse in Afghanistan.

At another camp, this one partly provided by Dunkirk’s local authority, the migrants are bitter and much less hopeful.

The ‘official’ camp is home to a mix of Kurds, Iranians, Ira­qis, Afghans and Vietnamese nationals, and the conditions are just as miser­able. The council has provided one large marquee, big enough to fit around 30 people in it, and a smaller tent, both of which sit in a muddy grass opening surrounded by trees.

The Afghans have built their own shelter away from the council tents, us­ing bits of plastic, in some nearby trees. There is plenty of room for them in the large tent, but they accuse the Kurds of not wanting to “live with others”. The two Vietnamese migrants avoid the conflict, refuse to speak to an­yone and live alone in the small tent.

It is cold and dirty, and everyone is tired and ill. A harmless cold can quickly become debilitating when a person is forced to sleep outside in wet weather, with no warm clothes, and hot food just two or three times a week.

young Afghans in Dunkirk in France“The humanitarian situation is very bad”, says Matt Quinette of Médicins du Monde. “We are in France but you can­not imagine we are in France. People have real difficulties getting access to water, they don’t have hygiene, they don’t have good shelter, they are open to the wind, humidity.  They are vulnerable with the cold. There is no waste management in the camps … so sanitary con­ditions on these camps are really, really bad. They affect the health of the people.”

While I am there, some UNHCR officials also arrive at the camp.  As they leave, the Iraqi man I am talking to, mutters: “thanks”. His voice is full of sarcasm.

“We are pissed off here in this jungle,” says another migrant named Abdil. “Everyone is itchy because we are dirty. Everyone catches fleas. Every day my legs hurt, my shoes…” His annoyance stems from the fact that he was pulled from a truck at around 7am that morning.

He is getting tired of lying to his family at home in Afghanistan too.

“Everyone comes here to benefit his family, if I make money, I can send it back to Afghani­stan. Everyone wants to escape war and the threat of death from IEDs. Right now day by day the situation is bad, what should we do?”

An Iraqi named Saman Gaala is absolutely certain of his position; he will go to England. A British soldier he met fighting in Iraq invited him, he says. The soldier even gave Saman his mo­bile and told him to call once he got to the UK. Talk of the UK raises spir­its among the small crowd gathered around me. One migrant asks me how much money he would need to set up a business in England.

***

Eventually this hope will vanish. Some ir­regular migrants in France are so mentally and physically beaten, that they opt to be deported voluntarily. “It is not the Europe they pictured when they left their own country,” says Jacky Verhaegen, who works for Caritas in Calais. “Two to three hun­dred have asked for voluntary returns to their home country. Mostly for the same reason that they apply for asylum: desperation.”

For those fleeing countries like Eritrea, Su­dan or Afghanistan, this is not an option, so they plough their efforts into navigating the French asy­lum system. If they have no fingerprint in another European Union country, then they will receive a permit to stay in France for one month, while their asylum application is being processed. During this period the government allocates them €300 a month to live on while they wait for a decision, twice as much as they would receive in Britain.

The entire process takes around one year. The situation is slightly different if a mi­grant has a fingerprint in another EU country. In such circumstances, their application is fast tracked with no social assistance while they wait for a decision. Fast track applications are most likely to be rejected and deported back to the European coun­try where their fingerprint was first taken.

“Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer”

A better life? The European Union’s other problem

France –  part I

Everyone thinks Europe is like heaven,” says Sharaf. “Since I put my leg in Europe I suffer. Since I left my country two years and three months ago. I didn’t sleep on the bed. I don’t think that I am in Europe.”

After leaving Darfur Sharaf bought a fake passport in Khartoum, from there he flew to Istanbul, and from there he made his way into Europe through Greece. “I didn’t know if I was in Europe or a dream. It was very hor­rible,” he says of Greece. He has since made his way to Calais in France, and from there he hopes to try his luck in England. The tall gen­tle-voiced Sudanese man tries to sound casu­al, but it is clear he is hopeful that Britain will turn out to be the Europe of his dreams.

By this stage of their long journey to Britain, many migrants are tired, bitter and desperate. Having struggled in at least one other European country, some began to cre­ate hallucinatory fantasies about the UK based on pure hope and speculation.

“England it is good,” insists an Eritrean man wolfing down his bread and soup at a Calais soup kitchen. “Until they reject you they give you basic necessities. Like food, water, house. Here they treat you as animal. If you [are] going to get the paper or not, you don’t know. Or if you going to die or you going to go mad, you don’t know. It is better for me to go to England, even when they reject me, they treat me well.”

