Child Poverty – Guest Blog

COLDHURST has been in the headlines this week after a national study was published on child poverty.

I asked Abdul Jabbar, Oldham Council’s Deputy Leader, to guest-blog on the issues this has raised as he knows Coldhurst better than most.

He was keen to talk about the challenges and issues around child poverty, what we are doing – and what we need to tackle it more effectively.

Over to Abdul…

Oldham 23.2.16-9424COLDHURST is in my heart and many members of my family call it ‘home’.

I first came to live here when I was 14 years old and I’m very proud to have now represented this area for almost a quarter of a century as a ward member.

During that time I’ve worked among all our communities, probably knocked on every single door at one time, and seen all the kinds of challenges faced by local families.

I felt saddened this week when Coldhurst hit the news after a report by the End Child Poverty group said it has the highest child deprivation rate in England with over 60 per cent of youngsters living ‘below the breadline’.

Saddened, yes. Surprised? No.

I don’t fool myself that Coldhurst and other areas aren’t facing serious challenges because I see it every day around me.

The problems for our least well-off families are unrelenting and getting out of the poverty cycle has never been harder than it is today.

But there is something that is absolutely great about Coldhurst – the people who live there.

Yes, there are problems with crime and anti-social behaviour like fly-tipping, but walk around those streets and you’ll also find many friendly, positive people and a sense of community that you might not see in more affluent areas.

Within Coldhurst I know groups and associations, GPs, headteachers, community workers, voluntary organisations and residents who are all working hard to make the most of what they have.

Our challenge at local and national level is to match that.

There are a lot of factors behind child poverty.

The four-year freeze on social security benefits – amongst other welfare reform measures like the Bedroom tax – has been felt most by the poorest families.

UCREDITOldham was a pilot area for the rollout of Universal Credit which has caused huge problems by leaving families without money for several weeks, forcing many people into making desperate choices between heating the home or eating food.

Many people in Coldhurst do work extremely hard for long hours but due to low skills, stagnant wages and increasing living costs, things are tough. Many are also living in low-quality rented homes that are actually more expensive than social housing.

Worst of all is the fact that children are suffering. Not just because they are vulnerable now, but because if you have a bad start in life then your chances of success in adulthood are not good.

Coldhurst is not alone, however. Oldham has other pockets like this and so do our neighbours in Greater Manchester and big cities like London. End Child Poverty say that more than half of all children in the UK’s very poorest areas are now growing up in poverty.

We are trying to address these issues locally on many levels.

The Oldham Education and Skills Commission committed us to improving our education by 2020 and we are on target to achieve this, but it won’t be enough on its own.

We’ve introduced schemes like Warm Homes Oldham to help with fuel poverty, Get Oldham Working to improve employment prospects, Get Oldham Growing to improve health, and the Town Centre Masterplan to deliver significant opportunities in the local economy over the next two decades.

northmoorIn Coldhurst itself we invested £7.5 million to open the fantastic new Northmoor Academy (pictured) in September 2016. This three-form entry primary school on the former Grange school site was designed to cope with rising pressure on school places but also to provide a first-class facility where children can thrive.

As part of being a new Opportunity Area we’re also this week about to start rolling out the ‘Making it REAL’ programme in nurseries in Coldhurst. This is intervention in early years’ settings that targets improving literacy and giving children with disadvantaged backgrounds the language skills they need before they get to school. It involves home visits to support and train parents and group events – all have been proved to raise and sustain literacy standards in other areas. The reason we’re doing this is that it has also been shown that language and literacy skills are the most impactful intervention you can make for any child from a disadvantaged background, so we’re determined to get it right.

That kind of work will and must continue, but it still it won’t be enough on its own.

We have a Government that still refuses to set a target to reduce child poverty. For me, if you refuse to recognise a problem exists, then what hope can we have that you’re actually committed to finding – let alone funding – the solutions?

In families where it is hard to make ends meet, only one person is working, bills are paid late and loan sharks are circling, this is not the message they need to hear.

Last week we were told that more people are in work now than for many years. That might be true, but never have so many also been paid so relatively little and with work often on insecure terms like zero hour contracts.

Local authority’s children’s services are also being reduced to firefighting through Government cuts. Without the money we need to intervene at an early stage through important measures like parenting classes, substance misuse prevention and teenage pregnancy support, the impacts can be simply devastating.

This is also a false economy. If we can only get involved when children reach a crisis point then it will result in much more expensive steps in the long term, like taking young people into care.

In the budget we’re currently finalising for Oldham in 2018/9 we have an £8 million gap in funding for children’s social care services. That is a typical picture nationally and yet remains a problem which Government fails to address.