A 14-year-old Afghani boy cut his finger so badly jumping over a fence that doctors were forced to cut it off. The boy and his 12-year-old brother had been trying to get over a fence to get on a truck bound for the UK. They plan to join their elder brother, a refugee living in Britain.

This makes Jacky Verhaegen, who runs Caritas in Calais, incredibly frustrated because their brother has no money or work to sup­port them. Yet they insist they must join him de­spite the avenues open to them in France.

“It is a heartache for me to see them on the streets all day doing nothing. They live in the jungle. It is terrible for a 12-year-old. When I was 12, I was at home, I was at school,” he says.

“I told them, you are 12, if you stay five years in a child centre in France, when you turn 18 you get a French passport. Not a residence per­mit. Then you can go wherever you want.”

It is not just a childish fantasy, at any one time around 200 grown men, and many hundreds more along the coast of northern France, Belgium and Holland, wait in Calais for an opportune mo­ment to smuggle themselves into Britain.

Yet in reality those seeking asylum have a better chance of getting a positive response in France, where the recognition rate is 40% compared to 27% in the UK. France also rare­ly deports people to Afghanistan and Iraq, but the UK regularly sends charter flights full of re­jected asylum seekers to those countries.

But though France has a sys­tem well-equipped to manage asylum fairly, the reality often falls short of expectations.

Matt Quinette, a field worker for Mé­dicins du Monde in Dunkirk, says: “When a Su­danese and Afghani come to Paris and see un­der the bridge his compatriot and say, ‘What do you do here … homeless?’ And when he calls his friend in UK and his friend says yes I arrived one month ago, I get appointment directly, I get money directly, and two months after I get my answer. It doesn’t seem so much to say, ‘I will spend sometime in the jungle and I will get a good place. England is better than here.’”

It is incredibly difficult for immigrants to distinguish fact from reality. Many lie about how well they are doing in Europe. Everyone knows someone who started a business in Lon­don, has a good job, drives a car and has a house. Jacky remembers one man taking pictures in front of the Caritas charity van pretending that it be­longed to him, to send his family at home. Smug­glers wanting to capitalise on the migrant’s optimism, will often embellish the opportunities in the UK.

“They are always controlled by smugglers and they don’t really know what the situation is like in the UK,” says Jean-François Roger from France terre d’asile, an NGO working with the UNHCR in Calais. “It is really difficult for them to get real information.

“The people who stay in the UK don’t tell the truth to their family in their original country … they say yes, OK, come we have found you a good job, we have found you accom­modation, we have the possibility to stay.

“They imagine Eldorado for the UK, they will arrive there and ask asylum, the UK will give them accommodation and a job to work. We know the reality and we say that, but nobody thinks we say the truth. When they travel all of their family says you will be alright in the UK and everything will be OK. Nobody believes us.”

The situation for migrants in Calais is dire, so it is unsurprising people do not want to stay. Calais is a small town with high unemployment of its own to deal with, so there are few jobs for migrants and those waiting on asylum decisions. And it is not just Calais, there are many refugees living in poverty in Paris as well.

The irregular migrants in Calais rely on one or two small charities for food, they have access to a nurse’s surgery where they can shower a few times a week and the rest they figure out for themselves.

What price justice?

Legal aid scores highly on the coalition government’s list of public services surplus to requirement, and is therefore ripe for cutting. This week politicians debate the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which includes proposals to reduce the £2bn spent on legal aid each year by £350m.

One way the government plans to achieve this is by reducing the number of people eligible for legal aid – currently around 36% of the population (down from 80% when the scheme began in 1949). A second plan will remove from the scope of civil legal aid particular social problems where people might need professional legal advice to seek redress. This means the government will no longer cover legal costs for people too poor to pay their own legal bills in the following areas: clinical negligence, debt or housing (except where someone faces an immediate risk of homelessness), employment, education (except for Special Education Needs cases), immigration (except for those detained by the state) and asylum issues (except for asylum applications).

Even before the latest proposals critics have argued that too few people are eligible for legal aid in Britain, leaving only the poorest covered by the scheme. But these changes mean that, once the bill is passed, even society’s most vulnerable will find it hard to access justice. The government’s own equality impact assessment of the bill states that those most affected by cuts to legal aid will be ethnic minorities, ill or disabled people and women. In a separate assessment the justice ministry reports that 80% of those affected by proposed changes to legal aid come from the poorest fifth of society.

Not only will the changes impact society’s most vulnerable, they are false economy. Radical changes to the welfare state increase the likelihood of mistakes being made and more people needing recourse to professional legal advice. Already appeals against decisions made under the new work capability assessment have cost the state £50m a year, with 40% of appeals so far successful.