Making significant progress in living standards, wages and skills for everyone is our goal and it’s why we are championing the Inclusive Growth agenda so hard at Greater Manchester level.

As Deputy Council Leader and a ward member for Coldhurst I will continue my efforts for the people of the area alongside our MP, partners, communities and the voluntary sector, to help wherever we can.

But we also need the Government to finally listen and act.

The thought of having a generation of children suffering like this is heart-breaking and it also leaves me in fear of what legacy it will leave us with as a society.

Abdul Jabbar

Budget Day looming large… 

oldham-leader-25-1-16-5277IT’S AN important few weeks for Oldham Council – and all local authorities nationwide.

We’re now in the final stages of agreeing how to balance the books for the next financial year here and we must bridge a £24.8million funding gap.

This has been our toughest budget process to date because we’re way beyond looking for easy cuts – they’ve all long gone – and are literally now being squeezed down to the pips.

Like all council leaders I’ll have a keen eye on the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, when delivers his latest budget to Parliament next Wednesday (November 22).

This will, he has stated, set out the Government’s thinking “on how to keep the economy strong and resilient and fair – an economy that works for everyone.”

They’re fine words, but will that be what he deliver in practice? I’m very clear about what I want for Oldham Council…

As I said in my Annual Statement at Full Council last week, the landscape for Oldham remains a challenging one.

As a place, we are facing unprecedented uncertainties as a result of several complex inter-playing factors including Brexit, the future of local government funding, Welfare Reform, Business Rates, Adults and Childrens’ Social Care funding, and many more.

We’ve now spent several years since 2010 under a regime of so-called economic ‘austerity’; a phrase I dislike to hear because it is a benign term for a regime that is actually having savage consequences for so many people across our communities.

It became the dominant fiscal ideology in Westminster after the Greek financial crisis and weaponised the dangers of ‘deficits’ and ‘debts’ to attack the welfare state and justify punitive measures like increased cuts in benefits.

Government seems to have ditched concerns about things like unemployment and the viability of public services, including the NHS and has focussed instead on an obsession with massive spending cuts.

This must now come to an end. It has not delivered. It was not necessary at the time and what our economy needs now is the prioritisation of investment, stimulus and inclusive growth.

What we need from the Chancellor – and the Local Government Finance Settlement that follows in December – is a dose of reality and a clear plan.

If he is really serious about Government delivering “for everyone” then he cannot ignore the obvious fact that local government must be fairly and adequately funded and given the powers to help to deliver those outcomes.

Depressed elderly woman sitting at the table

I’m going to be particularly interested in what Mr Hammond says about social care.

The Local Government Association recently calculated than an extra  £1.3 billion is needed from the Treasury just to plug funding gaps in this area of local government funding over the next financial year.

And here’s a frightening thought. By 2020 almost 60p in every £1 people pay in Council Tax may have to be spent caring for children and adults. With a population in which people are living longer than ever before, there’s a very clear challenge to both sustainability and the dignity we give our most vulnerable residents.

Social care isn’t the only area of concern either. What measures will the Government bring forward to tackle the housing crisis or address how we help young people to achieve their ambitions without saddling themselves with huge debt?

There is also the massive unresolved question of how local government is to be financed in future.

By 2020 this sector will have lost 75 pence out of every £1 it got from the Revenue Support Grant in 2015 and almost half of all councils will no longer get any of this core central government funding by 2019/20.

The Government previously said it was committed to letting local authorities keep all of their business rates income by 2020, yet even that is now in doubt after the Local Government Finance Bill failed to re-appear in the Queen’s Speech after the General Election.

There’s now a real fear and lack of clarity about our future funding and I know it’s something that keeps colleagues awake at night.

ABDULMBEAt Oldham Council finance is the portfolio of my Deputy Leader, Abdul Jabbar, and it is an unenviable task.

I was delighted to see him receive his MBE at Buckingham Palace this week because anyone handling that kind burden must be worthy of a medal!

Seriously though, Abdul has been a great ward member, community leader and Cabinet Member for around a quarter of a century – and he is a great ambassador for Oldham.

His persistent and patient approach has helped to steer our finances through some very choppy waters in recent years and we’re all delighted to see that recognised with this honour.

Finally this week, I want to pay tribute to all those Royal British Legion personnel, local volunteers and residents who helped to make Remembrance Sunday such a poignant occasion.

I attended the service in Oldham town centre. The weather conditions were perfect – if a tad chilly(!) – and it was heartening to be part of such a huge crowd stretching across Parliament Square and down High Street all paying their respects to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Thank you all.

Jean

Credit Unions: Needed more than ever in 2017

OCU - Logo
I CHAIRED the Annual General Meeting of the Oldham Credit Union (OCU) last night.

I’ve been chair of the OCU for around 12 years now and I’ve seen its offer change significantly in that time.

In 2017, Britain continues to face a mounting debt and savings crisis and Credit Unions can help with the issues faced by many individuals and families.

These were highlighted by a new survey into personal finances this week.

The research, by MoneySuperMarket, showed many people are getting into even more debt – and the vast majority blame the rising cost of living.

Studio Shot Of Worried Couple Looking At BillsMore than a third of adults said their debt is going up because of rises in transport costs, household bills and grocery costs.

Another issue now is that whilst inflation is slowly rising – up to a 32-month high in February – most people’s salaries are continuing to flatline. This means their spending power is steadily declining.

Inflation is expected to hit 2.4 per cent later this year, mostly because of the weakness of the pound, and this means people who are already in debt will find it even harder to ever get back into the black.

With the possibility of interest rate rises to come, these are very hard times for many people.

The average debt per person in the North West is £5,811 – just below the UK average of £6,372 – and its known that younger people (in the 18-34 age bracket) are racking up debt much quicker than those nearing retirement age.

A third of people surveyed admitted they rely on cards and loans just to get by from month to month, so it’s clear this is a widespread problem in the context of an insecure labour market where zero hours contracts also mean a steady, predictable income is a pipedream for many.

Good Bad Credit Signpost Showing Customer Financial RatingSo, what can Oldham Credit Union do to help?

OCU is a not-for-profit, democratic co-operative owned and controlled by its members. Its philosophy is about mutual self-help and it is not run on the same basis as lenders like banks and building societies.

Their services are there for anyone aged over 16 living or working in our borough. They try to promote the savings ‘habit’, provide fair loans at competitive interest rates, and provide advice on managing finances. They have a range of services on offer for different circumstances.

Imagine, for example, being hit with an unexpected car repair bill that needs doing immediately so you can get to work. In this scenario, some people without access to affordable credit end up falling prey to high-interest lenders or loan sharks.

OCU works with Greater Manchester Police and the Illegal Money Lending Team to keep people away from loan sharks because borrowers don’t just risk high interest repayments. Sharks often also employ extreme collection methods that include intimidation, threats and violence.

That kind of behaviour isn’t welcome here and we want people to know there is a responsible alternative in Oldham.

OCU offers access to fair and straightforward financial services, including secure savings and affordable loans. It works closely in neighbourhoods offering Junior Savings clubs and Community Collection Points in some areas.  Members include people who cannot access a bank account and don’t have any substantial kind of savings buffer – and it continues to develop partnerships with organisations like Regenda, Great Places, First Choice Homes Oldham – and Oldham Council – to tackle financial exclusion.

An example of how OCU can help is a Jam Jar budgeting account. This is a simple way of ensuring key bills like Council Tax and rent get paid. When opening an account, people agree how much they will pay towards each key bill per month and the OCU does the rest. Any surplus left over is then available in your OCU Savings Account. A Jam Jar account is free (subject to a one-off £1 joining fee) and you can also have benefits paid directly into the account.

Worried Senior Woman Sitting On Sofa Looking At BillsDespite the clear need for Credit Unions – there are about 350 across the UK – we’re small compared to this sector in other countries. UK Credit Unions have assets worth around £1.32bn and 1.2m members, but globally we’re small players in a sector boasting more than 208m members and assets worth $1.7tn.

That’s why UK Credit Unions are trying to raise their profile now through increasing awareness and getting more members from all income groups – and the OCU is no exception.

This all needs to be done at a sustainable pace. A three-year business plan has seen OCU grow in recent times and the range of services is now expanding.

A new Engage Pre-paid Visa Card and E account offer members modern online payment services and, in the year head, OCU will launch a new loan offers and an automated Lending Decision system for members.

MAServiceIf you’re facing any kind of financial difficulties or issues, I’d also recommend the Money Advice Service, which is a not-for-profit government organisation set up solely to advise people on their finances. You can find it at: https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en

Credit Unions provide a public good filling an important gap in the market: and not just for people who are rejected by High Street banks. Many join because they want their money to be used to support the principles of ethical lending.  If you want to find out more, visit the OCU website at www.oldhamcreditunion.co.uk or call 0161 678 7245.  If you don’t already have an account, why not open one now?

OCU needs to appeal to that wider audience in future but our overriding goal – offering Simple Affordable Fair and Ethical financial services – has never changed, and it never will.

Jean