Regardless of the expense, as is the case with the other great pillars of the welfare state, legal aid is a necessary safety net in a civilised and democratic society. In Britain everyone is entitled to liberty and justice, but what is the point of possessing human rights if they cannot be enforced? If legal aid was abolished completely then only the wealthy could access justice, receive a fair trial, protect their rights and liberties, and hold public officials to account: all essential components to the rule of law.

In Britain everyone is entitled to liberty and justice, but what is the point of possessing human rights if they cannot be enforced?

It is thus baffling that Britain’s three main political parties profess a profound commitment to the rule of law, yet proposals effectively decimating the means for ordinary people to access it have sailed through parliament with only minor tinkering. It appears that the retrenchment of legal aid fails to stir the consciences of politicians in the way that other recent issues have, such as Britain’s place in the European Union or the changes to the NHS. If they cannot be persuaded by the principles of the rule of law, politicians debating the bill this week would do well to consider testimonies from ordinary recipients of legal aid.

Testimonies like that of Mrs Whitehouse, who gave evidence to the Commission of Inquiry on legal aid earlier this year. The 78-year-old woman and her husband faced eviction from their home of nearly 50 years because their landlord decided to sell the flat. The couple were “terrified” of leaving their home, where they had hoped to live until they were “no longer well enough to do so”. With little means of their own, the couple were granted legal aid to challenge the landlord’s decision, and won their case at the Court of Appeal. Mrs Whitehouse, whose husband died of a heart attack before the court decision, was initially reluctant to take “money from the public purse”. But says: “I am completely indebted to legal aid. If we had not received legal aid we would have no way of funding this case. We would have had to move out to the flat our landlord was offering, leaving our home of 50 years and all our friends, without knowing that our landlord had no right to do this.”

According to the inquiry report, Unequal Before the Law? The Future of Legal Aid, under the proposed changes to legal aid, “there is a real possibility that Mrs Whitehouse … would not get legal aid. This is because … [they] were ‘merely’ facing the loss of their home and not homeless.”

Other testimonies from the inquiry reinforce the notion that, often, the courts are a last resort for disenfranchised citizens seeking to hold public bodies to account. Darwin Stanley Kealey killed himself while in custody at Wormwood Scrubs prison in 2008. His family sought legal aid to be represented at the inquest into his death. In evidence to the inquiry, his sister Zoe said: “The jury at Darwin’s inquest, which concluded in March 2010, identified no less than nine failings on the part of the police, Serco, the prison and the PCT [Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust]. The jury found that Darwin died of an act of self harm ‘in part because the risk of taking his own life or harming himself was not recognised and appropriate cautions were not take to prevent him from doing so’.”

The jury at Darwin’s inquest, which concluded in March 2010, identified no less than nine failings on the part of the police, Serco, the prison and the PCT [Hammersmith and Fulham Primary Care Trust].”

In effect, as Zoe sets out in her testimony, Darwin’s death might have been prevented had various state bodies done their jobs properly. The coroner ruled that action must be taken by all authorities involved to prevent the same mistakes being made in future and to prevent future deaths. Such a ruling would not have been made without the support from lawyers, paid for by legal aid, who “worked tirelessly to obtain and scrutinise all the documentation and ensure that evidence was heard to explain the circumstances surrounding my brother’s death,” says Zoe. “My family has found solace in the knowledge that the state has been notified of the failings identified by the jury, and we hope that no other family will have to suffer in the way that we have.”

Ministers in favour of slashing the legal aid bill talk of a compensation culture where the public funds frivolous cases; yet often, as testimony from Mrs Whitehouse and Zoe Kealey illustrate, legal aid is spent on enforcing rights or correcting the mistakes of public bodies. If public officials, from local councils to Whitehall departments, made less mistakes, the bill for civil legal aid would fall by far more than £350m.

Children: the deserving poor?

‘If there’s anything extra to buy such as a pair of boots for one of the children … me and the children goes without dinner.’ So says a working class woman from York interviewed for Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s painstaking study of poverty in late nineteenth century Britain. When conducting his research between 1898 and 1901, Rowntree was alarmed at what he found:

This suffering may be all but voiceless, and we may long remain ignorant of its extent and severity, but when once we realise it we see that social questions of profound importance await solution.

Yet, over a century later, 1.6 million British children live in severe poverty, defined as £134 a week for a lone parent with one child and £240 a week for a couple with two children, according to the charity Save the Children.

Like the Yorkshire housewife before her, Jacqueline Robinson, a mother of two from Wales, goes without food to get by. ‘There is always one week in every month when things are bad and I wonder how I will manage. I will go without when things are tight, sometimes going without food for a day to keep my children fed and properly dressed.’

It is not just parents who worry about being poor; children are acutely aware of their poverty. In recent BBC documentary ‘Poor Kids’ four children describe in their own words what it is like to be poor. ‘We’re like a kind of poor family, we’re different cause we can’t do that much in our house,’ says eight-year-old Courtney.

‘When people haven’t got nowt to do and they’re bored outside they can go in and do puzzles and colour … and we can’t do that. When we’re bored outside, we’ve got to go inside and watch TV.’

Twelve-year-old Sam gets bullied because of his second-hand clothes and is always hungry. He lives with his dad and older sister. His mum left the family when he was two. ‘I think I’m poor because we only get £420 a month. That goes on what we need and not what we want. We have to spend it on food and electric and gas.’

The last government made ending child poverty a key policy; yet in recent years the number of children living in relative income poverty, defined as a household with an equivalised income that is less than 60% of the median income, has reached an astounding 2.8 million (22%). Labour managed to cut rates from 26% to 21% by 2004/05, but despite spending £134bn over 10 years on child benefits and working tax credits, from then onwards child poverty worsened.

Can a new government turn this depressing trend around? Poverty campaigners have already attacked the Coalition’s three-year strategy, published in April, as ‘empty’ and below standard. The strategy forms part of a long-term plan to cut the rate of child poverty to less than 10% by 2020, a legal requirement under the Child Poverty Act 2010. Much of it is based on the recommendations made by Labour MP Frank Field who wants child poverty policy to focus on the first years of a child’s life. This is no bad thing. Mr Field argues that the government should prioritise things like improving parental education, quality nursery education and early childhood cognitive attainment.

This work has already begun in many Sure Start centres around the country, but is under threat because of the government’s refusal to ring fence funding for the centres. Councils under pressure to make savings are under no obligation to spend a set amount on Sure Start – as they were under the previous government. In Tower Hamlets, for example, where one in four children lives in severe poverty, the council has promised not to close any of its Sure Start centres, but budgets will be reduced. At one centre in a working class area of Bow, a member of staff said he and colleagues were seriously concerned about job losses.

The government insists that the Early Intervention Grant, funding diverted from several existing programmes including Sure Start, will provide ‘intervention and preventative services’ for young children. There is also £625m pupil premium fund for schools that provide extra help for poor children and annual increases in the child element of tax credits until 2013. However, the child poverty strategy contains few other concrete policies; instead, there are a lot of references to aspiration, worklessness and responsibility. In one section it says: ‘…we create a system which rewards people who do the right thing and work themselves out of poverty.’

This chimes with simplistic rhetoric used elsewhere – from both the government and the opposition – about encouraging a better work ethic among people dependent on welfare. It is a rhetoric that fails to take into account the miserable reality of living on benefits and the fact that 55% of children living in relative poverty – that’s 1.5 million children – come from households where at least one adult works.

The strategy also indicates that the government won’t rely on working tax credits and benefits to reduce poverty. Instead, it government expects the success of its reforms to public services to create the right circumstances for families to lift themselves out of poverty. The Big Society, reforms to housing allowance and welfare, changes to employment support allowance, enlisting the private sector to deliver public services and localism are all cited as policies that will help improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and eventually end child poverty. There is little detail on how long this will take and how it will be measured. The report also ignores criticism from groups who argue that these same policies will deepen poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that the coalition’s austerity measures will mean nearly 300,000 children more will be pushed into poverty over the next three years.

The decision to review the statutory duty on local authorities to address child poverty also seems at odds with the end goal of the Act. The report says government wants ‘to make sure… they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom … to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable’.

Another flaw in the strategy is the failure to properly address issues around existing poverty measurements. Many poverty campaigners argue that the current measures aren’t properly reflective and need reforming. The government’s strategy mentions the importance of measuring severe poverty and including life chance indicators, but fails to develop the idea.

Kristian Niemietz, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues that policies shaped around the existing measurement, households with an equivalised income less than 60% of the median income, do not work. In a recession, for example, if average incomes fall, then poverty falls, even though living standards among the poor might have gotten worse.

Instead we should update Rowntree’s method and create a consensual poverty line based on necessities needed to subsist, pegged to the cost of purchasing these items. Niemietz argues that this would enable the government to use supply-side policies to stimulate competition in industries such as utilities creating cheaper, more affordable goods and services, in turn reducing material deprivation.

Of course it will take more than markets to reduce the number of poor children in Britain; better education, flexible employment opportunities and more skills-based jobs training are just some ways the state can stop poor children becoming poor adults.

The government would do well to take seriously its commitment to child poverty; children should not be condemned to penury in today’s Britain. Rowntree was right to conclude that, ‘however difficult the path of social progress may be, a way of advance will open out before patient and penetrating thought if inspired by a true human sympathy.’

This article first appeared on hackeryblog